For 29 seasons, Tom “Doc” Martin walked the sidelines, leading the JMU men’s soccer team onto the national stage.
“He will always be known as Mr. JMU when it comes to soccer,” Brent Bennett, who played for Martin from 1991-94, said.
During his 29 years at the program, Martin created a name for the team, coached players to All-American status and saw players drafted to the MLS, including one that claimed the Rookie of the Year title following his first season.
The man who dedicated his life to coaching at the collegiate level for 38 years passed away late last week at 70 years old.
“Many will look at his career achievements with the all-time victories, consecutive NCAA quarterfinal appearances, multiple other NCAA runs and CAA Championships, but what set Doc apart was his approach to college athletics and the profession of coaching,” Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne said to JMU Athletics. “He worked to develop his student-athletes as individuals in all facets: academics, leadership, teamwork, life skills and more. It was those traits that earned him the Hall of Fame induction that we celebrated just a few weeks ago.”
Martin began his head coaching career at Trine University in 1977, spending one year at the school while seeing it to a winning record of 5-4-1. Following his stint at Trine, Martin made the move to West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he led the Bobcats for eight seasons. Each year, the program achieved a winning record under Martin, even grabbing the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics title his last two seasons.
When Martin arrived in Harrisonburg ahead of the '86 season, he was set to take over a team that went 4-11 the year prior. By the conclusion of his first year, Martin’s team held a 12-3-3 record. Through 29 seasons, Martin’s teams finished with a winning record all but three times.
From 1992-96, Martin helped bring the Dukes to the NCAA Tournament each season, including back-to-back trips to the Elite Eight in 1994 and 1995 — something that’s never been replicated. When Martin retired from coaching in 2014, he had a 359-164-58 record at JMU and had the fifth-most wins in Division-I soccer with 478.
“When he came in, JMU was a nonentity on the national scope in terms of soccer,” Bennett said. “If my memory serves me correct, by the time [of] my senior year, we were ranked as high as third or fourth in the nation … We went from nothing to 'big time' in a matter of three or four years.”
Bennett played for Martin during one of the trips to the Elite Eight, and it was during his career at JMU that Bennett learned about the type of coach and person Martin was. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Bennett came to JMU with only one friend at the school, but Martin “took him under his wing” and helped him adjust to life away from home, citing that Martin could tell it was difficult for the foreign players.
Martin was a “student of the game," Bennett said. He’d spent time playing for his country’s national team, but he’d never seen a coach dedicate so much time to breaking down a team before Martin.
Martin's understanding of soccer contributed to the Dukes’ rise in success at the national level during his tenure, leading to numerous accolades and All-American selections — including Bennett in 1993 and 1994. But Martin didn’t make soccer his sole focus as a head coach. He took the time to develop his players not just as athletes but as men away from the game.
“He wanted to win so bad, he wanted us as players to perform so bad, he wanted us to be successful young men so bad,” Bennett said. “It was [not just] about soccer but letting us as men grow. He took pride in not just the soccer side of it but making sure we did well [and] that we all graduated.”
While Martin left an impact on the field that’ll be difficult for any coach to surpass, his efforts to touch people’s lives goes further than the field or locker room. Once Martin stepped away from coaching in 2014, he took his talents to the classroom as a faculty member in the Hart School of Hospitality, Sport and Recreation Management.
He taught in the school up until this past summer when he retired. Martin was often the first sports and recreation management professor students would have once they joined the Hart School.
“I've been truly blown away by the number of students that have been impacted, positively impacted, by Doc,” Alyssa Bosley, who teaches in the Hart School, said. “He kind of set the tone for what they were going to be getting later on in our program, and I think he helped make students really feel at ease from day one in our school.”
An avid Philadelphia Eagles fan, Bosley remembers Martin being thrilled when his team won Super Bowl LII. He often wore any Eagles’ apparel he could get, whether it was a shirt, tie or even a pair of socks. But it wasn’t just about his team winning, Bosley said.
“It was just a talking point for our students, and he found a way to relate that all back to the sport business industry,” Bosley said. “His fandom turned into a teaching lesson, which I thought was pretty great.”
In his 33 years at the school — both as a coach and professor — Martin became a JMU legend, Bennett and Bosley said. His impact has been far-reaching and, in the eyes of those who know him, will also be long-lasting.
He was personable, and whenever he met someone new, it was like he was “never meeting a stranger,” Bosley said, while also dedicating his time to making sure those he met succeeded.
“The number of lives that he has impacted — it's countless,” Bosley said. “The lessons and the stories that he told to people are going to live on, and I don't think anyone's ever going to really forget the name Tom Martin because of the impact that he's had.”
Contact Catie Harper at email@example.com. For more soccer coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.