The South Carolina Gamecocks rallied back from a seven-point halftime deficit on Sunday afternoon to upset Florida, 77-70, and — shockingly — book themselves a place in the Final Four.
It’s a Cinderella story almost too good to be true: a program hardly known for basketball success, with not a single March Madness appearance in 13 years and no tournament wins in 44, South Carolina now stands just two wins away from a national championship.
For head coach Frank Martin, the miraculous run at this year’s Big Dance is the cherry on top of an improbable coaching career that began more than 30 years ago, and only when the JV basketball coach at a high school in Miami failed to show up to work one day.
“Those kids needed the kind of guidance, the kind of helping hand, that I’d had,” Martin said of his time coaching JV basketball. “Sure, you watch basketball on TV, you see the coaches, it’s hard not to wonder how they got where they got. But I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. And I was doing it exactly where I wanted to do it.”
Two years after taking the JV job at Miami Senior High, his team was 22-0. He moved up to the varsity, and contributed to eight state championships. From there, he took a leap of faith when he accepted the head coaching gig at Northeastern for $US28,000, a big pay cut from his job coaching and teaching maths in Miami, but an in at the next level.
“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 on Sunday after beating Florida. “But adversity, adversity, how we handle that, determines what comes forward and go back to my mum, my grandma.”
Martin’s grandmother left Cuba, spoke no English, and sewed for 12 hours a day to support her family.
“They told my grandma, you got to leave your house now. And you’re going to this country where you don’t speak their language,” he said. “And you got to go sew from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and figure it out. She lost her husband to a heart attack, so now she was left with my mum and my uncle as teenagers, didn’t speak a lick of English. Somehow, some way, here I am today. All because of her courage. So, you know, it’s just a lot of stuff, man. A lot of stuff right now. But you can’t lose your dream.”
Martin’s grandmother wasn’t the only one who battled hardships to put Martin on a path toward success. His father walked on his mother when Martin was still a child, which forced Martin to get his first job — at a Dairy Queen — when he was 12.
“Leaves her, never gives her a penny, she never takes him to court,” Martin said. “Doesn’t make excuses. Worked on a salary as a secretary. Raised my sister and I. 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.”
He continued: “[My mum], my grandmother and my uncle fought through, I can’t say it any other way: they fought their asses off to give me a chance to move forward. She’s the strongest woman I’ve ever been around. I’ve got incredible people in my life. My mum, my uncle, they fought to keep me out of trouble.”
As a college basketball coach, Martin has often been compared to Bobby Knight for his unrivalled intensity — a scowl permanently splayed across his face and a drill sergeant’s willingness to tear into his players during a timeout.
But that intensity is perhaps the result of the work he put in just to become a basketball coach. Here, from CBS Sports, is a list of some of the other jobs Martin had before that first JV coaching gig:
“Martin has been handed nothing over the years: he worked as a change boy at a pool hall; was a restaurant dishwasher; a bus boy; toiled in landscaping; sold newspaper subscriptions door to door. Most famously, his bulgy build allowed him to be a bouncer on the side while he worked toward getting a degree at Florida International so he could, one day, become a varsity basketball coach.”
Martin’s tenacity has paid off. At Kansas State he won 117 games and coached a team to the Elite Eight. He took the South Carolina gig in 2012 and now they are in Final Four. And his South Carolina squad, it should be noted, embodies Martin’s spirit. They play dizzying defence (the 68.5 points they concede on average is the second best in the country), and get out and run in transition.
The roster may not be filled with blue-chip NBA prospects, but Martin did manage to recruit P.J. Dozier, a McDonald’s All-American, to stay in his home state for college and play at South Carolina. Sindarius Thornwell, meanwhile, has arguably been the best player in March Madness.
“Signing and growing up in South Carolina, all we asked for was a chance to make it,” Thornwell said. “We didn’t ask for — coach ain’t guaranteed us anything, but to come here and just work hard and give ourselves a chance. All we wanted was to make it. All we wanted was a bid in the tournament, to see our name on the board. And when we got our name on the board, the rest we’ll take, the rest takes care of itself. All we wanted was a chance.”
Martin’s mother, in the stands on Sunday, could hardly believe it, either.
“He made it out,” Lordes Martin said. “He had many, many jobs, and then God was up there and blessed him.”
“I’m happy as any mum could be,” she said. “Speechless, but not all the way. I have to talk to him about my air ticket.”
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