How Frank Martin and his sideline fury turned South Carolina into a winner

Frank Martin is one of the most intense coaches in college basketball. (Getty)
Frank Martin is one of the most intense coaches in college basketball. (Getty)

Michael Carrera still laughs when he watches the video. Still laughs every time he sees Frank Martin’s impending rage. Still laughs every time he sees Martin’s rigid posture and petrifying stare. Still laughs when he recalls that afternoon more than four years ago, the afternoon of his first college game, the afternoon of Martin’s first game at South Carolina.

With the shot clock turned off and Milwaukee and South Carolina tied at 66 on the opening day of the 2012/13 season, Carrera, a Gamecocks freshman, forgot a play coming out of a late timeout. South Carolina turned the ball over, and Martin fumed.

“He just went at me like crazy,” Carrera recalls.

Carrera says he watches the YouTube clip almost every day. He watches Martin stalk out onto the court, clench his fists, and unleash a string of ferocious words. He watches as Martin composes himself, then springs back into life; as the stone-cold rage becomes unchained; as Martin’s eyebrows angle towards the bridge of his nose, then flatten as his eyes scrunch shut, his mouth flies open, and the screaming resumes.

The Gamecocks went on to win the game but lose the proverbial war. They finished Martin’s first season in Columbia 14-18, and 4-14 in SEC play. The following year — 14-20, 5-13 in the SEC — wasn’t any better.

And Martin’s tongue-lashings… well, they were plentiful.

Yet as Carrera, who graduated last year, looks back on the early stages of his South Carolina career, when Martin had him playing as a 6-foot-5 center, he chuckles. And as he thinks about his coach’s temper, the fiery rants, and their confrontations, he has a reaction that to many would seem odd. Sitting in his apartment in southern Russia late at night, a wave of nostalgia washes over him.

“I actually loved it,” he says over the phone. “And I actually miss it too.”

Talk to many of Martin’s former players, at least those who stayed with him for multiple years, and Carrera’s reflections don’t seem out of the ordinary at all. In fact, they fall right in line with what several former Kansas State and South Carolina players told Yahoo Sports earlier this season.

Ever since Martin, a former high school teacher and nightclub bouncer, took over for Bob Huggins at Kansas State in 2007, his popular persona has been that of a ticking time-bomb liable to explode into a sideline tirade at any moment. And that reputation, of course, isn’t unfounded. Martin is one of the most intense coaches in college basketball.

But as every single former player interviewed for this story says, there is so much more to the intensity than the fury that has so often been caught on camera. For one, there’s a genuine, caring man. There’s also the lifeblood of a program. And there’s the fuel for a remarkable run to the Final Four that not a soul outside of Columbia saw coming.

* * *

Jamar Samuels still remembers his first Frank Martin practice. Samuels arrived at Kansas State in 2008 as an 18-year-old freshman for Martin’s second season in charge in Manhattan. He vividly recalls how Martin, within 10 minutes of the start of the session, sent sophomore guard Fred Brown to run up and down the arena steps.

Before too long, Samuels was “running the stadium” too. He estimates Martin handed him the punishment more than any other player, often for talking back. “Me and him, we bumped heads a lot,” Samuels says.

It took Samuels until his sophomore year to realize that he couldn’t win the arguments. It took other players longer. Jordan Henriquez, a center who arrived one year after Samuels, says he didn’t learn to deal with Martin’s hysterics until his junior year. He would play in fear of a Martin outburst, thinking about his coach’s famed death stare, and about Martin “breathing down his neck” as he tried to block shots or grab rebounds.

Henriquez, like Samuels, also thinks Martin was tougher on him than any other player. Others say Martin was toughest on point guard Jacob Pullen. “It always seemed like Jacob couldn’t do anything right, and I couldn’t do anything wrong,” says Clent Stewart, a senior on Martin’s first team. “He was really tough on Jacob because he knew he had the potential to be really, really good.”

Martin gives Henriquez the death stare. (Getty)
Martin gives Henriquez the death stare. (Getty)

All of the former Wildcats agree that the first year, just like for Carrera and others at South Carolina, was a shock. “It was really hard,” says Darren Kent, who was a sophomore when Huggins and Martin arrived in 2006, and a junior when Martin got the top job a year later. “It was probably the hardest year any of us have ever gone through.”

“As a young person,” Kent continues, “you think, ‘Why is he always on my case? I don’t think I did anything wrong.’ You’re always trying to find blame.”

For some players, the “tough love” isn’t love at all. It’s too much. Martin dismissed or released from scholarship 11 players at Kansas State and 13 so far at South Carolina, including four after his first season in Columbia.

“Some of the guys can take it,” Carrera says. “Some of the guys can’t take it. You have to be mentally tough — like, really mentally tough — to play for him.”

Gradually, though, as freshmen become sophomores and sophomores become juniors, those that stick it out recognize the method behind the madness.

“When you get to junior year and senior year,” Carrera explains, “you now realize that he’s screaming at you not because he just wants to scream at you, not because he just don’t like you. No, it’s because he wants you to do better, he wants you to succeed off the court and on the court.”

A common theme that arose in conversations with former pupils was the importance of Martin’s interactions with players in non-basketball settings. Martin’s background is as an educator, and that’s how he views his role. He would have players over to his house for meals, weekends, and at least once for Thanksgiving. He would return every phone call or text message. He would teach life.

“When he’s in between the lines, yeah, he is intense, and he’s sending a message, and he’s setting the tone,” Kent says. “But he’s so good about sitting you down — he’s such a good communicator — and telling you what he’s trying to get across. He’s just so balanced and smart with that way of going back and forth.”

Says Samuels: “Frank is the type of guy that can insult you to the highest ability, but he’s great at helping you get your confidence back. I got a lot of curse words thrown my way, but at the end of practice, he’d come up to me and let me know, ‘Hey, man, it’s all love.’”

* * *

Martin doesn’t yell and scream as much as he used to — because he doesn’t have to. (Getty)
Martin doesn’t yell and scream as much as he used to — because he doesn’t have to. (Getty)

As Martin and his 5-0 Gamecocks prepared for a matchup with Syracuse earlier this season in Brooklyn, Henriquez looked on, and he did so in slight bewilderment. A native New Yorker, he had come to watch his former coach lead practice, but was taken aback by what he was seeing.

“It looks like you’ve gotten a bit soft on the young guys!” Henriquez told Martin.

The two laughed about it, but the observation was sincere. Martin has mellowed in recent years. But he hasn’t lost his passion for the game or his job. On the contrary, he’s done his job exactly how it’s supposed to be done.

“We spent so much time with Frank,” says Mindaugas Kacinas, a Lithuanian forward who was part of Martin’s first South Carolina recruiting class and graduated last year. “The leadership that we brought our junior and senior year, Frank saw that and he kind of laid back. Coaches were [not the ones] teaching the freshmen and sophomores, but us, we were teaching, helping them out so the coaches wouldn’t need to be so frustrated.”

Kent says that was the goal from day one when Martin and Huggins arrived at Kansas State. “As you start to develop leadership on your own team, players can hold each other accountable, so he doesn’t have to do all that yelling,” Kent explains. “When he’s in year two or three into a program, he shouldn’t be the one yelling anymore. That’s the process he tries to go through.”

That happened at Kansas State to some extent, according to former players. It has happened again at South Carolina. “Last year, Frank didn’t have to yell that much, compared to my other years,” Carrera confirms. “Because he had seniors that were talking to the guys, saying, ‘Yo, we gotta pick it up.’”

The current senior class of Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice and Justin McKie formed a similar relationship with both coaching staff and underclassmen. Now the reclamation project is complete. Thornwell and the Gamecocks have channeled Martin’s uninhibited passion and unwavering belief on the way to the program’s first Final Four. They flooded Duke with intensity, overwhelmed Baylor, and persevered against Florida.

What’s more, South Carolina’s entire season has been spurred by defense. It ranks second in the nation in defensive efficiency, allowing 0.88 adjusted points per possession. Opponents shoot under 40 percent from the field. The Gamecocks held Baylor to 50 points in the Sweet 16, and held Florida to 0-for-14 from the 3-point line in the second half of the Elite Eight.

Martin, of course, wouldn’t have it any other way. “Defense is my baby,” he sometimes says to his team, according to former players. He even once described his defensive philosophy on a radio show by comparing it to that of former NFL coach Buddy Ryan. “I’m gonna hit your quarterback every single play, I’m gonna hit your receivers every time they come off the line, and then we’re gonna find the guy with the ball, and we’re gonna hit him as hard as we can,” Martin said enthusiastically.

Sounds about right for a guy who oftentimes looks like he could do that hitting himself on the sideline.

In fact, Martin did hit a player once. He slapped senior Chris Merriewether on the forearm late in a game against Missouri in 2010, and got caught in a whirlwind of controversy. The controversy was dispelled by Merriewether himself soon after. “Frank’s my guy,” he later said. “He’s always had my back. I’ll always have his.”

Just like so many of Martin’s former players now. Most use some version of that very phrase. Every single one who spoke with Yahoo Sports used the word “love” to describe his time under Martin. Every single one used either “thank” or “appreciate” too.

That’s because players recognize what some on the outside looking in don’t. The death stare isn’t cruel intimidation. In a somewhat perverse way, it’s a small piece of a bond between coach and player that develops over time. The bond fosters trust and belief. The trust and belief have propelled South Carolina to Phoenix.

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