There is an old metaphor about an onion that calls the vegetable “an illuminating bulb” and says that “only by peeling its many layers can one reveal what’s inside”.
South Carolina men’s basketball coach Frank Martin has many layers.
Some people find it sufficient enough to look solely on the outside, only seeing Martin as the Gamecocks’ coach and the man who led No. 7 seed SC to wins over Marquette, Duke, Baylor and Florida to secure a spot in the Final Four – South Carolina’s first.
To them, he’s the coach of the team that plays good defense or the team that hopes to topple No. 1 seed Gonzaga Saturday night for a spot in Monday’s championship game.
Peel that layer back and you’d find a coach who many called “crazy” for taking the head coach job at South Carolina back in 2012.
A coach who had losing seasons his first two years leading the Gamecocks and a coach that once had to serve a one-game suspension in 2014 for – in the words of South Carolina AD Ray Tanner – “inappropriate verbal communication as it relates to the well-being of our student-athletes”.
That’s the layer that most get stuck on with the 51-year-old coach.
He’s a “yeller” and a “screamer”. He’s “overly animated” on the sideline. He “berates his players”. This layer even has a blemish in the form of a 2010 incident where Martin “struck” the arm of Kansas State’s Chris Merriewether – an over-exaggerated graze of the arm, which Martin apologized for immediately after it happened.
Take off more layers and you will see Martin when he took over as Kansas State’s head coach from 2007 to 2012, leading the Wildcats to four NCAA Tournament appearances in five years while amassing an 117-54 record and earning Big 12 Coach of the Year honors in 2010.
Right under that layer is the coach who served as an assistant to Bob Huggins – another multi-dimensional, if not misunderstood coach – at Kansas State and Cincinnati before that. This layer also includes the guy who got his foot in the door of college coaching as an assistant at Northeastern University – making less than $30,000 a year.
But as you get closer to the core of Frank Martin, you’ll be brought to Miami, Florida.
In these layers, you will see the man who graduated from Florida International University, quit his job as a bouncer and began following his dream of coaching basketball.
The man who worked his way up from impromptu junior varsity coach, to lead assistant under legendary South Florida high school basketball coach Marcos “Shakey” Rodriguez, to head varsity coach at Miami High – leading the Stingarees to three consecutive state championships and being a part of eight high school titles overall.
What you will find at Martin’s core is a person whose family fled Cuba in search of a better life. And because of that, today you’ll find a man who carries the spirit of his grandmother and knows that without her sacrifice and perseverance he wouldn’t be where he is today.
As South Carolina has advanced through the bracket, Martin’s – and the Gamecocks’ – stage and audience has gotten larger. More people have begun to pay attention to the team and grown fascinated with Martin’s persona on and off the court.
On the court, Martin has displayed his typical intense coaching style – the layer that he says he inherited from his grandmother and cultivated by working with Huggins and Rodriguez.
Off the court, though, it would seem that Martin has – probably unknowingly – added another a layer.
Martin has become a “media darling” of sorts. Speaking to growing hordes of reporters, the Gamecocks’ coach won over the hearts of many with his postgame press conference exchange with a kid reporter from Sports Illustrated For Kids.
However, Martin has also shown some of his internal layers while speaking to media recently. After his team’s third round win over Baylor, Martin let reporters in on what motivates him.
“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 during the press conference. “But adversity, adversity, how we handle that, determines what comes forward and go back to my mom, my grandma. 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. 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 mom 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.”
Motivational and inspirational, Martin told a small part of his personal story and the story of so many other Cuban-Americans in South Florida when speaking this past weekend.
Since then, Martin has enveloped himself back in familiar layers.
His team has returned to the lab, game planning and practicing for their pending showdown with Gonzaga, another program making its inaugural trip to the Final Four and the only team in the country that statistically played better defense than the Gamecocks this season.
Come game time Saturday, Martin will once again wear his familiar scowl as he stalks the sideline. He’ll demand his team give all-out effort and play defense at a breakneck pace. But no matter what happens, no matter how many people watch, no matter who listens, Frank is going to be Frank.
“This is the biggest stage our sport has to offer,” Martin said in a recent ESPN interview. “You know what? If some folks hear the story of this team or hear my story and can get something from that, great. But I’m just Coach Frank, man. We’ve got two games to win.”