When Phil Martin took over as coach at Montgomery College six years ago the school was considering phasing out its football program. Now, Martin can boast one of the top small college programs. His team finished last season as the ninth-ranked junior college team in the nation and with a four-year home winning streak intact.

With no scholarships or on-campus housing, and a limited recruiting base, Montgomery-Rockville and Martin have had to rely on a different appeal.

"What we have to offer," said Martin, "is a good academic atmosphere with a chance to play good football and have fun. I feel we have an atmosphere here that players like and don't find many other places."

As is typical at a junior college, many of the Montgomery players were not recruited by other colleges because they lacked something -- size, speed or the necessary grades.

"He gets players that don't have the grades to go to a Division I school and instills in them that only if they work hard academically will they be able to move on to a four-year school," said assistant coach Rick Prather, a running back for the Denver Dynamite of the Arena Football League.

The lessons Martin preaches he learned the hard way as a freshman running back at Ohio University when his academic problems made him ineligible, cutting short his playing days. "I'm a perfect candidate for junior college," said Martin. "When I talk to these guys about checking out their options and academics, I know what I'm talking about."

Montgomery also has become a refuge for players disillusioned with larger schools' programs and in search of a more comfortable atmosphere. Linebacker Otis Pollard is one of six transfers from Central State in Ohio and feels more at home in Rockville.

"He {Martin} impressed me. He showed me the basic things and talked about graduating," said Pollard. "Some colleges only show you the athletic side. Here we're like a family, everybody works together and the coaches seem like they care. I think it's a very good program for a player to rebuild what they've missed."

Martin agreed. "It's hard when they go somewhere where it seems nobody cares about them and they end up lost in the shuffle," he said. "We leave the door open. We tell the kids if you go away and aren't happy, you're welcome to come back and play."

This atmosphere has made it easier for players to make the sacrifices required in junior college. The crowds are small, the bus rides long and unlike some small colleges, Montgomery does not cover all the players' expenses. The players buy their own practice jerseys, socks and shorts and often have to chip in for traveling expenses.

And, in a region where Division I schools receive most of the attention, the most familiar names belong to three assistant coaches that play in the Arena Football League. Along with Prather, Martin's assistants include Sean McInerney of the Washington Commandos and Mike Hohensee of Pittsburgh.

The Knights' offensive coordinator, Mike Dailey, like quarterback coach Hohensee, is a volunteer. "He does as much around here as I do," Martin said.

Although last year's 38-7 loss to top-ranked Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in the Mid-America Bowl ended the Knights' season at 9-2 and dashed their hopes of staking a claim as the national champion, no one is disappointed. Noting that Northeastern Oklahoma had 33 players on scholarship, Martin said, "it says a lot for our program just to compete against them."

While the players realize Montgomery College is a stepping stone, they seem happy where they are.

"I'll take MC for now," said running back Ron Pharr. "I'm going to try real hard and hopefully transfer when I'm done here. But for now it's MC and I like it here."