LEXINGTON, Ky. — Doug Martin thinks about him every day.
His coach, his coworker, his mentor. The man who, with the exception of his father, had the most impact on his life.
Martin’s memories of playing under him and coaching with him will materialize Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium when Martin’s New Mexico State team takes on Kentucky, the side he quarterbacked almost 35 years ago.
Kentucky is where Martin, now 53, met his wife, Vicki. A few former teammates will be in the stands. Longtime friend and current UK Associate AD Bob Bradley will be there. The only thing missing will be the man himself:
Claiborne offered Martin, his quarterback in 1982, a job as a student coach after Martin tore up his knee that season as a sophomore. Claiborne wanted the injured quarterback to stick around while he finished his degree.
It’s been 16 years since Claiborne, who patrolled the UK sideline from 1982-89, died. But memories of Claiborne live every day in Martin’s mind. They’ve shaped who he is as a man, and crafted the way he coaches.
“The first thing was character,” Martin says. “You’re going to win with character and your character will get exposed in stressful situations. He always coached us to that.”
Martin has faced his share of stressful situations since being named coach of New Mexico State in 2013. As he tells it, facilities were a mess, the program was facing academic penalties from the previous staff and his scholarship number was down to 61, 24 less than the normal limit.
Martin had gone from the Bluegrass to the desert with stints at East Tennessee State, East Carolina, Kent State and Boston College in between.
Claiborne took over a trio of programs — Virginia Tech, Maryland and Kentucky — and as Martin says, “turned all of them around.”
That’s Martin’s mission at New Mexico State, a program where success ran dry long ago. The Aggies’ last bowl appearance was 1960, the longest drought in the FBS.
“It’s not the easiest way to go, I can tell you that,” Martin says. “There’s a lot of work that has to be done and you’ve got to go through some losing to get there.”
Bradley was an adviser to the football team when Martin was at UK, and he’s the associate athletic director for student services more than three decades later.
Bradley remembers Martin as “quite the character” during his college days.
“He’s just a really good guy,” Bradley says. “And I know he’s a good coach. He’s struggled, but he’s been at a few schools where you struggle.”
Bradley wasn’t surprised to hear of Claiborne’s impact on Martin’s career — it was that way for everybody. Claiborne and Bradley were close friends. There was a roast at Claiborne’s retirement party and Bradley was one of the speakers.
After he poked fun at Claiborne, Bradley turned sincere and spoke, like Martin, to Claiborne’s integrity. Somebody in the crowd asked if he could think of a time that was indicative of Claiborne’s influence on him.
Bradley recalls just what he told the crowd back then: “You know, before Coach Claiborne was around, I might go in a restroom and wash my hands, and if I was in a hurry I’d throw the paper towel in the basket fine, but if I didn’t, I might pick it up or I might not. Now, I not only pick up my paper towel, but when I go to a bathroom, I see before I wash my hands that there are paper towels on the floor and I pick them up and throw them away. And then I wash my hands.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Bradley says now. “But I know there’s something about it.”
Character: Claiborne’s first teaching just as Martin remembers.
“Everybody has the dream to emulate the guy that they think is their mentor,” Martin says. “I wanted to emulate him.”