David Cloninger

December 13, 2013

On the bench: Frank Martin

What's Frank Martin like during a game?

David Cloninger

All things Gamecocks, especially basketball and football

It is great television.

Frank Martin, arms outstretched, mouth in a perfect “O” and black-beetle eyes boring holes in some player that just missed a screen, was made for a camera. His stalking up and down the sideline, expression of don’t-mess-with-me etched in every niche of his head, has burned through so many rolls of ESPN tape that the four-letter network nearly owes him money.

It’s always a popular scene when Martin gets into his familiar screaming-fit mode, but it doesn’t begin to tell the story. It’s a part of him, just as his rebuilt knees are.

It’s not all of him.

“He knows what he’s doing,” said Andy Assaley, South Carolina’s director of basketball operations and someone who has served on Martin’s staff since 2004. “It’s just passion for things being done right. He has a passion for winning, a passion for accountability.”

Since he burst onto the scene as a rookie head coach at Kansas State, Martin’s sideline demeanor has been what has gotten him the most known. He even mugged for it on the cover of a Wildcats media guide, doing a four-photo shoot that featured a smile, a surprised expression, then the eyebrow-knitted stare and the mouth-agape holler.

There is no question Martin wants things done a certain way. A mis-step in practice may bring an earnest talking-to or a rafter-rattling shout. During game timeouts, Martin often looks like he wants to rip a still-beating heart out of the nearest chest.

That’s what he does, not what he is.

“I think the one thing that is very missed, I think that Frank’s misleading in terms of his emotion,” said Brad Underwood, Martin’s former assistant who is now the head man at Stephen F. Austin. “What’s lost in that translation is how calculating he is. As frustrating as it can be about a particular play not going well, he’s frustrated because he didn’t handle that situation correctly.”

He/we – it’s interchangeable. Martin wasn’t the best player in high school and wasn’t a great athlete. He just knew the game and knew what could work the best. As a head coach, he wants all of his players to know that they’re acting as him on the court.

When they don’t, feathers fly.

“Frank’s always been an emotional guy,” said one of his closest friends, Alabama coach Anthony Grant. “The things that you guys see in the media, in terms of some of the activity on the sideline, is really just a part of who he is. I think every guy that had a chance to play for him in high school and play for him in college will tell you, he’s a teddy bear.”

Wait, what? What did you say?

“Teddy bear,” Grant repeats, with a broad grin.

Grant has known Martin since they sat beside each other in Miami Senior High School sophomore English. The friendship flourished as Grant went on to play basketball at Dayton, then returned to Miami to begin his coaching career.

All these years later, the two coach against each other in the SEC. The emotion that Martin shows is nothing unfamiliar to Grant, who has seen it along with an intensely bright mind for the game in his longtime crony.

“Frank’s a guy that’s extremely intense, extremely passionate about the game, very knowledgeable about the game,” Grant said. “I feel like I always can benefit from listening to him talk about the game and just the way he approaches his profession and what he does.”

Grant saw some of it as Martin began coaching in high school. It furthered when he rose to the college ranks, joining a staff at Cincinnati and then heading to Kansas State.

“He was that way as an assistant coach with coach (Bob) Huggins,” Underwood said. “During the game, as an assistant, your frustrations have to be tabled a great deal. That’s the head coach’s domain. But as an assistant, I saw that every day with him with Huggs. He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever been around. His intelligence is off the charts.”

Once Martin was elevated to head coach, he didn’t have to filter himself any more. A lapse in judgment or not performing the game plan had the large guy in the nice suit acting like somebody just stole his car. Yet, there was always a limit.

“He gets very few technical fouls,” Underwood said. “There was one time, a game at Nebraska and an official had been, in his opinion, very inconsistent. Frank barked, got teed up, and it wasn’t a tech that he earned. It got a little heated, and we didn’t need him to get thrown out, so I was up between him and the official trying to settle him down. That’s probably the only time I saw him really get close to losing control. He’s good with officials and so respected.”

Plus, it’s not like that’s all Martin does – bellow at the officials. He hardly ever does. He saves most of the instruction for the players. While practice can be a ruckus-raising affair, there’s an awful lot that the public and media never see.

“Those moments in practice, the hug, the pat on the backside or whatever. Especially when a kid has a tough day,” Underwood said. “It’s always, ‘What’s wrong, how can I help you? I can’t have you coming out here and have another day like this. Something’s got to be wrong, let’s fix it.’”

Sure, but isn’t that just the calm before the storm? In this day and age of venting your immediate feelings on Twitter, don’t kids tune out the father figure/disciplinarian?

“No,” Underwood said. “Kids wouldn’t play as hard as they do for him if that was the case.”

It doesn’t end with practice, either. Martin’s players know that they’ll get a lesson in life, not just how to properly execute the pick-and-roll, under his tutelage.

“In a given week, we have two or three conversations in practice, deep conversations, not just mentioning it, about being fathers and husbands someday,” Assaley said. “It is pretty impressive. He certainly wants our guys to understand, in three or four years, your basketball career at South Carolina is over. Now what? You’re a husband, you need a job, how are you going to provide? What kind of citizen are you right now? What kind of man are you right now?”

Advice is always handy, about anything non-basketball. Martin works to promote a family environment. It’s just that sometimes, he morphs into the dad wondering why you didn’t clean your room when you’ve been asked five times.

“All the players see his intensity during the game, and some players try not to look over at the bench, but as a player, you can’t help but do it when you make a mistake,” senior Brenton Williams said. “Most of the time when he calls a timeout, you know it’s for you, and you’re already getting prepared as you’re walking over there. Deep breaths, you know he’s going to come at you.”

There will be a pat on the back later.

The cameras are usually turned off.

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