- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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MARTIN, Tenn. -- The logo, that angry-looking hawk with goggles, is the first sign that things may not be quite as they seem. The mark of Tennessee-Martin athletics combines the animal kingdom and human technology in a way that, on the surface, doesn't make a lick of sense.
"A Skyhawk is a mythical bird that flies an airplane," explained Tennessee-Martin athletic director Phil Dane.
And if you can believe that a bird could -- or would ever need to -- use a plane to fly, then you're probably ready for the suspension of disbelief necessary to fathom the fact that Dane's program hangs around in the NCAA's top tier at all. According to the U.S. Office of Postsecondary Education's 2005 report on equity in athletics (the most recent one available), Tennessee-Martin's athletic budget of $1,602,051 ranks as the third smallest among Division I schools that offer football.
And no D-I school, football-playing or otherwise, spends less on men's hoops.
For comparison's sake, the school's stated men's basketball budget of
$134,264 -- 331st out of 331 reporting schools -- is 1.8 percent of Duke's ($7.4 million). And the total athletic budget of national champion Florida ($73.4 million) could pay Tennessee-Martin's bills nearly 50 times over.
There are plenty of cautionary tales out there in the NCAA about low-budget athletics, schools that make the decision to go D-I based on ego and adrenaline instead of financial feasibility and logic.
Recent additions to the D-I dustbin include Morris Brown, which struggled for as an independent before drastically scaling back, and Birmingham Southern, which couldn't balance five years of Big South success and the ledger as well, opting to suddenly sink to D-III earlier this year. And even casual hoops fans know the sad story of threadbare D-I newbie Savannah State, whose 0-28 campaign in 2004-05 ranked among the worst teams in basketball history -- and served to make the school a convenient punch line.
"I don't think the average fan realizes what you need to be competitive at this level," said eighth-year Skyhawk head coach Bret Campbell. "It's not enjoyable to see you're last in the country in basketball budget, but that just reinforces the barriers in the way as we try to succeed."
The biggest barrier by far is location. Martin (population 10,515) is nearly an hour removed from any interstate highway in tiny Weakley County and sits over a hundred miles away from either Memphis or Nashville. But on a northwest Tennessee night before Christmas that is too warm for a coat, in the expansive yet gracefully aging Elam Center on the edge of campus, the Skyhawks certainly didn't look like basketball school No. 331. In a well-lit multipurpose concrete structure with a giant video board and collapsible bleachers that hide several additional sport courts, dressed in snappy white uniforms piped with Tennessee orange and just the slightest touch of low-budget blues, Tennessee-Martin met Ohio Valley Conference rival Eastern Kentucky. Tennessee-Martin brought a 1-2 league record onto the floor, having already beaten a presumptive OVC favorite on the road at Jacksonville State, with the two conference losses by a combined three points.
And while there have been a few bad years lately, there haven't been any Savannah State-style embarrassments. Last year's Tennessee-Martin squad finished 13-15 (9-11 OVC), fueled by the then-senior backcourt of Jared Newson and Jeremy Kelly (combined 35.8 ppg), both of whom spent time in NBA summer league camps (Minnesota and Milwaukee, respectively) last August and ended up with European contracts. This is certainly a rebuilding year in Martin, but it's not as much of a challenge as the campaign after the school's first-ever D-I winning season in 2001-02.
"I thought that we were turning the corner, but then the 5/8 rule came in," said Campbell, referring to the now-abolished NCAA rule that limited the number of new scholarships to five in one year or eight over two years. "We had seven seniors on that first winning team, and we just couldn't replace them. So that rule really hit us hard."
However, the depleted 2002-03 Skyhawks still found a way to beat Conference USA member Saint Louis on the road and finished with a balanced 14-14 record. And ever since, their coach has been trying to put the right pieces together to replicate that success.
"Recruiting is definitely a challenge; we have to find some diamonds in the rough," said Campbell. "We try for kids who got passed over by other schools or maybe didn't get any Division I offer."
So with a low budget and no bright lights to offer, what does Campbell's sales pitch sound like?
"I tell them it's about people," said the coach. "It's not the bricks, it's not the city, it's the people. We're a very rural environment, and it takes a certain type of kid to thrive here and embrace the situation. And as I always say, nobody comes to Martin by accident."
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"How do we get things done around here?" said Dane, who served as Tennessee-Martin's finance chancellor for 13 years before taking the athletic director's position. "Well, we do things a lot differently than most other schools."
UTM was a charter member of the Louisiana and Mississippi-based Gulf Coast Conference in 1970, but travel problems led to its jump from D-II to the more geographically friendly D-I OVC in 1991. To keep a fiscally responsible upper-division budget, many in the athletics department also teach classes in order to share salaries with academic departments -- in fact, nine of its 14 head coaches hold master's degrees. For example, baseball head coach Victor Cates has a master's degree and doubles as a math and computer science professor.
"We also don't have a big academic support services center for athletics, which is a big savings," Dane said. "We ask our student-athletes to use the academic resources elsewhere on campus to help in the various disciplines, the tutors and math labs the university already offers. Basically, we don't believe in a lot of hand-holding around here."
Martin's history is a lot more about bootstrap-pulling than it is about hand-holding. It sprung up in 1873 where the Nashville and Illinois Central railroads crossed tracks. But five years later, Martin was devastated by a yellow-fever epidemic brought to town by a boxcar full of corn -- half its citizens were stricken by the mosquito-borne disease, one of every 14 died (including the son of town founder William Martin), and as word spread, evacuees were refused shelter because of their hometown. If it wasn't for the efforts of a railroad employee named Andrew Shepherd, a former slave who defied the evacuation order of the town's only doctor, Martin probably wouldn't be on the map anymore. Until the winter freeze lessened the disease's danger, Shepherd tended to the tracks so that trains could speed through town -- eliminating the risk for passengers -- and carried mail for residents too sick or poor to leave.
"This town has a history of rising to challenges and being resourceful," said Dane, a lifetime Martin resident. "There's been a lot of perseverance here."
Though the major highways forgot to find the old railroad town, Martin today is the kind of old-fashioned place full of friendly locals who go out of their way to make strangers feel at home, who invite people to come back for the Tennessee Soybean Festival next September (featuring the crowning of Little Miss Soybean), and who swear that they've seen you before somewhere. Everyone's a member of the chamber of commerce -- alienating people is bad for business, after all -- and that open-arms approach helped Martin get named to "Esquire" magazine's list of "America's Nine Happiest Towns" back in 1970, right before the town's centennial (it's the one with Aristotle Onassis' head crudely grafted onto a bodybuilder -- the library has more than a few copies).
And Martin has rarely been happier than this past autumn, when the university that sits between the historic downtown and the Wal-Mart brought Martin a taste of gridiron glory and provided a stirring symbol of what can be accomplished with less. Backed by a fearsome defense, the football Skyhawks knocked off its first-ever ranked opponent (a 24-14 win over No. 23 Jacksonville State in September), surged for the 2006 OVC football title, and eventually fell to Southern Illinois in the I-AA playoffs in a tight 26-20 tilt.
Tennessee-Martin finished the season with nine wins against three losses.
"That team was a real source of pride for both the university and the town," Dane said. "And that success is certainly helping with our private-donation campaigns."
But men's basketball at Tennessee-Martin is still waiting for its moment in the sun, for its first OVC championship and first trip to the Big Dance. There are signs that the turned corner that proved so elusive four years ago might be once again in view. Although the program's overall record -- pocked with guarantee-game losses -- currently stands at 3-10, and although Eastern Kentucky blew the game open with an explosive late run to win by 13, a Skyhawk star-in-waiting was quietly announcing his presence. He's Gerald Robinson, a long and sinewy 6-9 junior forward who stepped out often and hit six 3-pointers, shot 9-for-14 from the floor and tallied 24 points.
And while Campbell finds the right mix, his colleagues in the OVC coaching ranks recognize and appreciate the unique challenges he faces with his university's bite-size budget and its tiny town.
"I don't know where the bar is [set] at UT Martin," said Samford head coach Jimmy Tillette. "I don't know if it's set at him making the [OVC] tournament or winning the league championship. He's a great guy, a great coach and a great role model. I hope he's doing OK, and it sounds like he is."
"Don't get me wrong, we've been competitive," Campbell said. "We went to Arkansas-Little Rock, we were up two with two minutes to go. We were up by one at Southern Miss with five to go, and we've competed with everyone save for the Cincinnati game [a 67-49 loss on Nov. 11]. The way I look at it, we're in this league, we're supposed to win this league, and that's my expectation."
But one last thing -- about that odd logo. It turns out that during the mid-1940s, when it was still Tennessee Junior College, the school nearly shut down for good when World War II sapped the area of all its male students. To save the school, the administration hatched a plan: They'd apply to the Naval War Training Service and offer to train pilots for wartime duty. The U.S. Navy agreed, but with one important stipulation.
"They said that the school needed to have a bus to transport people in and out of Martin," Dane said. "But the school didn't have a bus. So they got together and bought an old school bus on the black market, and the rest is history."
So what kind of bird flies an airplane? In short, one pretty smart, shrewd, resourceful bird.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Its athletic budget for basketball is the smallest in the country, and that's one of the many obstacles facing Tennessee-Martin, Kyle Whelliston writes.