Midway through Larry Martin’s first year as Omaha North’s football coach, the unthinkable happened.
A player died during a game.
The 2000 season was already a struggle. The Vikings would finish with a 1-8 record.
Martin would be the first to tell you he was being watched by the North community with a wary eye. Here he was, an outsider, coming from a Class C program at Fremont Bergan.
“A lot of people wanted to give me a lot of advice when I got there. I know it was being said ‘he doesn’t know what he’s getting into,’” Martin said. “I was second-guessing myself a little bit just based on the winning and the losing because I was at a completely different place.”
North already had mourned the loss of junior Christopher Benniefield. He died after making a tackle in a game against Millard West.
“That could have had an adverse effect on his coaching career,” North Principal Gene Haynes said. “Larry dug down deep, made the best of a bad situation and never looked back.”
This year’s World-Herald Nebraska boys high school coach of the year, Martin said he’ll never forget the support he received from the Benniefield family. It helped him see he was needlessly changing his attitude.
“I went back to being myself and letting the kids see the passion that’s about me,” Martin said. “One day, I snapped. Silenced the whole practice field. Nobody had seen me act like that. And then it was game on. Now everybody knew coach was going to be himself.”
Coming to North with a five-year plan, Martin has built the Vikings into consistent winners as he starts his 16th year as coach.
They were the first Omaha Public Schools team to be in the Class A football finals three straight years, the first to win back-to-back championships and the first to be undefeated since the Vikings were 9-0 in 1961.
“His record speaks for itself,” Haynes said. “He’s someone who has a passion for life. You cherish those fond memories that he’s been able to do for this community.”
Martin, 47, grew up in Seneca, Illinois, near Joliet, and graduated from Northern Illinois. So did his wife, Mari, who was heading to pharmacy school. She chose UNMC, and he was hired as an assistant football and basketball coach and head track coach at Bergan.
Two years later, at 25, he succeeded Joe Vojtech as the Knights’ football coach and compiled a 50-20 record in eight seasons. He said coaching in the Centennial Conference, against the likes of Tim Turman at Wahoo Neumann and Ron Mimick at David City Aquinas, “made you learn quick if you wanted to be competitive.”
He had regrets about leaving Bergan for North, but he sought the challenge of building a program at a larger school in the state’s largest class. Tom Lee, now principal at Omaha Northwest, was North’s girls basketball coach when both he and Martin were going through the master’s degree program at Doane College together.
“That didn’t hurt,” Martin said. “Mari and I also wanted to get to Omaha for her professional opportunities.”
At his interview with then-North Principal Bernice Nared and Haynes, then the school’s athletic director, Martin presented his five-year plan. Haynes said he found the plan intriguing and unique.
“He knew it would be a work in progress and he was willing to put in the time,” Haynes said. “I remember him saying, ‘Mr. Haynes, you’re going to see two-platoon football. We’ve seen the small numbers we once had for football grow to more than 160 kids.’ He did have a plan to execute, and it lived up to the expectations.”
North went 2-7 in his second season, then made the playoffs in 2002 for the first time in six years and finished 6-4.
Its first playoff win came in 2006, when North went10-2, and it was 10-2 again in 2008 when it won two playoff games and lost 29-19 in the semifinals to eventual champion Millard West.
After winning only four games in 2010 and three in 2011, North returned to the 10-win mark with a sophomore class that produced a Husker recruit in Michael Decker, the state’s all-time leading rusher in Calvin Strong (a South Dakota recruit) and two more FCS-bound players, Marquise Lewis (South Dakota State) and DeValon Whitcomb (South Dakota).
Martin said North’s program turned the corner in 2012 with a 33-30 comeback win over defending state champion Lincoln Southeast in the quarterfinals. Although the Vikings lost 17-14 to Millard North in a wild finish to the Class A title game, it was not a setback to what would come.
In 2013, with its only loss being 35-30 to Bellevue West, North won its first playoff championship with a 39-34 semifinal comeback win at Grand Island and a 23-21 win over Omaha Westside in the finals.
This past season, the Vikings’ closest call was a 35-28 win at rival Omaha Central. They blistered their four playoff opponents by an average of 37 points a game, including beating Omaha Creighton Prep 41-0 in the title game.
“It was very awesome to me how our assistant coaches were able to keep the carrot in front of this group of kids that was ranked No. 1 from the start,” Martin said.
He said North’s football culture has changed to celebrating teams rather than individuals. Players are developing confidence in the classroom, which carries over to the field. That hadn’t been the case.
“We’re not perfect in that area, but I feel more confident that we are making strides not only at North, but districtwide in OPS,” he said. “It pays benefits everywhere.”
Martin said the academic support from the school, including study halls after practices, is better. The commitment by the players to the weight room is better. It’s helped that OPS introduced middle school football.
He’s thankful at home for his wife’s support. Mari is the daughter of a coach “so she’s very supportive and understanding of what it takes to allow a spouse to be successful in coaching,” he said. “Mari is my backbone and my sounding board.”
The Martins have four children, and he’ll end up coaching three of them. Zach, who was quarterback of the 2012 state runner-up team, will be a redshirt sophomore in line to start at Iowa Western. Grant will be a senior starter next season at North. Carter is entering eighth grade. Olivia is 19 months.
Olivia’s birth came two years after Martin’s mother, Irma Jean Martin, died. Mari delivered Olivia while her husband was with his team for the 2013 state semifinal game at Grand Island.
“My mom always said she wanted us to have a little girl,” Martin said. “I know she’s shining down on us.”
He’s learned from the examples set by his father, Russell Martin, who’s retired in Florida; Vojtech and Randy Eikmeier at Bergan; and his high school coach, Brett Nelson.
“Brett was the best man in our wedding,” Martin said. “He got me into college. I was the first generation from my family to get to college.
“I still have a great relationship with Joe. Brett and I still talk about every week.”
Martin is the first coach of the year from Omaha North since Curlee Alexander, whom he said was a resource during his early years before Alexander retired.
“I wouldn’t want to have done this anywhere else,” he said, “because of the support system I’ve had up there. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
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