Frank Martin is a rock star.
The South Carolina basketball coach — formerly the Kansas State basketball coach, you’re probably aware — has the Gamecocks in the Final Four this weekend in Glendale, Ariz. The same Gamecocks who hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1973 when this tournament started and who had played 108 previous seasons without even reaching an Elite Eight.
Martin is being celebrated, rightly so, as a coaching savant. South Carolina ended the regular season poorly and there was no reason to think the Gamecocks were capable of making this kind of run in the tournament.
Yet Martin is flexing his intangibles, of which there are many. There’s something about the guy that just works.
He can be profane, intense, intimidating and a little bit of a bully. But he says the same things a third-grade teacher says about integrity, loyalty, honesty and trust.
He’s part Sonny Corleone, part Mary Poppins. And far and away the most watchable of the Final Four coaches remaining.
You have Dad Gum Roy with North Carolina, mid-major darling Mark Few with Gonzaga and buttoned-down Dana Altman — did you know he coached at Kansas State, too? — with Oregon. All fantastic coaches, for sure. But who are you going to gravitate to at a party?
Frank, of course. And just soak it in.
Martin was the must-see attraction during Final Four news conferences Thursday, I’m sure. Those of us around here have been subjected to his wisdom and philosophy, but some in the national media are getting their first dose. They’ll want to keep coming back for more.
Asked about pressure, Martin responded: “I’m not one of those guys that believes in pressure when you’re playing the game. I don’t. I said this a long time ago. I’ll say it again. You know what pressure is? 35 students, 27 desks, 18 textbooks, 180 days. You’ve got to educate every single kid in that classroom for 180 days. That’s pressure.”
When Martin was asked about his comments about, at heart, still being a high school math teacher, he said:
“I’m an educator. My job is not to pay attention to the scoreboard. My job is to help the young people that are put in front of me, so I can help them become better human beings in life, to help them understand. I’ll give you a quick example. We lost, at K-State, to Missouri. And I think I said this yesterday or the day before, just stuff that I reminisce about. And we’re both top 10 in the country.
“And we’re a national TV game I walk in and there’s a room like this, and there’s a whole lot more people there than right now. And the first question out… was now that you’ve lost, do you think that you can get your team’s attention? And I kind of felt like saying: You can’t be this you-know-what. That’s what I felt like saying.
“Both teams are top 10 in the country and it’s a one-possession game that’s won in the last 10 seconds of the game. It’s not because the team’s not listening to their coach. But the good Lord dropped a thought in my head, and I said if I were to follow your logic, then I would only teach my students on the days they failed a test. And it kind of defused me. That way it took the nonsense of losing the game out of it and it made it real for me. And we went out of the press conference, which obviously didn’t last much longer because no one knew what to ask me after that one.”
Martin will talk about anything during a news conference. Also on Thursday, he addressed politics and the potential of visiting the White House if the Gamecocks somehow win a national championship.
Apparently, Martin wore out his welcome at Kansas State. It became more and more difficult for him to co-exist with former athletic director John Currie, who recently left to take the AD job at Tennessee.
Martin has enough personality to fill University of Phoenix Stadium, site of the Final Four. He is probably not the easiest guy to supervise, but in hindsight it’s a shame things didn’t work out to keep him in Manhattan, where the Wildcats were 117-54 during his five seasons and played in four NCAA Tournaments.
His first three seasons at South Carolina were tough. The downtrodden Gamecocks were 15-39 in the SEC and some thought Martin was headed for a fate that so many coaches before him had endured.
But he turned it around. He never stopped believing in all those axioms he preaches. Martin is a guy whose earnestness you can’t help but question until he finally wins you over.
Ultimately, even the doubters buy in.
Now that he has South Carolina — South Carolina — in a Final Four, are there any more doubters?