The man faced the media and straightened his tie.
It was March. The rest of the nation was still on a high from March madness, yet few cities were buzzing like Columbia. Happy days were here again. Basketball was going to matter again. How had USC gotten so lucky to land someone of this man’s accomplishments?
“You know, everybody wants to play me now,” the man said. “They figure they’ll get me now and get me good.”
USC’s hoops program had been lost in a fog of irrelevance. The sun on this March morning seemingly burned it away.
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Confidently, the man added, “In a couple of years, we’ll have trouble getting games.”
His name was Frank.
It was 1964.
• • •
When Frank Martin took the USC men’s basketball job 48 years to the month after the hiring of Frank McGuire, he said all the right things.
He spoke about dormant tradition. Of establishing a new culture of winning based on doing things a certain way. He understood there would be a time of transition, a time of rebuilding and a time of reaching out to a fan base that had been burned too much, too often.
Days after a particularly unnerving overtime loss at Georgia during which 38 good minutes devolved into seven minutes of sheer backsliding, the first-year Gamecocks coach said he had a new sense of what he was up against.
While there is still a great sense of satisfaction with the job Martin has done in getting USC to 13 wins with a bare-bones roster of inexperience and youth, the voices decrying Martin’s tempestuous demeanor and attitude have gained traction.
Attendance has been eroding as has the buzz surrounding the team. While optimists continue to implore people to wait until Martin has had time to get everything in place, more critics are taking to message boards and the airwaves wondering if USC is in for more of the same mediocrity.
Martin gets it. Truly. But what he is trying to get a handle on is why so many people — optimists and critics alike — seem so apathetic in the present.
“One of the things I’ve tried to do is connect with as many former people that have been a part of this program as I possibly can,” Martin said. “So I can find out their opinions, because they were a part of it. They were a part of the success.
“I don’t know, I really don’t,” Martin continued. “I can tell you from my conversations the last time there was a true, unbelievable connection with the alumni base, the community, the product on the floor was when Eddie Fogler was here.”
Fogler. He of the last great Gamecocks teams that went one-and-done in the NCAA tournament in the most heart-wrenching fashion.
“There was an ugly divorce there,” Martin said. “I don’t know if that had something to do with that or not. That’s OK. That’s just what I’ve learned.
“Coach (Dave) Odom won 20 games five, six times, but you don’t hear people refer to excitement during that time period,” Martin continued, theorizing aloud. “I have no idea why. I know when I look at the numbers, I see 20 wins, 20 wins, 20 wins and I’m like, ‘That’s not bad. That’s pretty darn good.’ ”
Martin went on to point out Odom’s teams piled up those victories against what had been a stout Southeastern Conference, with a Florida team that was winning national championships.
“All of those teams,” Martin said, “they were real good.”
Martin also realizes the SEC is prime football country, but that hasn’t stopped the conference from churning out national titles and numerous professional stars in basketball.
What has gone wrong at USC? Why is basketball so irrelevant, even in times of moderate success?
“Carolina was almost .500 every single year there (in league play),” Martin said. “So I have no idea why. All the things that need to change, in my opinion, didn’t just happen overnight. Something has been building up over a long period of time.”
The problem is intangible, it’s a wisp of smoke on a frosty winter wind. It defies definition.
But this unique environment existed once before at USC and that’s where this story takes a turn.
One of Martin’s favorite phrases is, “It is always darkest before the dawn.”
The last time the darkness was this opaque, it gave way to the golden era of Gamecocks basketball.
And perhaps what few folks remember, McGuire’s success was far from overnight.
• • •
“A lot of us didn’t know who McGuire was,” said Gary Gregor, who played for McGuire during his first season at USC.
It’s a seemingly astonishing admission, considering McGuire’s previous success at St. John’s and the national title he won while at North Carolina.
But that sentiment sounds familiar.
“I didn’t know who he was,” Damien Leonard said this past October when asked what he knew of Frank Martin before his hire.
Leonard wasn’t the only one who said that. Surprising, considering Martin’s success at Kansas State, where he presided over the most successful five-year span in that school’s venerable basketball history.
“There is a very close proximity to the way things are now and the way they were then,” said Gregor, who was one of the first of McGuire’s players to go on to the NBA.
There also is a tremendous similarity in the approaches of McGuire and Martin.
“Everybody takes Frank Martin to be really hostile, but if you talk to him off the court, he’s not. He’s very calm,” Gregor said. “Frank McGuire was the same way. Normally, he was a very calm and balanced guy.
“With Martin, he’s going to have a heart attack, you think, but when he leaves the floor he’s over it,” Gregor added. “They both have that trait. But oh, yeah, with McGuire it was a little different. The foulest words I ever heard in my life came when he was talking to an official and he did it while straightening his tie and smiling.”
The smiling assassin’s first team bore another striking resemblance to the screaming man’s squad — painful defeats despite maximum effort from an undermanned roster.
USC’s first loss during that 1964-65 season came in its second game — an 82-71 defeat against North Carolina.
It was an especially notable loss because the man who directed the defeat was the assistant hand-picked by McGuire to succeed him as the Tar Heels’ coach.
“No one better handle this team lightly,” said a young Dean Smith after that game. “Frank has done a wonderful job with them and they are going to be tough on anybody.”
One week later, the Gamecocks suffered their second-worst loss in ACC play when Duke blew the doors off USC, 111-72.
Less than a week after USC’s most impressive SEC victory in recent years — a 75-54 romp against Arkansas — the Gamecocks suffered one of their worst defeats of the SEC era in a 75-36 disaster at Florida.
Another similarity: Just after the winter break, McGuire lost leading scorers Gregor and Jerry Croke to academic ineligibility. In Gregor’s case, a knee injury had ended his season and he had gone home before the semester had ended.
Martin lost leading scorer LaShay Page to academics. For both coaches, it marked the first time in their careers they had suffered classroom casualties.
“Croke and Gregor are the only two players we had who could have played for anybody in the Atlantic Coast Conference,” McGuire said then. “Now we’ve got to start all over again.”
If that season was McGuire’s figurative darkest night, the clock struck midnight four days after the bad news — rival Clemson annihilated the Gamecocks, taking a whopping 70-44 lead and emptied the bench with 12 minutes to go in a 94-87 victory.
“I thought they might run us off the floor there for a little while,” McGuire said. “We have a tough schedule ahead. I hope to win another game.”
They would do just that in surprising fashion the next time out, stunning Wake Forest 77-70 for their first win in years against the Demon Deacons.
“In its own way, it has to be one of my biggest thrills,” McGuire said. “To win against Wake Forest after we were so down.”
Déjà vu? This year’s Gamecocks arguably were at their lowest after suffering their sixth consecutive loss at Alabama in a game where the Crimson Tide raced to a huge lead in an eventual 68-58 victory.
USC followed that with its most important win of the season, knocking off an NCAA tournament-worthy Ole Miss team 63-62 on Eric Smith’s late 3-pointer.
• • •
For all the similarities between the first seasons of McGuire and Martin, their trials and tribulations, their attitudes and demeanors, history offers one stark contrast.
McGuire’s first team featured future NBA players Gregor and Jim Fox, who averaged a double-double. Martin’s inaugural season featured a roster with no obvious NBA talent whose leading returning scorer missed the beginning of the season playing football.
McGuire’s team went 6-17 and 2-12 in ACC play. Entering Saturday’s game at Texas A&M, Martin’s squad was 13-15 overall and 3-12 in the SEC.
Debate if you must which effort is the most impressive. Keep in mind that with McGuire and Martin, the most important takeaway from Year One is the installation of a new way of thinking.
In their final game of McGuire’s first season, USC drew Duke in a first-vs.-last showdown in the ACC tournament. Duke had followed up that December beatdown with an 87-59 laugher in Columbia two months later.
It took a basket by Duke’s Jack Marin with 40 seconds left to stave off what would have been the biggest upset in ACC tournament history, 62-60. When USC left the floor at Raleigh’s Reynolds Coliseum, they did so to a standing ovation from the predominantly Duke-N.C. State-North Carolina crowd.
“Gentlemen, I just told Frank that his kids had given a fantastic and courageous effort and that he had every reason to be proud of them,” Duke coach Vic Bubas said.
Sophomore Earl Lovelace put in words the transformation that had taken place during the course of the season.
“We would have gone through a 10-foot wall tonight,” he said. “We would have walked on fire. We wanted to show them something. They’ve laughed at us so many times. Well, tonight, nobody laughed. They’ll remember us and we’ll be back next year. This is the start. They better believe it.”
Following last week’s 62-54 overtime loss at Georgia, Bulldogs coach Mark Fox said, “I think the first thing we should do is credit South Carolina’s team and staff. Frank Martin should be one of the leading candidates for Coach of the Year in this league.
“I mean, the guy has got his team playing so hard,” Fox continued. “I’ve got a lot of respect for how they’re playing.”
Gregor can see dawn is breaking on a new era of Gamecocks basketball.
“You see five guys, if one falls down, four pick him up. That’s the way it has to be,” Gregor said. “It takes five guys to win. That’s what Frank Martin is instilling. We’ve seen so much progress in every one of those kids here. It’s just amazing to me. I saw that roster at the beginning of the year and I said if he wins 10 games, he should be coach of the year. That’s why he’s going to be unbelievable once he gets everything in place.”
In McGuire’s second season, USC improved to 11-13 and 4-10 in league play and knocked off Clemson in the first round of the ACC tournament. In the third season, USC went 16-7 and 8-4 and McGuire never again posted a losing mark.
When will it turn around for Martin? Don’t ask. Just stay tuned.
“I don’t know timetables. I’m not good at that kind of stuff,” Martin said. “There are a lot more things that need to be done here than I thought when I got here and that’s OK. I didn’t come here to go on vacation.
“I understand why there’s a sense of apathy. I didn’t a year ago, but I do now,” he added. “Let’s change it.”
Whether it is said with a smile or embodied in a full-throated scream, the message is the same — it’s a new day for Gamecocks basketball.