If Frank Martin sees this headline, I’m sure he’ll be enraged. Based on everything the man has ever said in his public life, you’d have to say the South Carolina basketball coach would feel that this whole thing is about the players on the team who work so hard and sacrifice so much and deserve all the credit. If you’ve ever seen Martin in the afterglow of a triumph, you’ve seen him say something like that.
But whether he likes it or not, his is the most compelling underdog story in the NCAA Tournament this year.
The first American-born child of Cuban exiles, Martin was a bouncer at a Miami nightclub in 1992 when he up and decided to become a basketball coach. Well, didn’t just “up and decide,” no. What happened was, he had gotten a physical education degree from Florida International, and used that to get a part-time gig coaching the JV team at Miami High. That was 1985. And that’s how it was for the next seven years, until some guys he threw out of a nightclub came back shooting. So it was right about then that Martin decided to give it a full go with basketball coaching.
“It was one of those moments that kind of made me think about what I was doing for a living,” he told the New York Times.
Martin hadn’t played basketball past high school but he’d done well enough with the JV team at Miami High to get the varsity job at North Miami High. That was 1993. By 1998, he’d gone back to Miami High and won three state championships with Udonis Haslem and Steve Blake.
And that’s where the Martin story takes a turn. Up to this point it was nothing but bootstrap pulling for Frank Martin, but here, in 1999, Miami High, the place that gave him his start, the home to which he loyally returned, is dismissing him. They’re not saying he did anything wrong, they’re just saying he’s got to go. They had a state championship vacated over some shenanigans involving suspicious home addresses and accusations of recruiting, and somebody had to go.
Based on everything Frank Martin has ever said in public, it’s hard to imagine a person with a more immense appreciation for opportunity. To watch his teams play is to understand desperate enthusiasm. Everyone talks about playing each possession as if it’s their last, but Frank’s teams actually do it. Frank has offended some with his dirty mouth and rough manner, but what’s offensive to him is the idea that someone would fail because they didn’t try hard enough. That they got an opportunity and leaked it away.
His big opportunity came in 2006, when Bob Huggins hired him to his staff at Kansas State. Huggins was only there for a year, but he left Kansas State with a loaded roster. When K-State promoted Martin, it started him off with Michael Beasley, Bill Walker, Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente — players Martin had recruited. The Wildcats went 21-12, beat Kansas in Manhattan, and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. That remains the most talented team Martin has ever coached, but aside from the effortless scoring of Beasley and Walker, everything pretty much looked like it does now at South Carolina. Those guys played harder than seemed reasonable. Offensive rebounds were just part of the normal offensive strategy. A missed shot? Now there’s an oppor-tunity.
That Michael Beasley year did a lot for Martin’s reputation. When Kansas State hired him it looked like a desperate attempt to keep together a historic recruiting class. Just how close O.J. Mayo was to joining Beasley and Walker in Manhattan is the sort of thing people like to claim to have the real story about, but in any case Huggins, along with K-State’s 2007 recruiting class, had put the school into the national spotlight for the first time in ages.
It wasn’t until some of the glamor washed away that you really got to understand what Martin was all about. His relentlessness sucks some of the art out of the game, and it works against his teams’ offensive execution. He disputes that. But if basketball at its best is like jazz, Frank Martin basketball is more like ringing a bell with a county-fair sledgehammer.
And you’d have to say his temper has gotten the best of him on more than a few occasions. He whacked a Wildcat once in a way that earned a public reprimand, and it’s fair to say Frank can be a difficult guy to get along with. That’s why he’s at South Carolina in the first place.
He got sideways with then-Kansas State athletic director John Currie. So in 2012, after the second year of a five-year contract extension, after three NCAA Tournament appearances in a row, one Elite Eight, and a Big 12 coach of the year award, he texted Andy Katz to say he had taken the job at South Carolina.
In the most generous reading, it was a lateral move. But really Kansas State had a better program than South Carolina. The explanation given for the move was that Martin really liked the idea of being coworkers with Steve Spurrier. Really.
The source said Martin was intrigued by joining an athletic department that has a national champion baseball team, Steve Spurrier coaching football and Dawn Staley as coach of the women’s team.
Anybody who was really paying attention knew there was a little more to it.
By joining South Carolina, Martin is closer to his native South Florida and recruiting ties. But he trades a newly established basketball school for one that has struggled to find its place in the SEC. A number of sources said Martin and the Kansas State administration have been at odds recently and that might lead him to leave.
What all this amounts to — the high school scandal, the friction at Kansas State, the way he treats players, the general disposition– is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. He seems to have toned down a little in recent years, and that was probably a good idea. A self-preservative one.
There was once some question about whether this whole Frank Martin thing was sustainable, a cynical expectation Martin would inevitably self-destruct. But we’re going on 10 years now, and he’s only getting more comfortable.
It’s amazing that South Carolina, which until now had not had that great of a season, has made it to the Final Four. But seen from a distance, the story is of a principled man who undertook a big project that was, like, definitely not going to work out. South Carolina doesn’t go to Final Fours. That’s the other Carolina.
But it does now, because now it has Frank Martin, who never blows an opportunity.