COLUMBIA, S.C. – Frank Martin's in-game expressions don't scream softness and compassion. They don't scream sensitive and caring. In fact, the only think Frank Martin's expressions seem to scream is screaming.
He's known throughout college basketball for yelling at players much more than for his strategy or charisma. One 2010 profile describes his "death stare" and "pit bull temperament," and also throws in "fiery" and "infamous for a two-word profanity." (And that profile was in the New York Times.) To some, the guy has become less coach and more caricature – someone who belongs in a singlet and not a suit.
It doesn't help that his rapid rise to coaching fame has brought with it a nagging skepticism. His high school team in Miami was stripped of a state title for recruiting violations – the director of the state's high school athletic association called them the most egregious violations in state history, though Martin never was directly charged with anything – and his success at Kansas State brought questions about how he and former coach Bob Huggins got future NBA picks such as Michael Beasley and Bill Walker to play in Manhattan, Kan.
So his abrupt move this summer from a top-20 program at Kansas State to an SEC bottom-feeder at South Carolina leads to all sorts of speculation about what he's running from rather than where he's going. And while other successful college coaches have a quip and a wink for everything, Martin is an ex-bouncer who went into coaching fulltime after an argument outside a club led to gunfire (did we mention he's 6 feet 3 and 270 pounds?).
When asked last week in his new office why he would leave K-State for a program that is perennially poor and has little talent in the pipeline, Martin says, "Why? Why not? I like a challenge."
Asked if he'd ever been to South Carolina before taking this job, he says "in passing." Then he says he visited Myrtle Beach 30 years ago. Then he says he's been many times to Augusta, Ga., which is near the border with South Carolina.
Martin says he once received an offer at another program that would've tripled his salary but that he turned it down. (He insists it wasn't Miami.) He stayed at K-State then because "I don't like walking away from work." Asked if he still had work to do in Manhattan, he says yes.
So … what's going on here?
Finally, after more of the same question asked in different ways, Martin offers a reason – a real, concrete reason – for his move. And it starts with this statement: "I had to make a selfish decision."
But what follows is not spoken loudly. It's spoken in a softer voice than many know he has.
Martin can be scary – even to players at times – but he was scared himself over the years at K-State. He developed severe pancreatitis only weeks after getting the job in April 2007. He spent two weeks in the hospital and was aware of the possibility it was pancreatic cancer, which claims nearly all of those diagnosed with it.
"My body temperature was 104," he says. "They were pumping me with morphine."
Martin says he spent 10 days thinking he could die.
The fear got to him so deeply that he swore off alcohol for good. Asked if he drank heavily before that, he simply says, "I drank." He drank watching game film. He drank while cooking. He drank while eating. He drank. And he stopped. His mentor, Bob Huggins, even told him, "Frank, let's be honest: Don't you think you've had enough?"
He'd had enough to eat, as well. Martin says his weight ballooned well past 300 pounds. It's now "headed back south," and he has boxes of weight-loss products in his office to show for it. There were other health concerns, too. His mother-in-law, who lives in New York, battled breast cancer last year. And his mom, who lives in Miami, is aging. She raised him as a single mother and now is 67. Martin wanted to be closer to both sides of the family, including a 13-year-old son from a prior marriage who is in Miami.
"I felt an obligation to get closer to my family," Martin says, sitting in shorts and sandals in his as-yet-unfurnished office. "I was seeing my wife struggle privately [with the distance], even though she was ecstatic living in Manhattan. … If it wasn't for family, I don't know if I would have listened so quickly [to the offer]."
Martin says he's happy at a school with little or no short-term tournament prospects. "Five years ago," he says of when he was hired at K-State, "the feeling was I'd last six weeks."
Nor does he care about the money. "I come from nothing," he says. "I don't fear going back to nothing."
Some may dismiss this as just talk. After all, Columbia isn't exactly around the corner from New York or Miami. But Martin's track record shows he never has made decisions based on the pursuit of glory or limelight. In fact, it actually shows something completely different: loyalty.
Martin comes from a difficult inner-city Miami school district, where he was a high school teacher who had more students than desks and more desks than books. He says he raised his voice at times there as well – "I was intense," he says – and he once got booed off the court when his vaunted Miami High team lost a game because he benched three stars for skipping class. (One of the players was Udonis Haslem.) He took a college assistant's job at Northeastern despite never having set foot in Boston, and he went to work for Huggins at Kansas State despite only having been in Kansas once before.
That job was far more precarious than the one he has now, as archrival Kansas is a super-power. Still, Martin led the Wildcats to their first NCAA tournament berth in 12 years. In 2010, he won Big 12 Coach of the Year honors and took his team to the Elite Eight. In each of his five seasons, K-State won at least 21 games. K-State made four NCAA appearances in his tenure – one fewer than South Carolina has made since 1974.
Not bad for a guy who never had been a college head coach before.
So why would he fear going "back to nothing" when he did so well with "nothing" the first time? Maybe he likes "nothing."
Part of his image problem, if you can call it that, is that he ignores his image problem. Many coaches wouldn't want to be seen browbeating a player on national TV. Martin doesn't care.
"Here's the problem with society," he announces, raising his voice slightly for the first time in the interview. "We worry about what people who don't know us think instead of the people who do know us. I don't care about the people who don't know me. What drives me is the people who believe in me."
So when he's seen on "SportsCenter" ripping into a player, well, "that's six seconds ESPN uses to create an opinion," Martin says. "That helps them. We're all supposed to act the same way, teach the same way. I'm not about that. Did we impact people in a positive way? That's the only thing that matters. Opinions are irrelevant."
Of course, opinions aren't always irrelevant. For one, recruiting depends on opinions, and the first impression Martin makes these days is often via that six-second ESPN clip that shows him looking like a pro wrestler with a year-old grudge. But for those who bother to get to know him, there's an important meaning behind the madness.
Martin's parents were divorced not once but twice, first when he was 9 and then again when he was 11. His mother basically raised him, and he hasn't spoken with his father since 1985. He says he is a successful adult only because he was watched and chided by everyone from the bus driver to the ice cream guy.
There wasn't much room for error, and there wasn't much of a safety net. So you can see how, in adulthood, Martin isn't one for passivity.
"Anyone who thinks I spend my life screaming," he says, "to them I say, 'The more you love, the tougher you'll be.' "
Most big-time college basketball coaches have spent years on TV. Their answers are as smooth as their hairstyles. Martin, whatever his flaws, is not like that. He's most eager to talk about his time in a high school classroom, where the only people paying attention were the students and their parents. (And, sadly, sometimes not even the parents.) He believes "we live in a phony society," based too much on perception and too little on results. The most animated he gets in a one-hour interview is when he's talking not about basketball but about school shootings. He thinks "there's no respect in school buildings," and he has a point: Maybe we should be less afraid of the screaming teachers and more afraid of what has happened without them around.
"I believe in pressure," Martin says. "Putting pressure on people. I didn't give kids a 'C' to be nice. I gave them the grades they deserved. They had to learn how to handle pressure. Otherwise, how do you handle pressure from people who want to knock your head off?"
So if Martin's expression is fierce, well, it's because time is short, resources are low and stakes are high. That's when he's needed most, and that's when he thrives.
Has he made mistakes? Oh, yeah. He says there are some players he has yelled at who went into shells afterward, and he never raised his voice with them again. But Martin is not going to stop yelling because fans or pundits might have an issue with it. And he's not going to avoid talk of high expectations at "nothing" programs. Martin will not talk about a four-year plan because he wants his current seniors to feel like the time is now. With Martin, maybe it is.
Because when you've been in a broken home, then an urban classroom, then in a hospital bed fearing death for two weeks, you don't really care about other people's timetables, misperceptions or opinions of the look on your face.
You only care about what works.
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