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Martin rebuilding at South Carolina
The most passionate coach in college basketball is standing beneath a basket at the University of South Carolina practice facility. His head is down, and his hands are covering his face, making it seem like he has a migraine.
During this nearly 3-hour practice, Frank Martin has assumed plenty of poses under this basket. He’s stood with his granite chin jutting out and his eyes blinking furiously, looking like a man ready to explode. He’s poked both his index fingers into his tear ducts, frustrated when the offensive play his team just ran looked nothing like the offensive play he just called.
The basketball coach with the build of a linebacker has thrown his arms up in the air and yelled, his booming voice reverberating through the gym. But the most frequent position — as his players commit turnover after turnover, don’t guard screens properly and brick a dunk attempt after a perfect entry pass — is that of a man holding his head, the frustration mounting, not sure when, or if, his team will begin to get it.
This is what it looks like when Martin takes his intensity to a new school and battles the one thing he hates most: a culture of apathy that melts into every corner of Gamecocks basketball.
“Can you tell me anything we’ve done well yet?” Martin yells at his players in his intimidating baritone. “Tell me just one thing we’ve done the right way.”
“Four months of my life I’ve invested in you to make you a better player,” he shouts at one player who wobbled up to set a screen instead of forcefully committing to it. “Four months of my life.”
“Can we actually play like a college basketball team and not a group of misfits from a YMCA?”
“When you do half the job, you get fired when you’re my age. They don’t call you in and say, ‘Why didn’t you finish the job?’ They say, ‘Hey, thanks, you’re fired.’ ”
It has not been an easy year for Martin — who turns 47 on March 23 — in his first year in the SEC.
Halfway across the country, the program he built at Kansas State is tied for first in the Big 12, 25-5 overall and ranked ninth in the nation. Meanwhile, Martin’s new school is barely out of the basement in a mediocre SEC. Martin’s Gamecocks have gone a depressing 4-13 in conference play, including several close losses that showed Martin exactly how the culture of apathy surrounding the program has meant a culture of losing on the court.
“It’s a lot deeper than just losing games. There’s been a complete disconnect between this community and basketball,” Martin says after the recent practice. “Just a sense of apathy. And it invades everything — fans, just everything. The sense of apathy is just unbelievable, and that’s the biggest challenge.”
He pauses for a moment, and the man famous for his courtside death stare then says the least surprising thing possible: “I can’t stand apathy. It drives me nuts.”
It was much more surprising when Martin left Kansas State, where he’d been part of a basketball miracle in Manhattan, for South Carolina last spring. Why would he leave the school he’d recently taken to its first Elite Eight in 22 years, leave a family-friendly community he’d grown to love and go to a program that had been to the NCAA tournament once in 14 years?
It’s because of this: Martin did the impossible once. In 2007 he took over the Kansas State head-coaching job when his boss, Bob Huggins, left. He became ridiculed as the longtime high-school coach who lucked into a big-time college job and just happened to have the nation’s top recruit in Michael Beasley. People said he wouldn’t last. But after five years he had a .684 winning percentage at Kansas State, the best since the Hall of Famer Tex Winter coached there in the 1950s and ’60s, and took a team without a single future NBA player to the Elite Eight.
Now he’s trying to do the impossible again: Take a program that’s been in the gutter for years and turn it into a force.
Laugh at his decision now if you want, as the Gamecocks are languishing at the bottom of the SEC and Kansas State is looking like a team that can make a run in March. But if you know Martin — the force of nature he can be with a program, the undying loyalty he demands from his players and then gives back in spades, and the recruiting niche he’s developed among Hispanic players — you feel pretty sure that things will turn around in Columbia sooner instead of later.
Why go to South Carolina? For Martin, the decision was a lot like recruiting a talented kid. Do you look at their high-school statistics, or do you look at their college potential? If Martin looked at recent South Carolina basketball history, it wasn’t pretty. The previous coach had lasted only three years before getting fired. The previous year’s team had gone 10-21 with only two SEC wins. On the surface, it seemed like a step far backward.
But Martin chose to look at the potential, and South Carolina’s potential was limitless. First of all, it is an SEC school, and the SEC wields a big hammer. There was the 10-year-old, 18,000-seat arena, and the new practice facility the school’s getting ready to build.
There was the commitment to athletics, with a baseball team that had won two national championships in three years, a highly regarded track-and-field squad and a football team that’s been ranked in the top 10 two years in a row with consecutive 11-win seasons.
One of the nation’s most recognizable football coaches, Steve Spurrier, surprised people by taking the South Carolina job and has found plenty of success. And it wasn’t like South Carolina had zero basketball culture. Hall of Famer Frank McGuire coached here for 16 years.
Now, though, Martin is learning that the reality of hitting the reset button on a losing culture often is one big headache. The top scorer from the awful 2011-12 team graduated. Two other starters transferred. Martin knows his team is sick of losing. He also knows his players don’t know how to win.
“He’s great at changing a culture,” says Martin’s recruiting coordinator, Matt Figger, who followed his boss from Kansas State. “He’s demanding. He’s great at reading people, knows the character of someone from the first time he meets them. He has this innate ability to identify a person’s DNA by having one interaction with them. And if Frank doesn’t trust you, you got no chance. I don’t care if you’re a McDonald’s All-American or a walk-on.”
Says Michael Carrera, a talented freshman forward from Venezuela whom Martin recruited as soon as he took over, “Coach Frank, I love that guy, even when he’s screaming at me. I know he’s going to be there for me. I believe in him so much. It’s like he’s part of my family.”
Big-time college programs don’t turn around in one season. The best part of where Martin stands right now is that in college basketball, one coach — plus a handful of talented recruits who buy into that coach — can turn a bad program into a good one quicker than you’d think.
And so Martin yells, and he shouts, and he smacks his forehead, and he teaches. He’s not so worried about teaching ball screens and box outs. He’s worried about teaching a winning attitude.
A few weeks back, Martin noticed three guys were playing in a game with their jerseys untucked. Martin called a timeout. In the huddle, Martin told them the next guy playing with an untucked jersey would be suspended for two weeks. “We might be getting killed,” he says, “but we’re going to get killed with class.”
After the recent practice, Martin is driving toward a university charity function at which he's scheduled to speak. Rapper Pitbull is on the car stereo. Martin’s been thinking. Conference play has been a drag on his players. They haven’t been winning, and in some cases they’ve been embarrassed, such as the 75-36 loss at Florida. He’s noticed the look on players’ faces in practice, which is almost a look of resignation. He knows he can push these guys only so far. So that practice, the one Martin spent much of with his head in his hands, actually was him easing off of them.
“That look of confusion you saw on our players?” he says. “That’s one of the reasons why I’ve had to back off a little bit. Because they’re searching right now. And if I jump down their throats and challenge them, I’m scared they might fall apart. I would have been a lot more stern when guys just made the lackadaisical mistakes.”
In a rebuilding process, times like these are inevitable. Times like these also can be good. Tom Crean’s first Indiana team went 6-25 and won only one game in Big Ten play. You’d better believe everyone in the Indiana program remembered those humbling days when they were ranked the preseason No. 1 this year.
“You gotta go through a crisis, and that’s when you see your character players,” Martin says. “You see guys you want to stick with. As a coach, a teacher, a parent, whatever, you’ve gotta go through that, trying to figure out which guys want to be with you.”
Martin parks his car outside the football stadium that’s seen its own turnaround lately. He takes the elevator to a ballroom where the charity event is being held. Gamecocks fans and boosters greet him. They say how happy they are he came here. And Martin tells them not of how great his team is right now, but of how great it’ll soon be.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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