A homerun was hit in Columbia, South Carolina yesterday. No, it wasn't Christian Walker or another member of the two time defending National Champion Gamecock Baseball team hitting a shot to the Bi-Lo Berm. This homerun was hit by South Carolina Athletic Director Eric Hyman when it was announced that Kansas State Coach Frank Martin would become the next men's basketball coach at South Carolina.
This hire by Eric Hyman is without a doubt the biggest hire for the men's basketball program at South Carolina since Frank McGurie was hired in 1964. The Gamecocks had hired good basketball coaches before, but Martin comes to Columbia with an upside like none of the others possessed. Bill Foster came to South Carolina from Duke following an elite 8 appearance in 1980 and had just taken Duke to the final 4 in 1978. Foster was a proven name in a big time conference, but he was nearing the end of his career and health problems would plague him while at South Carolina. Eddie Fogler had just been named National Coach of the Year by the UPI in 1993, but his name wasn't as big as Frank Martin's with College Basketball Fans. Fogler was certainly a proven head coach, but in 4 years at Vanderbilt he was averaging 3 fewer wins a year than Martin has in 5 years at Kansas State. Dave Odom was a proven winner at Wake Forest, but much like Foster he was near the end of his career and his best days were behind him once he came to Columbia. The only hire that comes close to this one was the Bobby Cremins, but he was only the coach at South Carolina for three days.
South Carolina hires Frank Martin at a great point in Martin's career. In five years as the coach of Kansas State he has averaged 23 wins a year and has been to 4 NCAA Tournaments. Martin also has an impressive 50-32 record in the Big XII, proving he can win in one of the nation's top conferences. Martin's 117 wins at Kansas State are the most of any 5th year coach in school history, he's also the only Kansas State coach to take teams to the postseason in each of his first 5 years. Martin has beaten two teams ranked #1 in his career and has a total of 20 wins over ranked opponents at KSU. Unlike Foster and Odom, Martin is coming to South Carolina at a time where his career has much life left to it. It seems that from the ages 45-60, college basketball coaches typically hit their stride. Martin turned 46 on Saturday, meaning he has enough experience to coach at a big program, but still is young enough to have a fire and passion to prove himself as an elite coach.
Off the court Martin's players have a great reputation as well. Under Martin Kansas State's Academic Progress Rate(APR) has improved by 103 points. Martin also had the highest graduation rate in the Big XII in his 5 years at KSU. Martin had coached 6 Big XII All Academic players entering the 2011-2012 season. Victor Ojeleye won the Big XII's highest academic award, The Dr. Gerald Lage Award, last season. Martin preaches personal responsibility and accountability with his players on and off the court.
Martin's players are also very active within the community and with the military. While at Kansas State Martin and his Kansas State players began relationship with the 1st Battalion 7th Field Artillery Regiment that is stationed at Fort Riley in nearby Junction City, Kansas. On September 11 the team spend the day as a soldier would and in return the regiment came to Kansas State on September 25-26 to spend the day as student-athletes. The soldiers got to experience the day in the classroom, in study sessions, working out with the strength and conditioning staff, and hanging out in the players lounge. Martin is quoted as saying "We try and take every opportunity we can to demonstrate to our young people what America is all about. We want them to fully understand how privileged they truly are, not only to live in a country where they have rights and freedoms, but we want to introduce them to what other people do that help them have a career as a college basketball player"
Another reason Martin is coming to South Carolina at the right time is because so many in the country still love to follow the man on the court. Martin has almost a cult like following with many college basketball fans. While their personalities are different, its similar to the following Mike Leach has developed in his career. Martin and Leach both made their names in small Big XII towns that typically would not get national attention, but due to their unique styles and personalities they draw viewers all over from people with no ties to their schools. Fans and recruits from California to New York will watch South Carolina games now just to see the intensity Frank Martin brings to the court. They will continue to pull up Frank Martin videos on youtube just to see what he has said in a press conference. When you think of exciting college basketball coaches, Frank Martin is certainly in anyone's top 5. This is why CBS brought Martin in studio for this weekend's Elite 8 and ESPN had him in studio all day in November to promote the upcoming college basketball season.
Personally, the one thing I admire the most about Frank Martin is that he's a self made man. Martin is the first born American in a family of Cuban immigrants and couldn't speak English in the early parts of his life. Martin didn't start his working career as an assistant on the bench for an elite coach, he started it at a Dairy Queen in Little Havana. He then worked his way up to be a change boy at a billiards hall in Miami. Later he would become a busboy, waiter, short-order cook, and even a bartender. He nearly took a job as a bodyguard for a king at one point in his life.
While at Florida International University, Martin was a bouncer for a local nightclub. One night he kicked out a few trouble makers, but at 2:30 these men showed back up and started to fire gunshots at the club. It was at this point Martin decided to evaluate what he was doing and started to dedicate himself to coaching basketball. Martin worked his way up the ranks starting as a Junior Varsity Coach for Miami High School and later becoming head coach. He won 3 state championships in Florida, but in 1998 had one of the titles vacated due to boosters giving housing assistance to players. Martin was never connected to any of these violations, but was dismissed as head coach at Miami High School in 1998.
His first college coaching job came at Northeastern University in 2000 under current Eastern College Athletic Conference Commissioner Rudy Keeling. Martin spent 4 seasons at Northeaster before Bob Huggins offered him a job as an assistant at Cincinnati. His passion for coaching, ability to recruit, intensity on the court, and relationships with his players helped Martin gain the confidence of these two highly respected men in the college basketball world.
Martin's unique background is one that recruits can identify with. Many of the high school kids looking to make the jump from college are coming from tough areas where they have to work harder than most to get through the day. This is a man that can go into a living room and assure a mother that her child can make it in life and Martin is proof of that.
Many in the past have tried to be critical towards Martin by calling him a "high school coach". Martin takes this as a compliment because he sees himself as a teacher of the game of basketball, just like he was a teacher of mathematics in high school. As a teacher Martin has stated he had 3 rules to his students 1) Be on time 2) Be prepared mentally and physically 3) Gimme what you got. Those same three rules carry onto the court when he's coaching his players. Martin expects the best from his players and for them to give it their best at all times.
Winning at South Carolina is going to take someone who isn't afraid to attempt to go into Atlanta and fight for recruits against the ACC' and SEC elite. With Darrin Horn, the Gamecocks were shut out of this area. Frank Martin won't be shut out of Atlanta though, he'll kick the door down and let it be known he's in town to land the top recruits. Martin isn't going to be afraid to go into Tobacco Road Territory and fight Coach K and Roy Williams for the top recruits. He also will show an ability to land recruits from places like Washington D.C. and New York, which 4 of his 2011-2012 Kansas State players were from. Excuses won't be used as to why South Carolina can't recruit the top names, instead Martin will go out and tell recruits why Columbia, SC is the best place to start their college careers.
Martin certainly will see some familiar faces in the new 14 team SEC in 2012-2013. This season Frank Martin went 4-0 against Missouri's Frank Haith and Texas A&M's Bill Kennedy. Martin also beat Anthony Grant's Alabama team 71-58 this season. Overall against SEC coaches(including Haith and Kennedy) Martin is 10-7. The coach Martin has faced the most is Arkansas' Mike Anderson, who Martin is 4-4 against. Haith, Kennedy, and Anthony Grant are the only other coaches he has faced multiple times and he is 6-0 against those 3. Martin was an assistant on Bob Huggins staff at Cincinnati with current Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy.
Many in the national media are ripping Frank Martin for taking the job. Tony Kornheiser called South Carolina "The Mojave Desert of College Basketball". It certainly is true that the history of South Carolina basketball hasn't been great. Eddie Fogler did win the SEC Championship in 1997, Darrin Horn won the SEC East in 2008, and Dave Odom won back to back NIT Championships but this is a program that has not won a NCAA Tournament game in nearly 4 decades. Still, there is no reason South Carolina can't be a winner. The Colonial Life Arena is one of the 10 largest on campus arenas in the country. It is nearly identical to Arkansas' Bud Walton Arena which has the nickname of "The Basketball Palace of Mid-America". With the exception of this past season, Gamecock fans have been in the top 5 of the SEC in attendance for the last decade, despite mostly mediocre results. While Columbia isn't New York or D.C, The State of South Carolina has produced seven McDonald's All American's since 1995. With Columbia being only 3 hours from Atlanta and just a little over an hour from Charlotte, it is near two recruiting hotbeds. The key is having a coach that isn't afraid to recruit against the big boys, and Martin is that man.
South Carolina certainly doesn't have the overall tradition that Kansas State does, but it's not as if KSU basketball had been a power the last 20 years prior to Martin. In 2008 Kansas State won its first NCAA Tournament game in 20 years under Martin. The 12 years prior to Martin taking over as head coach at KSU, the Wildcats did not have a single NCAA Tournament Appearance. From 1991-2007 the Wildcats had 7 losing seasons and one season where they finished 14-14. The seniors that ended their careers two weeks ago at Kansas State are the winningest group of seniors in Wildcat history. If Frank Martin can turn around a program in a medium size city in Kansas why can't he do the same thing at the Capital of South Carolina?
Winning in SEC Football is tougher than winning in SEC Basketball. In football there are 8 SEC programs that have won National Championships in the past, but in basketball only 3 programs have won national championships. Fans support football in the SEC with over half of the SEC being in the top 25 in national attendance every season, but in basketball only Kentucky, Arkansas, and Tennessee are regulars in the top 25 in attendance. South Carolina has a top 4 basketball coach in the SEC now, so there is no reason Martin can't take the Gamecock program to new levels like Steve Spurrier has done in football.
In order to win at South Carolina its going to take a team effort. Marting has described losing as a "selfish act" in the past. It's going to take fans, alumni, Eric Hyman, the players, and Martin's coaching staff to be as unselfish as possible to win in Columbia. Fans are going to have to buy season tickets in support of the team. Players are going to have to work harder than ever on the and off the court to become a winning basketball team. Martin will need to spend extra time in the Columbia and South Carolina Community to bring back support to the Gamecock Basketball program. Establishing a relationship with the Columbia Tip-Off Club would be a start, but building relationships with former Gamecock Players would also help as well. The University of South Carolina has a fantastic figure to market its program around and spending the extra money with an aggressive campaign certainly wouldn't hurt. Also, Kansas State was in the process of building an indoor practice facility for the basketball program, something that would definitely benefit South Carolina in the future.
South Carolina basketball is now back on the national map again. Eric Hyman has gone out and made national headlines by stealing Frank Martin away from one of the Big XII's most successful program. Martin Mania has hit Columbia, SC, and while there will be some growing pains at first, Gamecock Basketball is about to bring excitement levels to Columbia that hasn't been seen in a generation.