By Dave Zeitlin | It took Robin Martin C’00 a week to muster the strength to move into the office previously occupied by his coach, mentor, and friend. When he finally did, he made sure to do two things.
First, he took all of the trophies won by former Penn men’s track and field coach Charlie Powell off the windowsill, and placed them in the back corner of the office, above a file cabinet and out of his sightline. “I want to walk in and see an empty window and realize I haven’t done anything yet,” said Martin, who took over as the program’s interim coach in December when Powell retired after nearly three decades of service.
Then Martin hung two photos behind his new desk: one of John Baxter Taylor V1908, a Penn track star who became the first African-American to win an Olympic gold medal at the 1908 Olympiad in London; and one of Martin himself, celebrating after anchoring Penn’s 4x400 relay team in a come-from-behind victory at the 1997 Penn Relays. For Martin, who is black, those photos are important because they show “the path that has been paved” for him by Taylor and other pioneer athletes.
Martin was a record-setter at Penn, an 11-time Ivy League champion and two-time All-American as a star middle-distance runner for the Quakers from 1996 to 2000.
Martin’s subsequent path has featured a few pit stops, but he has come to realize that his destination has always been the office on the top floor of the Dunning Coaches’ Center—the one where, despite his initial trepidation, he is becoming more comfortable by the day.
He just never imagined he’d arrive this soon. Martin only began coaching at Penn in 2008, as a volunteer, and didn’t officially join the staff until 2010. Powell, meanwhile, was in his 30th year coaching at Penn when he announced his retirement on December 12. Floored when he heard the news, Martin immediately called Powell—whom he calls a “father figure”—to make sure he was okay.
“I am now,” Powell told him. “Because it’s in the right hands.”
While confident in his replacement, Powell was far less certain about walking away from the school he loves, calling it the hardest decision he ever made. At Penn, the legendary coach with the distinctive mustache personified a tradition of excellence on the Franklin Field track, guiding the men’s squad to five Heptagonal Games team championships. Under Powell’s tutelage, there were also many standout individual performances, highlighted by Sam Burley C’03 (800 meters) and Brian Chaput C’04 (javelin) both capturing NCAA titles in 2003 and, most recently, Maalik Reynolds earning All-America status in the high jump as a freshman last spring [“Sports,” July|Aug 2011].
“I coached some great athletes who had some unbelievable performances,” Powell says. “And I also had young men who worked their whole career just to score one point at Heps. As a coach, I’m just as proud of those guys as the guys who were national champions.
“There’s no one thing I remember most,” he continues, his voice cracking. “It’s just a beautiful tapestry of literally thousands of the most unbelievable memories.”
But there were downsides to the job, too. As a head track coach at a Division I school, you work all three seasons and spend the summer recruiting. You’re constantly on the road and, Powell says, “on call 24-7.” When some minor health issues cropped up, Powell decided it was time to retire to spend more time with his wife and two children.
Coincidentally, another opportunity emerged just as Powell was leaving Penn: as the director of track and field at the Spire Institute, a multi-sport Olympic training venue in Ohio. While he originally planned to step away from the track entirely, Powell decided to accept the job because there was less pressure involved and, he said, “at this point of my life, that’s kind of what I need.” But he still hopes to return to Franklin Field when he can to watch meets—and when he does, he says, he hopes he’ll see Martin in his old position. (The program’s permanent coach will likely be announced following the spring season, which begins in late March and ends with the NCAA Championships on June 9.)
“He’s got it all,” Powell said of Martin. “He’s been an All-American. He’s been a Penn student-athlete. He has tremendous drive. He’s got love for this University like you would not believe. He relates to kids on so many different levels. He’s the type of person that Penn needs.”
Following his spectacular running career, Martin tried his luck in other fields, entering a management program for U.S. Airways and running a jazz club in upstate New York. In 2008, he decided to return to Philly to perhaps work with underprivileged children, or go to law school. When Powell heard he was back in town, he invited Martin to a practice to talk to the team. Martin never left.
“I came back to go to law school and I found my passion,” Martin said. “Every morning, it’s nice to wake up and know this is what I’m supposed to be doing for the rest of my life.”
In just a short time as an assistant, Martin showed his passion for coaching. Last year he took over recruiting duties from Powell, and after sending more than 2,000 letters, putting more than 4,000 miles on his car, and sitting in the living rooms of more than 20 different athletes in a single month, he assembled a group of athletes that he believes will be among the best freshman classes in the country next year.
When he became interim head coach, the time spent on the track, on the road, and in front of his computer screen only grew longer. He likes to tell friends that his first couple of months on the job were “hours of long, arduous work, shot through with moments of sheer terror.”
“Because it’s my alma mater and it’s the beginning of my coaching career, it’s a double passion,” Martin says. “For me, not to [work long hours] would be contrary to every fiber in my being. It’s a labor of love.”
The first thing Martin did as head coach was gather the team for what he called “the don’t-worry speech.” Yes, the face of the men’s track and field of program was on his way out, “but now we get to redefine what Penn track is,” Powell told them.
“It’s not the mustache anymore. It’s going to be whatever we want to make it.”
Shortly thereafter, Martin helped the mustachioed coach move out of his longtime office. Together, they found old letters, logs, pictures, and programs. And while sifting through 30 years of memories tucked inside closets and drawers, they talked—not about running technique or training theories, but about what Martin calls “the humanity of coaching.” Powell would pick up a photo of an old athlete and tell Martin exactly how many children that person now has, and where he works. Martin would discuss what it means to be a Penn athlete and how that prepares you for life. It was, recalls Martin, “a kind of passing-of-the-torch moment.” And then Powell left.
“It was tough to pick up those boxes and walk out,” Powell says. “It was really, really weird.”
It was also weird at first for Martin to move in. Now that he’s there though, he doesn’t want to leave.
“I’m sitting at the desk,” he says, “that I want to retire in.”
Keeping it in the (lacrosse) family
Years after graduating from Penn, where he was an All-American goalkeeper on the men’s lacrosse team, Chuck Leitner C’81 would go out into his backyard and teach the sport to his young daughter.
For Emily Leitner, those private sessions were invaluable.
“Not many people heard of lacrosse when I was 5,” Emily said. “But my dad got these little plastic sticks and we went out there. Everyone was like, ‘What are those?’”
Today, Emily Leitner is the senior goalkeeper on the women’s lacrosse team, while her father is a member of Penn’s Athletic Board of Overseers. And as an active alum for one program and the father of the starting goalie for the other, Chuck Leitner has one wish heading into the 2012 spring season.
“For my dad, the best thing would be for Penn to sweep national titles, in men and women,” Emily says. “He’s all about Penn lacrosse.”
It’s a testament to the state of Penn lacrosse that those goals, while ambitious, are within reach. Both programs enter the 2012 campaign loaded with talent, and ranked in the top 15 nationally in most preseason polls.
Karin Brower Corbett’s women’s team will be fueled by senior captains Leitner and Erin Brennan, a two-time All-American attacker who ranks fourth all-time on Penn’s scoring list with 153 points.
Meanwhile, Mike Murphy’s men’s squad boasts a pair of Inside Lacrosse preseason All-Americans in sophomore defenseman Maxx Meyer and senior long-stick midfielder Will Koshansky.
The women’s team has been a force in recent years, making the NCAA tournament in the past five seasons, including three straight runs to the national semifinals from 2007 to 2009. The Penn men are newer to the national scene but still have momentum going into the 2012 season; last year the Quakers qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006 and enjoyed their best Ivy League finish since 1989.
And both teams will really challenge themselves this year before the postseason begins. In addition to the brutally tough Ivy League schedule, the women will face four of the top five teams in the preseason rankings, including reigning national champ Northwestern, while the men take on nine nationally ranked squads, bookended by games vs. No. 2 Duke in the opener and No. 1 Virginia in the regular-season finale (in the Mile High Classic in Denver).
“Both teams show a lot of dedication and commitment to the sport,” Emily Leitner says. “It’s fun to share the same experiences as the boys. They know what it feels like to be in the top 25; we know what it feels like to be in the top 25. They have a tough schedule; we have a tough schedule. We’re really good friends with the guys, and we want them to be successful.”
It wasn’t until last year that Leitner became the regular starter in net for Penn, and after losing in the first round of both the Ivy League and NCAA tournaments, she admits the Quakers didn’t “perform up to our usual standards.” A year later, though, the senior goalie believes there’s enough talent and experience for Penn to regain its footing on the national landscape. And like her dad, she’s not shy about proclaiming one clear mission for the upcoming season.
“A national championship has been our goal from the beginning,” she says. “That’s why you play college lacrosse.”
Dave Zeitlin C’03 writes frequently for the Gazette and oversees the magazine’s sports blog.