You have to give it to Eric Hyman. The South Carolina athletics director went all in by hiring Frank Martin as USC’s next men’s basketball coach. The hiring showed Hyman is serious about fielding a basketball team that wins, and wins big. It also showed that Hyman was willing to roll the dice in accepting the perceived baggage that comes with Martin.
It would have been easy for Hyman to pass on Martin. There is enough in Martin’s background to give any athletics director pause. Yet Hyman forged ahead, seeking answers to all the questions that have surrounded the 46-year-old coach in his 27-year coaching career.
Once satisfied with the answers to those questions and that he had found his coach, Hyman put a “full-court press” on Martin, according to the coach. Part of Hyman’s sell was to convince Martin that USC no longer is a dead-end career move for coaches. Steve Spurrier, Dawn Staley and Ray Tanner can attest to that, Hyman told Martin.
By this past Sunday evening, Hyman had landed one of the top coaches in the college game. If we know anything about Martin, besides the fact he is a Miami native of Cuban descent, it is that he knows how to win. His five Kansas State teams averaged 23 wins and played in four NCAA tournaments.
You can bet Martin will bring top-level talent to Columbia, and it will not matter to him that USC is geographically located in Atlantic Coast Conference territory or that instate players still grow up with the dream of playing at Kentucky or North Carolina. Martin recruited big-time players to Manhattan, Kan., for crying out loud.
It also will not take long for Martin to return the “life” to Colonial Life Arena. For the first time since the building was erected a decade ago, USC fans might fill the place to see the Gamecocks play instead of their opponent.
Martin made no promises about winning in three years, four years or five years. He made no promises of NCAA tournament appearances or SEC championships. What he did promise is that USC fans will see a team that plays with maximum effort every game, one that applies pressure to the opposition on both ends of the court.
“Our guys will be known as the hardest-playing team in America. There is no out on that one,” Martin said. “Our guys will compete. We will rebound. We will defend. We will run.”
USC fans also will get to see the now-famous Frank Martin stare-downs with officials, his players and anyone else he chooses to confront. His sideline behavior — and salty language — has made him a YouTube sensation, an act that has both drawn comparisons to legendary tyrant Bob Knight and stained his reputation.
During a 2010 game, Martin hit a Kansas State player on the arm with the back of his hand, and immediately apologized. This past season, Martin asked Kansas State fans to refrain from cursing in the stands and he would do the same on the sideline. At his introductory news conference Tuesday, Martin said “that language thing is behind me,” and will not be a concern for Hyman or USC fans.
Martin also attacked head-on any perception that he does not play by the rules. He said his comments this past weekend on CBS-TV were misconstrued to sound as if he had illegally paid players as a high school coach. Instead, Martin said he gave much-needed spending money to some of his former high school players who were competing at the college level, which is not a violation of NCAA rules.
“I’ve never paid a player in my life. Abiding by the rules is first and foremost of my objectives every single day,” Martin said. “I would not be here if I did it any differently. Dr. (Harris) Pastides and Eric Hyman would not have it a different way. They have my word. Surprises will never happen. Rules will always be respected.”
To make certain Martin was a man of his word, Hyman conducted an extensive vetting process, one that should have political parties seeking his services. Hyman said he talked to high school coaches, current and former players, current college assistant and head coaches, former college assistant and head coaches, NCAA officials, shoe representatives, conference officials, current and former athletics directors and even athletics trainers.
Hyman, obviously, liked what he heard about Martin.
“If you really want to know who is Frank Martin, this is what I wrote down,” Hyman said. “He’s sincere. He’s loyal. He’s very personable. He’s a hard worker. He’s a hell of a recruiter. He’s a basketball coach.
“Yes, he’s very fiery. He’s very animated. He’s down to earth and he develops relationships. He’s highly respected nationally, highly respected.”
Mostly what Hyman said he found in Martin is a coach who is a molder of young men. Kansas State’s Academic Progress Rate for men’s basketball players improved each year he was at Kansas State, starting at a dismal 857 and concluding at a respectable 960. His teams’ grade-point average in five years was tops in the Big 12 Conference.
“We live in an age where we all get judged on wins and losses. I understand that. I am a big boy and I get it,” Martin said. “To me, it’s about people. It’s about kids. It’s a little deeper. I believe that if we can take care of all the important things, help prepare them to become men, so when they’re done with their experience, they’re prepared to become a husband, an employee, a father, all of the responsibilities that life throws at you. If you take care of all those things, the scoreboard takes care of itself.”
Martin’s message obviously resonated with Hyman.
There was a moment in their discussions over the past week when Hyman realized he had the perfect person for the USC job. Martin told Hyman that when his coaching days are over, when he no longer wants to chase recruits and championships, he will go back to being a high school mathematics teacher.
Having heard that, Hyman was comfortable in dealing with all the perceived baggage that came with the hiring of Frank Martin.
Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)