NEW YORK – Frank Martin took the dais looking like a man that had been through hell.
Jacket and tie gone – strewn somewhere in the tunnels or locker room at Madison Square Garden – top button of his shirt undone, cuff links tucked away for safe keeping. Left nearly speechless, gazing into the distance as his players took questions from the media.
“Just unbelievable, just a surreal moment,” Martin said. “You focus in on chasing young kids around, hoping that they grow up and believe and you end up with guys like these guys right next to me and their teammates that have the courage to come back every day and do more. And just – I’m just out of words. Out of words.”
It’s almost unfathomable that the South Carolina head coach had started the day dressed to the nines – garnet jacket and tie combo, matching leather shoes and a pocket square to tie it all together.
Yet somehow two hours later, Martin wound up looking no different than a Wall St. investment banker drowning his sorrows in a New York City dive after a particular difficult day.
But make no mistake. Martin hadn’t been defeated. His look was not one of depression, but one of relief, as if 17 years’ worth of weight had just been lifted off his shoulders.
Frank Martin was finally heading to a Final Four.
“Anyone that’s in sports dreams of moments like this,” Martin said. “It’s not something that you start dreaming it the year you win 25 games. You dream it every single day.”
And it almost never happened.
Martin has been in this exact scenario, seven years earlier. While he was coaching Kansas State in 2009-10, the Wildcats had advanced to the Elite Eight, one win away from sending the coach to the first Final Four of his career.
With only Butler standing between him and history, Martin elected to take it easy on his players, who were coming off a thrilling – and exhausting – double-overtime game against Xavier in the Sweet 16. The Wildcats would come out on that Sunday sluggish, trailing by seven at halftime in an eventual 63-56 defeat.
Fast forward to Sunday: Martin again was a win away from his – and South Carolina’s – first Final Four. Martin had corrected his error from seven years prior, working his players harder than ever during practice a day earlier, but the result appeared to be pre-destined.
Twenty minutes in, 40-33, Florida. It was déjà vu – until it wasn’t.
“We trusted in him in everything,” senior guard Sindarius Thornwell said. “We had this thing where we don’t let go of the rope, no matter what happens, no matter the outcome of anything, don’t let go of that rope.”
“At half times of games our guys don’t panic,” Martin said. “I’m the one that loses my mind. They don’t throw in the towel. And that’s a credit to them, because they’re young, they’re trying to figure life out. And they don’t run away from difficult times.”
If you haven’t spent any time around the Cuban-American coach, you might mistake him for an ornery individual.
Martin’s build makes him look more like a former linebacker than basketball coach. His salt-and-pepper hair – usually cropped short – would lead you to believe he’s some sort of ex-military. His furiously passionate demeanor on the sideline at times rivals anything you’ve ever seen from the Knight or Hurley coaching families.
But listen to Martin and you’ll understand who he really is. Listen to him humbly list the people in his life that have made him “the luckiest man in the world.”
“I just continue to have incredible people put in my life,” Martin said. “And a lot of people have believed in me and not given up on me when they should have, to be honest with you. So all that’s going through my mind [after the win].”
Listen, as his kids push the spotlight on him in a moment they themselves have been working toward their entire lives.
“I’m speechless, man, honestly,” sophomore guard P.J. Dozier said. “I’m happy for those guys that came in and were on a mission. Frank Martin, when he came in five years ago, he was on a mission. He had an objective to turn this program around.”
Listen, as he talks about his family: His grandmother who defected from Cuba when Martin’s mother and uncle were young. His mother, who raised him and his sister as a single parent in Miami. His wife, who raises his three children as he chases his life-long dream.
“Adversity, how we handle that, determines what comes forward and go back to my mom, my grandma,” Martin said. “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.
“[My mother is the] strongest woman I’ve ever met. Husband runs out, leaves her, never gives her a penny, she never takes him to court. [She] doesn’t make excuses. Worked on a salary for – 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.”
Listen, as he forms a bond with a young reporter that neither he – nor the internet – will soon forget.
“I don’t know what your future is, don’t change, man,” Martin said. “Don’t change. You’re a sharp young man. You’re powerful. You got an old man up here learning from you.”
Those moments will show you who Martin is – a fighter, a dreamer, a leader, a father, a coach.
“Look who our leader is,” freshman guard Rakym Felder said. “Frank Martin. That’s what he drives you to do. To keep fighting day in and day out. He just pushes us to be our best.”
He’s a man who embodies a never-give-up attitude that borders on obsessively stubborn.
“My wife turned me down seven times to go out on a date,” Martin said. “Seven. Seven. And the day she made the mistake on going out on a date with me, I never let her go.”
Seven times Frank Martin had been knocked down. Eight times he got up.
Seven years ago Frank Martin suffered the toughest defeat of his college career. Sunday he finally got the chance to get back up and seize another moment he’ll never let go.
More NCAA tournament coverage on Yahoo Sports:
• Recently fired Tom Crean attends Indiana women’s basketball game
• Darius Rucker won’t miss South Carolina basketball, even when there’s a concert
• Frank Mason’s Kansas career ends without a Final Four appearance
• Oregon stuns Kansas to reach first Final Four in 78 years
• Gonzaga throttles Xavier to send Mark Few to his first Final Four