From the Bottom…to the Final 4

I’ll preface this by saying, I like South Carolina Basketball Coach Frank Martin.  Me liking him has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he has taken South Carolina to the Final 4.  I liked him long before that for two reasons.

First, he strikes me as just the type of complex personality that I find utterly fascinating.  The type that appears to be a raging lunatic, but has the ultimate softer side.  Going back to my West Virginia days, Beckley basketball coach Dave Barksdale was one of those guys, who ironically enough had connections to the State of South Carolina.  Secondly, I can relate to Frank Martin and his journey in life because I know what it is like to come from nothing.  If you think I’m kidding, I’ll be happy to give you the guided tour of the Northview Trailer Park in North Roanoke County where among our neighbors were thugs, deadbeats, felons and some guy who was named the Friday Night Bandit because he knocked off stores every Friday night.

Frank Martin is the true “American” success story.  He’s the first American born member of a family of Cuban refugees.  His parents bolted Cuba and Martin was born in Miami, Florida where he lived most of his life.  He was not a gifted athlete, and didn’t have many of the inherent advantages that just seem to come to some in America.  Frank Martin didn’t grow up with a safety net and doesn’t coach like he has one now, even though his current position allows him to live comfortably and not sweat out dinner like I’m sure he’s had to at some points in his life.  He demands a lot of his players and they deliver.  Amazing what you can get out of a kid but just expecting something from him.  He also has a reputation as the biggest softee around notwithstanding the icy stare that would cause a Tiger to quiver.  It’s that two sided personality that makes him fascinating to me.  I hope to meet him someday because I believe he would be one of the most interesting persons to talk with.

After graduating high school in Miami, Martin enrolled at Florida International University.  He put himself through college by working as a bouncer at a local nightclub.  His break into coaching basketball came quite by accident.  He got the JV job at Miami High School when the J.V. coach just decided not to show up.  He spent 8 years on that job before getting the varsity Head Coaching job at North Miami High School.  He then returned to coach at Miami High School where he won three Florida High School Basketball championships.  Among his players were two guys who would win NCAA Championships, Steve Blake at Maryland and Udonis Haslem at Florida.

It wasn’t always an easy road though.  In 1999, while he was never directly implicated, he was fired at Miami High School after it was discovered that boosters of the program committed recruiting violations resulting in the vacating of the schools third state title. Martin surfaced at Booker T. Washington High School for one year and then made a decision that would forever change his life.

In 2000, Martin actually took a pay cut to leave High School coaching behind to join the staff at Northeastern University where he remained for 4 years.  In 2004, he joined Bob Huggins staff at the University of Cincinnati.  When Huggins was abruptly terminated, and Andy Kennedy named the interim coach, Martin stayed with Kennedy before rejoining Huggins at Kansas State.  Then came his biggest break.  In 2007, Huggins left K-State after one year to take the job at West Virginia.  Kansas State elevated Martin to Head Coach.  In his first year, 2007 – 2008, Martin put Kansas State in the post-season A.P. Top 25 for the first time since 1972, scored the school’s first home win over Kanas since 1983 and took the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1966.  His work culminated in K-State going to the Elite 8 in 2010.

In 2012, Martin took what appeared to be an odd-career move by taking the Head Coaching Job at South Carolina.  South Carolina – while having great tradition that you’ll hear a bunch about this week – was essentially a dumpster fire.  Darren Horn had run the ship aground and was fired with a 60-63 overall record which again stands as the classic example of why you don’t hire the hot mid-major coach.  Horn parlayed success in the NCAA Tournament at Western Kentucky into the South Carolina job and was just in over his head.

Martin also left K-State due to a reported fractured relationship with then-A.D. John Currie.  Currie, who could easily play the role of the South Carolina mascot – Cocky – apparently has a long line of body bags of people he cannot get along with.  Before leaving an associate A.D. job at Tennessee to go to K-State, Currie orchestrated the firing of Phil Fulmer.  Now, ironically, he’s Tennessee’s problem again as once again U-T shows that when it comes to success, they can’t get out of their own way.  Currie starts his new job as Tennessee’s Athletic Director on April 1st, a job he ironically enough beat out Fulmer to get.

That’s the very day Martin takes South Carolina onto the Court for the school’s first ever Final 4 game, and that’s not something that any average South Carolina fan could have reasonably foreseen.  Martin’s first two Gamecock teams were just bad.  He was also suspended for verbal altercations with players.  My guess is that you either “buy-in” with Martin or you get gone and I see no problem with that, but we are dealing largely with kids of soccer moms these days.  His 2014 – 15 team went 17-16, and last year he broke through with a 25-9 record, just missing out on the NCAA Tournament.

Then came this year, which again is nothing short of a surprise.  South Carolina has won 4 straight NCAA Tournament games, but went into the tournament having lost 5 of their last 6.  They’ve beaten a 2 seed, 3 seed and 4 seed to make the Final 4 and now get a 1 seed on Saturday in Gonzaga.  They play defense the way it’s supposed to be played.  Deny the next pass and play hard at all times.  No short cuts, nothing fancy, just honoring the game by playing it the way it was intended.

If South Carolina wins on Saturday, there is a distinct possibility of an all-Carolinas’ Final next Monday between South Carolina and North Carolina but whether South Carolina wins or not, Frank Martin has show once against that you don’t need to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth or all the advantages in the world, you just need to work hard, take advantage of your opportunities,  believe in yourself and most importantly never ever quit.  Martin tells the story that he asked a girl out 7 times before she said yes.  That’s about 6 times more than I’ve ever asked one who turned me down.  That girl is now his wife and the mother of his three children.  It is stories like his that show that the last thing we need to do is go around saying that we are going to “Make American Great Again” because it’s pretty damn great already.

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