USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach says you’re sorely mistaken if you think this won’t be an entertaining Final Four.
USA TODAY Sports
NEW YORK — You see the patent leather dress shoes glimmer as he stalks the sidelines, and you think Miami. You see the patented death glare when he stands still, preparing to rip into a player, and you think, well, this coach is perhaps a bit too intense.
But those public glimpses of Frank Martin, the South Carolina men’s basketball coach, tell only part of his remarkable story — and personality.
“Everybody thinks he’s tough,” said Lourdes Martin, Frank’s mother. “He is tough; you’ve got to be tough to coach. But at the same time, he’s got to take care of his players. At home, he’s a great husband, a great father, a great son. He cooks for them, takes care of them. He’s just a big teddy bear. Frank is very, very humble. He will always be the same man no matter where he goes.”
Lourdes is the reason her son is the way he is, fueled by a fiery passion but softened by a deep capacity for unconditional love, part basketball instructor, part life coach. She’s the most important woman in his life, Martin gushed Sunday, the strongest woman he’s ever met.
“Husband runs out, leaves her, never gives her a penny, she never takes him to court — doesn’t make excuses,” said Martin, 51, an hour after his No. 7-seeded Gamecocks beat Florida to advance to the program’s first-ever Final Four. “Worked on a salary as a secretary. Raised my sister and me. We’d go to Wendy’s or Burger King every two Fridays — that was our family meal.
“She gave me the courage to try and do this for a living. Every time I’m in a difficult moment and I got to make a choice and do right or do wrong … I made her cry one time when I was a teenager because I made the wrong choice. I’m never making her cry again for making the wrong choice. And I’m watching her cry tears of joy because all her sacrifices have allowed me and my sister to move forward in life. Those are the tears that are important to me. That’s extending her life. When you make your mother cry for joy, it gives her more life, and she’s a special lady. Special lady.”
And those are the tears that were shed Sunday evening, as Lourdes watched her son do something he’d never done before, with a program that had never come close to a Final Four berth before. Confetti then covered the court; bits and pieces of the nets were being cut and stuffed in pockets and hats as mementos. Martin walked around and around until he found her.
“I was out of breath, and then when I hugged my son, it was just ‘Please, God, give me some peace,’” Lourdes said. “He told me, he said, ‘Mommy I’m so happy but please don’t cry.’ But he was crying, too. I’ve been crying for a while now.”
Martin was the first American-born child in his Cuban family, and he grew up alongside classmates at Miami High School who came over to the house to swim and eat tuna steaks and have never left Martin’s side in the decades since.
He worked myriad jobs as he grew older in Miami, at one point moonlighting as a bouncer at a local nightclub while coaching junior varsity basketball at Miami High School. He has said that one incident in 1992 — a group of men he had kicked out of the club for fighting returned with a gun and fired several shots at him — convinced him to pursue coaching full time.
Martin’s first gig coaching varsity came in 1993, at North Miami High School, and then came big success at Miami High — three consecutive state championships — but ended in his firing amid scandal, and the 1998 title being vacated because of recruiting violations. That situation is something Martin has not shied away from addressing, even during the most successful month of his coaching career, because it prompted him to shoot for college basketball jobs. He wrote more than 100 letters to college coaches all around the country; only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski wrote back.
“When we sit around and start judging people and their difficult moments, it says a lot about the people that criticize, not the people that make the mistakes,” Martin said. “I was a part of an unfortunate situation coaching high school basketball. It was under my watch. I still to this day say we were not guilty, but I was responsible for that situation, and I lost my job. And that was the first time I ever said, you know what, I’m going to try this college thing.”
A year later, he landed a job at Booker T. Washington High School. One year after that, he was hired as an assistant coach at Northeastern. From there, he joined Bob Huggins and Andy Kennedy at Cincinnati, then followed Huggins to Kansas State.
USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach thinks you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t keep an eye on these players in the Final Four.
USA TODAY Sports
When Huggins left for West Virginia, Martin became the head coach of the Wildcats, taking them to four NCAA tournaments in five years, including an Elite Eight run in 2010. Then, of course, he headed to South Carolina — where, in his fifth season, he’s taken the program to levels it had never been close to reaching, led by players such as Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier, homegrown stars who trusted Martin’s vision for what he could build if they stayed home and stayed with the Gamecocks.
“If you ever lose your dream or your desire to fight for your dream, then don’t get mad when you don’t get it,” Martin said. “But adversity and how we handle that determines what comes forward.”
These are lessons Martin teaches his players daily; he considers himself an educator. Yes, sometimes they’re lessons that are imparted with screaming and yelling — which brought a one-game suspension from the school at the end of 2014 regular season for “an inappropriate verbal communication.”
But the players see the teaching on the bench, the love in his embraces.
“A lot of times you see the yelling while we’re on the court, but people don’t pay attention when we’re on the bench and he’s teaching,” senior Justin McKie told The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record. “They just see he’s loud. And he is loud; coach is loud. That’s his intensity.”
Martin told players to trust him, hang on to him and “not let go of the rope,” a tug-of-war analogy he’s used for a few months now with his guys. He doesn’t give up on people, and they don’t give up on him. Martin’s wife, Anya, said current and former players visit her house so frequently it never feels like she only has three children. She said she sees how much he cares about his players, his kids, on a daily basis. She admitted her husband has been calmer than she thought he’d be as he’s worked toward reaching the pinnacle of the coaching profession — and that it must be because of those around him.
And how he treats them, too.
“Passion,” Martin said. “When I go back to my high school, which I do all the time, I never go see the teachers that made it easy on me, the ones that just kind of let me get by, I got no time for. I liked it when I was 17 years old. But I’ve got no time for them as a grown man now. I go back and I hug and kiss every single one that held me accountable here and would never let me off the hook. So, when I go in kids’ homes and I recruit, what I tell their parents is, you guys might be mad at me sometimes, I’m OK with that, but the one thing you never have to worry about me is that I’m going to lie or I’m going to cheat your child. Neither one of those two things are ever happening. And that’s who I am. That’s who I am.
“See I’ve got four core values I live my life by and I run my teams by and I run my family with: Honesty, loyalty, trust and love. And the only way you get to love is if you experience the other three. When you get to love, that gets strong. I don’t care what storm comes through, you’re not breaking love. But if you get to love without the other three, you let that thing go right away. So, you’ve got to go through the first three and that’s the only way you get to love. And that’s what I live by, I run my family by that, and I try to coach our guys that way. To get them to that place in life.”
Contributing: Tara Sullivan of the The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record, part of the USA TODAY Network
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