Al Martin’s head coaching career at Du Quoin High School probably couldn’t have gone much better. The numbers are all there: two state championships, four runner-up finishes and 247 wins in 25 years.
The Indians also enjoyed a remarkable streak of making the football playoffs for 23 consecutive seasons under Martin’s tutelage. His 26th year as head coach of the Indians is expected to be his last.
The man is a living legend in high schools sports, but he’s so much more than that.
“My faith helps me a lot, and it got me through a lot of stuff, and that’s what I relied upon,” Martin said. “I always tried to convey to the kids that the most important things don’t always happen on Friday nights. The important things are working hard together as teammates and working to become better people.”
Martin became Du Quoin’s head coach in 1988 after a stint as an assistant coach in Carbondale. He previously coached Du Quoin’s underclassmen and also went back to work at a coal mine in the early 80s.
“You better believe I consider myself very fortunate to have been here all this time,” Martin said. “I was a little rough around the edges when I first started teaching and so I got out of it. I made some mistakes, and I was lucky to get a second chance to come back to Du Quoin. I feel really lucky that I got through those years.”
In his first year as head coach, Martin’s Indians won the state championship in 1988. Du Quoin did it again in 1992. These long runs of success don’t happen without a consistent and talented coaching staff.
“Keith Ellis, John Gross and Bob Shaw have been with me for a long time,” Martin said. “I’ve had a lot of great coaches to work with over the years. I’m really close to the coaching staff, and they’ve allowed me to enjoy what I do even more because they’ve done such a good job for our program.”
Martin is usually busy working with his offense near the bench while the defense is on the field. He’s missed seeing some of Du Quoin’s biggest hits and greatest tackles in person over the years.
“One of the neatest things about coaching football for me is being able to pull the offense to the sideline,” Martin said. “Sometimes I don’t even see how our defense played until we watch the film.”
It’s no secret that Martin doesn’t like to talk about himself and isn’t all that comfortable doing interviews. But several opposing coaches and former players were more than willing to talk about him.
“Any time we play Du Quoin we knew their kids would always be fundamentally sound,” said Anna-Jonesboro coach Brett Detering. “Sometimes people get caught up in schemes or Xs and Os, but a lot of wins or losses come down to blocking and tackling. I’ve always thought the Du Quoin kids probably do that as well as anybody. I think that’s a result of Coach Martin and the importance he places on those things.”
One of Du Quoin’s newest rivals is Carterville, which became a member of the SIRR Mississippi Division in 2010. The two teams competed in a few great playoff games over the years, but now they meet up annually.
“When you look at the longevity, the success and the professionalism he’s displayed over the years, it really speaks for itself,” said Carterville coach Dennis Drust. “His great success on a statewide level is also really important, and his teams are not going to beat themselves. They are always well-coached. He has stood alone at the top of Southern Illinois football since 1988.”
Martin always cared about his players, particularly off the field. Many of those former Du Quoin athletes appreciate having been around him.
“He’s got a record that will probably never be matched in high school sports around here, and you’ll probably never hear him talk about any of that,” said Carbondale coach Nick Hill. “Growing up in Du Quoin, he’s somebody that you always wanted to make proud and always wanted to play for. He is just respected by everyone because of the kind of person he is. Now that I’m a first-year head coach, I’m always thinking what would Coach Martin do right here. I think about how he would run this practice or discipline this player.”
The last great Du Quoin football team was the 2008 state runner-up squad. That year, the Indians were basically one first down away from winning it all. Nick Hill’s younger brother, A.J. was the quarterback. He reflected on Martin’s lighter side.
“He does have a pretty good sense of humor, and it’s one of those that will catch you off guard,” said A.J. Hill, who plays for the SIU football team. “He’ll tell you a joke and you won’t realize he’s telling you a joke. The punchline comes, and it hits you a little bit later. He’s not really a gruff guy.”
It really is incredible how many kids a school of Du Quoin’s size gets out for football on a yearly basis. The program has been doing quite well since Bob Karnes became head coach in 1968. Martin took it to another level beginning in the late 1980s.
“There has been some talent at Du Quoin, but there have been a lot of years where the talent has been down in the last 20 years,” said Herrin coach Jason Karnes, who was the quarterback on Du Quoin’s last state title team in 1992. “But he and his staff always had the kids prepared for any kind of situation. Sometimes I don’t even have an answer and don’t know how he did it so well for so many years. He is probably the most humble coach and man that I’ve ever met. He has impacted thousands of lives.”
It can certainly be stressful coaching in a tradition-rich football paradise like Du Quoin. The fans expect the Indians to win every single year.
“Sometimes I did feel that pressure, but I guess I kind of learned to handle it,” Martin said. “I just went to work, did the best I could, went home and went to bed.”
Although he was approached by a few schools to coach elsewhere over the years, Martin said he’s always been happy to stay in Du Quoin. He also said he’ll help out the program in future seasons if he’s asked to do so.
“I’ve always been happy right where I’m at with a home in the country and good neighbors, and this has been very rewarding for me,” Martin said. “We’ve lost big games, and it hurts, but we’re about working hard as well as developing relationships and character. I’ve been blessed to be able to work with so many young people in the classroom and on the football field.”