Frank Martin holds Madison Square Garden net aloft after South Carolina won East Regional final to advance to first Final Four in school history. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
NEW YORK -- He started out a boy in Miami, raised by a single mother who emigrated from political unrest in her native Cuba.
From there, the number of hats worn grew with time. Bouncer, teacher, high school coach, college assistant coach, college head coach.
Name it, and chances are Frank Martin has probably done it.
On Sunday, the 51-year-old who rose from humble beginnings and built his South Carolina program the same way he built his own career added a new hat to the ensemble.
Final Four coach.
"I'm just out of words," he conceded, his voice cracking with three decades worth of emotion after a 77-70 victory over Florida sent the Gamecocks to their first-ever national semifinal. "It's just a surreal moment. You focus in on chasing young kids around, hoping that they grow up and believe, and you end up with guys like these guys next to me and their teammates, that have the courage to come back every day and do more."
Doing just enough to get by has never been an option for Martin, who poured his heart and soul into every rung of his personal coaching ladder. From his days in the South Florida high school circuit, to his time as an assistant at Northeastern and then with Bob Huggins at Cincinnati and Kansas State, to his five-year run as Huggins' successor in Manhattan, to his current project in Columbia, extra effort has always been a requirement in building a contender.
"If one person on one side lets go of the rope, it's bad," said Martin, equating perseverance to tug-of-war. "I don't care how hard it is, you can't let go of the rope or your team's going to lose."
It was that concept, that life-and-death situation which Martin's players heeded in the second half Sunday, the same time of the game where the Gamecocks overpowered Marquette, slayed the giant against Duke, put Baylor's offense in a vise. It was done not through fear, despite their coach's trademark intensity; but rather, through trust.
"They believe in each other," Martin gushed. "They're completely invested into each other. Not winning, each other. And they're powerful kids."
It stands to reason that it would be a group effort, with Martin's own determination; the same relentlessness he joked about when saying his wife rejected seven separate overtures before finally agreeing to date him, leading the cavalry along with a dream that never got too far away, never became unattainable.
"Only one person wrote me back," he reflected when addressing his difficult attempt to break into the college coaching ranks, receiving only one hand-written response, from Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, no less. "And then I ended up taking, a year later -- I had a principal named Linda Evans -- she gave me a job to coach her basketball school, and I loved it. And then a gentleman named Rudy Keeling called me and offered me a job at Northeastern, and here we are, man. Here we are."
Frank Martin embraces his mother following South Carolina's East Regional final victory. (Photo by Reggie Anderson/WLTX-TV)
"If you ever lose your dream or your desire to fight for your dream," Martin continued, "then don't get mad when you don't get it. But adversity, how we handle that, determines what comes forward, and it goes back to my mom."
"The strongest woman I ever met," he said, effusively praising his mother. "Husband runs out, leaves her, never gives her a penny, she never takes him to court, doesn't make excuses. 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, and watching her cry tears of joy because of all her sacrifices have allowed me and my sister to move forward in life. When you make your mother cry for joy, it gives her more life, and she's a special lady."
So too is her son, who now reaches his greatest stage of a career born through undying faith, reared through a vision of greatness and advanced through a network of people willing to do for him what he pledged to do for them: Fight to the death, and not let go of the rope.
"When we were winning at Kansas State and when I walked in and said, 'I'm thinking of doing this,' those families, I become responsible for their children. It's part of my job. And they all said, 'Frank, if that's what you think we need to do, we're in.' The people that are put in my life daily are just incredible, and I'm just telling you, I'm the luckiest dude on the planet."