It was 1990. The San Francisco 49ers were at the peak of their powers, winning their fourth Super Bowl in 10 years. The world started taking notice of Bart Simpson. The unlikely duo of Colorado and Georgia Tech shared a national championship in college football.
And a 26-year-old man by the name of Kerry Martin coached his first high school football game for Sparta after just three years as an assistant coach. Nearly three decades later, Martin still has one clear memory of that day.
“I remember being extremely nervous,” he said before practice at Marion Wednesday. “I remember hoping and praying that I had enough knowledge to not screw this up. I knew that I had a good bunch of kids. I felt ready, but you don’t know for sure until you play the games.”
Twenty-nine years later, the verdict is in. Martin was, and still is, ready.
When the Wildcats (5-2, 3-1) host Carbondale (6-1, 3-1) in a matchup that will determine second place in the South Seven Conference, Martin will do so fresh off his 200th career win. Marion’s 38-14 victory at Centralia last week pushed Martin into milestone territory for the second time in as many years.
Already the Wildcats’ all-time winningest coach with a 109-64 mark in 17 seasons, Martin now goes to work on clinching a 14th straight playoff spot. A win either Friday night or next week at Mattoon will get the job done, and even if Marion doesn’t get to six wins, it could still qualify due to the number of its opponents' wins.
Martin’s career includes a 1996 state title at Carterville and just four years where his teams have missed the playoffs. Players change every year, but the results rarely do.
“I’m a very fortunate person to have coached at four different schools with great coaching staffs and good kids,” Martin said of his career. “It’s the combination of a lot of different things. It can’t be about you; it’s about a lot of coaches and administrators who trust you.”
Terriers coach Bryan Lee has matched wits with Martin since taking his job for the 2014 season. He lauds Martin’s consistency and his touch with people.
“It starts with a good staff,” Lee said. “You see the same staff every year. That means you’re good to your staff and you treat people right. He does right by his kids and he’s obviously a hell of a football coach. He’s been able to perpetuate that success.”
Like any coach with staying power, Martin has been able to change with the times. He started when a high-risk offense in high school football was considered anything that wasn’t a straight T formation or wishbone. Teams usually crowded the line of scrimmage with nine or 10 defenders, unafraid of the pass.
Now, many teams spread the field with multiple receivers — the Wildcats are one of them — and try to win with schemes as much as raw power. Most programs also work at it year-round, playing numerous games in 7-on-7 leagues in the summer so that the quarterback and receivers can get their timing down.
“No doubt about it, it’s adapt or get out,” Martin said. “It’s become a 12-month task, whether you’re going to offseason work or training kids. It’s almost like you’re sitting on the nest 12 months a year. It’s never been like this.
“Kids also have more off-field needs than before. In many ways, you’re acting in a parental sense as a coach. There’s a greater need to go beyond the field and coach the whole kid, which I don’t think is a bad thing.”
As 200 wins show, Martin’s methods are passing the test of time.