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Martinez endures, enjoys coaching in Española

Española – The saga of Española Valley boys basketball coach Richard Martinez is, at its core, both far-fetched and a perpetual riddle.

Española Valley head coach Richard Martinez celebrates the Sundevils' state championship win over Goddard in the Pit in 2011. (Journal File)

Española Valley head coach Richard Martinez celebrates the Sundevils’ state championship win over Goddard in the Pit in 2011. (Journal File)

The man’s been fired (and rehired). He’s been suspended (and reinstated). Someone once set his house on fire while he was working a game.

But he doesn’t leave. He stays.

He stays because he’s not ready to break up with his hometown, even if that hometown sometimes appears to want to break things off with him.

Does Española love Richard Martinez? Or hate Richard Martinez?

The answer, of course, is yes.

“Isn’t that the description of a marriage?” Martinez said with a laugh, reflecting on the rocky relationship he has shared with Española’s fan base. “And you have to have those things. I would be empty without that. I’m still here, so I guess I still love it.”

If this is a marriage, it’s a dysfunctional arrangement, to say the least.

In no other city, town, village or municipality does New Mexico have a more polarizing prep coaching figure than here in the Rio Grande Valley, where poverty rates are high, drug use is considered rampant, but love of basketball, for better or worse, reigns supreme.

At the center of the storm is the Martinez, a man who inspires love or hate but rarely indifference.

“It’s never in between,” said Ryan Martinez of Española, who described himself as a fan of the program who attends a few games each season. “It’s always a one-sided thing.”

Martinez, 50, came home to Española 11 years ago to take over a boys program that was in need of reviving. He didn’t view the job as a steppingstone, but rather a calling.

“When I was growing up,” Martinez said, “I didn’t like the way people talked about Española. They made fun of Española. They joked about Española. The bottom line is, I love Española. With all my heart.”

By and large, the Sundevils of Class 4A have been winners under Martinez.

They twice made the state championship game, in 2010 and 2011.

The loss to Roswell in 2010 was a bitter end for the town, but the Sundevils roared back the next spring and beat Goddard in the finals. Española’s fans, who packed the Pit that afternoon, raised the building’s roof with their joyous noise.

The joy, however, has not lasted.

Rocky road

Two months before Española lost in the 2010 state final, someone – a former student, Martinez said – set fire to his house.

That single episode, as much as anything over the last decade, underscores the bizarre nature of this relationship.

Earlier this year, he was briefly put on paid administrative leave for alleged misconduct toward students.

“He’s a very demanding and passionate person,” said Eric Vigil, the athletic coordinator for Española Public Schools. “But I don’t think he’s been too tough on the kids from what I’ve seen.”

The Sundevils are a No. 9 seed in the state tournament, and visit No. 8 Gallup today in the first round.

If Española Valley wins, it’s back to the Pit next week for the Sundevils and their colorful head coach.

“I think Richard has been chewed on by many and ridiculed by a few,” said Ryan Cordova, the head coach at Northern New Mexico College in Española and a former assistant to Martinez with the Sundevils. “The thing is, I don’t think Española would have been in that position (to contend for a state title) if Richard hadn’t been there.”

Martinez is, everyone concurs, deeply devoted to Española Valley basketball. He is competitive and emotional and has been known to staunchly defend his school and his players.

“His personality rubs people the wrong way, but I’ll tell you this,” Cordova said. “I know the man. He’s a father, he’s a husband, he’s a basketball coach and he’s a teacher. He’s just passionate about the game, and he gets his players to be passionate as well. When things get going bad, it’s easy to point fingers.”

Except in this case, Martinez seems to be under a barrage regardless of whether Española Valley is winning or losing.

“Not good,” said a man driving a Rio Arriba County sheriff’s vehicle when a reporter asked the town’s overall opinion of Martinez.

The man declined to give his name.

“He is tough on his players, and he demands a lot,” said Rodney Coles, the point guard on Española Valley’s 2011 state championship team. “He’s just very demanding. That’s it. He wants the best out of everyone.”

Touring

The Journal this week spent several hours driving up and down the streets of Española to ask residents what they thought of Martinez.

“The program is under a huge microscope, and coach Martinez is under a huge microscope because of that,” said Vigil. “Every little situation is magnified out of proportion.”

Of the 25 or so people interviewed for this story, about 80 percent backed Martinez.

One woman said she hated the man. She didn’t want to give her name. Another woman, who also declined to have her name published, said Martinez doles out tough love and supported him.

“He does have a bad attitude,” she said, “but you have to be strict with these kids in the Valley. That’s just the way it is.”

Martinez said no place in New Mexico is quite like Española, which is why he believes he fits so well in this job.

And he was adament when asked if he crosses the line.

“By no means have I ever done anything to kids that is malicious,” he insisted.

“Contrary to what people may think,” he added, “I really love the kids. And I really love the community. I have a lot of discipline. I demand a lot. My style is unique in its own way. Success isn’t easy. It’s probably the hardest thing.”

Coles said Martinez is simply misunderstood.

“I think in this Valley,” said one fan who only gave his last name – Montoya, “you have to be tough on kids. It’s like a trap. There’s nothing else to do.”

An Española Valley student who didn’t want to be identified said, “People that are complaining just want to be babied. He tries to be more of a coach than a friend, and that’s what a coach should be.”

Many fans said as long as Martinez continues to win, he should continue to coach.

“I believe there’s a lot of jealous people here,” said Phillip Martinez, another Española fan who said he was not related to the coach. “Nobody’s perfect. I’m sure he’s made some mistakes. But you don’t kick somebody out when they’re doing good. That’s crazy.”

Said Erika Martinez, who said her cousin played for the Sundevils: “I think they should get a new coach. Obviously, he’s good, and sure, he’s won so many games, but don’t you think they should be doing good outside of school, too?”

Hometown kid

Martinez played basketball at McCurdy. His coaching tenure with the Sundevils is one that blends perseverance with a certain degree of stubbornness.

“People say I’m aggressive, abrasive, intense, demanding … but I’ll tell you, it’s all the context of the wording that people use,” Martinez said. “People want success. And they can be ruthless when it comes to that. And that’s OK. But as a coach, you have to be able to withstand those hits.”

He could probably find another job, but prefers to stay in the city where he was born and raised.

“Española has made me stronger,” Martinez said. “I’ve made them stronger. We both need each other.”

Given the chance to comment on the fans, Martinez refuses to criticize them.

The players and the program is where Martinez really digs in deep.

“I just feel that my kids, on every level, are tougher than anybody else’s kids. I refuse to give anybody the consent that they’re better than us,” Martinez said.

At the end, one is pressed to ask Martinez the most obvious question.

Under all this duress, why does he stay?

“I don’t think I would be a good fit someplace else,” he said. “I’ll be honest. In order for there to be stability, there has to be good and bad. The good stabilizes the bad, and the bad stabilizes the good. There will come a day when I’ll have to leave and regardless of who comes (to replace me), they’re still not gonna be happy.”

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