Frank Martin has South Carolina in the Final Four. In one of the most improbable NCAA Tournament runs in recent memory, Martin has taken one of the worst major conference programs in college basketball and turned it into a force. After years of being one of the nation’s best coaches, the 51-year-old is finally getting the national recognition he’s always deserved.
Martin’s teams have always played hard, played tough and played defense. None of that should be surprising if you know anything about his background.
The son of Cuban political exiles, Martin grew up in Miami and earned his bachelors from Florida International in 1993. To make ends meet in college, he worked as a nightclub bouncer, and when you look at how Martin operates on the sidelines, that’s the least surprising fact about him.
After college, he was a high school basketball coach in the Miami area for 17 years before taking a job as an assistant at Northeastern in 2000. By 2007 he was a collegiate head coach.
Martin took over at Kansas State following Bob Huggins’ departure after just one season in 2007. He took an awful Wildcats program to the NCAA Tournament in four of his five seasons in charge, reaching the second round three times and the Elite Eight in 2010. His overall record was 117-54 (.684) and when you consider what he was up against in Manhattan, that’s remarkable.
He went to South Carolina after the 2012 season and took over another awful program in need of a massive overhaul and culture change. Martin and his staff struggled for three seasons, posting a 42-54 record and never finishing better than 11th in the SEC. But things began to click in 2015 as the Gamecocks went 25-9, finished tied for third in the conference and reached the second round of the NIT. This year they finally put it all together.
Martin’s team opened the season 15-3 and 5-0 in the SEC. The Gamecocks scored wins over Michigan, Syracuse and Florida on the way, and eventually stretched their record to 19-4 and 9-1 in conference. It looked like a dream season. But things changed after a devastating home loss to Alabama in four overtimes on February 7. Martin’s squad stumbled to the finish, losing six of its last nine games and finishing 22-10.
Despite that terrible run to end the regular season, South Carolina has turned things around in the tournament. Displaying toughness and intensity that mirrors that of their coach, the Gamecocks have authored upsets over Duke, Baylor and Florida on the road to the national semifinal. How unexpected has this been? South Carolina hadn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 1973 and had never been to the Elite Eight. Now the program has its first Final Four berth.
Martin isn’t a former player, isn’t related to a big-time coach and doesn’t have the connections that would have made his road to this point easy. No, this is a guy who worked for everything he’s gotten. He has truly earned this every step of the way. Like his teams, Martin is tough and just works harder than practically everyone else.
There are no words that can adequately describe the job Martin has done at South Carolina. Until this season, the team’s most notable NCAA Tournament accomplishment was losing to 15th-seeded Coppin State as a two-seed in the first-round of the 1997 tournament.
For years people in and around the game have lauded Martin for the work he’s done. Now everyone has gotten to see how great he truly is. His name is finally being discussed along with the nation’s elite coaches, something that should have happened long ago.