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Air Force History Series: Ben Martin
Posted Jul 1, 2013
Go through the college football history books, and you’ll find some coaching careers that are remarkable. These careers stand out not because of their successes, but due to the ways in which those successes emerged. Air Force's program was developed by a man who arrived at Colorado Springs under unusual circumstances. Here's a look at the coach who first put the program on the map.
Ben Martin is one of the more successful losing coaches in college football history. That statement, in itself, is testament to a career that defied easy categorization yet ultimately enhanced Air Force’s football identity. After all, when Martin accepted the head coaching position in Colorado Springs following the 1957 season, he had to consider himself lucky to be a head coach in the first place.
Martin suffered through two miserable seasons as the head coach at the University of Virginia in 1956 and 1957. He won only three games in each of his two seasons in Charlottesville, finishing with a 6-13-1 record in the shadows of Monticello. That was Martin’s first head coaching stop; for many people with that body of work, it would have figured to be the last one – at least for a period of time. Today, a person in Martin’s position would typically have needed to become a coordinator or position coach and work his way back up the ladder. Martin, though, found a new home. He was plucked from Virginia by Air Force, a program that had not played major college football until 1957.
The Falcons’ maiden voyage in 1957 under coach Buck Shaw – a Sugar-Bowl winning coach with Santa Clara, but a man who hadn’t coached college ball in 12 years when he took the Air Force job – didn’t turn out very well. The Falcons stumbled to a 3-6-1 mark. Shaw’s one exploratory experiment of a season told him that his coaching days were behind him. He stepped aside, and Martin was asked to come to Air Force in the second year of the program’s existence. Perhaps this was a downward move in the profession for Martin, but he still had a head coaching job – and not an assistant’s post – to work with.
In 1958 – his first season in Colorado Springs – Martin wowed the college football world.
The ’58 Falcons didn’t lose a single game. They made their way to the Cotton Bowl and tied Texas Christian to finish 9-0-2. Out of nowhere, from the obscurity of a basketball school (Virginia) and at a program that had no historical foothold in the world of college football – unlike its service-academy brethren in West Point and Annapolis – Ben Martin had created a positively magical feat. The successes of 1958 weren’t sustained on a yearly basis, a natural occurrence at a program that had barely been born. The Falcons failed to win as many as six games in eight of the next nine seasons. However, Air Force’s ability to make the Gator Bowl – and beat two high-end teams, Washington and Nebraska – in 1963 reaffirmed the work that Martin was attempting to perform as the builder of the program. Martin endured four bowl-less seasons on each side of that ’63 Gator Bowl berth (1959-’62 on the front end and 1964-’67 on the back end), and then began to win at a higher level. From 1968 through 1973, Air Force won 40 games and lost only 22, making the 1971 Sugar Bowl against Tennessee. Excluding his final four seasons at Air Force from 1974 through 1977, Martin went 86-71-7 in Colorado Springs. His overall career statistics are anything but spectacular; yet, for a man asked to build a program from the ground up, Ben Martin did far better than any rational person reasonably could have expected. What began in the autumn of 1958 turned into one of the most quietly underrated 20-year coaching careers in college football history.
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