Behind the mean face of South Carolina’s Frank Martin


Three weeks ago, Frank Martin was known for having the meanest Mean Face in the wide world of sports. Which only goes to show how winning four games in March can change perception. Because here was Martin on Friday, speaking of love.

The question to Martin, whose South Carolina Gamecocks will face Gonzaga on Saturday in the Final Four, involved whether he ever regretted being hard on his players. While the assembled media waited to see if Mr. Mean would forcibly remove the questioner’s head from his shoulders, the ogre himself flew off on a wispy cloud of warm thoughts.

“What is tough love?” Martin said. “It’s either love or there is no love. Right? I don’t know what tough love is. If people love you, they tell you the truth. They don’t lie to you.”

Whoa. Frank Martin channels Rod McKuen. And he’d only just begun.

“If you love people, that means that you’re honest. That means there’s trust in your relationship, and that means there’s loyalty in your relationship. All those words are two-way streets. Then you get the love. If you get the love, then you deal with the good and the bad the same way because of the commitment that you have to one another.”

Pause for breath. Then off again.

“Tough love — I don’t know what that is. People use that term all the time. Because if you’re not being honest with your players and you’re not giving them passion, then there is no love. That’s phoniness. It’s my experience in 32, 33 years of coaching that if you’re phony with them, they got no time for anything I say regardless of how nice I am. If you’re honest with them, they give you their hearts because then they realize you’re trying to help them as people. When you’re trying to help people as people, then you’re being genuine. You’re not being phony about a scoreboard. That’s what I’ve tried to do my whole life.”

While wrapping our arms around the notion of Frank Martin as imparter of life lessons, we note again the incongruity of the NCAA tournament: We come for the Madness; we stay for the stories. Martin’s is a dandy — son of a Cuban immigrant, former nightclub bouncer, former high school math teacher, Final Four head coach.

He’d gotten close with Kansas State, which reached the 2010 Elite Eight, but lost to Butler. In 2012 he moved to South Carolina, which hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1973, and spent four seasons not making the NCAA tournament. These Gamecocks entered the Big Dance having lost six of nine games. They’ve beaten Marquette by 20, Duke by seven, Baylor by 20 and Florida by seven.

If you go just by this tournament, South Carolina has played the best of the remaining teams, Frank Martin’s team scored 65 second-half points against Mike Krzyzewski’s, and now here Martin is, sounding like the most interesting man in the world.

On teaching math: “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. We’re both top 10 in the country. And we’re a national TV game. (Afterward) I walk in, and there’s a (media) room like this. And the first question out of a gentleman’s mouth was, ‘Now that you’ve lost, do you think that you can get your team’s attention?’ And I felt like saying: ‘You can’t be this you-know-what. That’s what I felt like saying.”

Here the assembled media laughed. But Frank had a greater point.

“Both teams are top 10 in the country, and it’s a one-possession game that’s won in the last ten seconds — 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 defused me. It took the nonsense of losing the game out of it and made it real for me. And (that’s how) we went out of the press conference, which obviously didn’t last much longer because no one knew what to ask me after that.”

There’s a chance Martin’s Gamecocks won’t be around much longer. They’re underdogs against Gonzaga. They’d be underdogs in the final. But they can defend and they’ve figured out how to score, and for inspiration they can draw both on Martin’s tender mercies and his epic glowers.

Someone asked Friday why Martin had, before the season began, predicted big things for forwards PJ Dozier and Chris Silva, who’ve exceeded their regular-season averages in this tournament. “Eight, 31, 52, 58, 64. You know what that is? It’s the Power Ball numbers. Those numbers come out, man, we’re in trouble if we didn’t buy them.”

More laughter. But again, Philosopher Frank was offering more than a hardy-har.

“I live with them. I know what they go through every day. I know where their heart is. I know where their minds are. I know the commitment that they have to become better. I see it. I live it. I breathe it. I wasn’t trying to predict anything. I was just trying to be honest in what I thought was getting ready to happen. … I’m a better man because I get to coach guys like them. And hopefully, as they go through their journey, I did something to help them in their path.”

So: Sometimes an ogre isn’t an ogre. Sometimes he’s as kindly as Shrek. Here endeth this Final Four lesson.



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