Frank Martin hadn’t completed his first sentence before he heard, and saw, what he was up against.
Martin was being introduced in the Frank McGuire Club at Colonial Life Arena. Pictures of the Irishman, hair slicked back and cufflinks twinkling, surrounded him. As Martin spoke of bringing South Carolina basketball back to prominence, many fans saw the pictures and their new coach, and couldn’t help but think, “The new Frank M’s in town.”
McGuire coached his last game in 1980, yet his shadow still stretches over Gamecock basketball. It’s a blessing and curse for any coach who follows him, as McGuire won so much and so often that every coach will be forever compared to him.
Until that happens – and no other coach in program history has gotten within 100 of McGuire’s 283 wins at USC – there will forever be the comparisons. McGuire had not just a great team but an elite program, and the days where his boys flourished as the heavyweights of the ACC are still fondly recalled. With the way the program has mostly struggled since McGuire stepped down, McGuire’s name is mentioned more and more frequently.
It’s an embrace of the past glory, and a goal to match.
“We’re part of a program that was No. 1 in the country,” Martin said. “Not just another program, it was No. 1 in the country. Our players need to understand the uniform they represent and the people who came before. That’s part of creating a culture of winning.”
That recognition and culture will again come Friday, as Legends Weekend commemorating McGuire begins. The man who bears the standard of Gamecock basketball will have part of a street named after him, the first block adjacent to an arena that still bears his name, and be remembered by former players and current dignitaries. That leads into a full day of legends stretching across the program’s history, culminating in the current team’s 4:30 p.m. Saturday game hosting Ole Miss.
It’s a tradition that Martin wants to sustain at USC, to pay the proper respect to the days when USC was a national power. Former coach Dave Odom was instrumental in repairing the burned bridges, and Martin is carrying that banner onward.
“We’ve got to put our players in front of all the greats that played here, and all the people that maybe aren’t the popular names that wore that uniform, that because of their sacrifice, their commitment, their love for this university, our guys get to use a locker room that’s off the charts,” Martin said. “Because none of those guys that are coming back ever used a locker room so nice. Our players need to understand the kind of investment that physically, emotionally, mentally, people before them made so then they can get the benefits that they get now.”
Honoring the Irishman has been done in bits and pieces, but this weekend promises to be the most extravagant. Planned by former USC athlete Joe McCulloch, several of McGuire’s former players – notably Alex English, Kevin Joyce and Mike Dunleavy – will be on hand for the ceremony.
“I was recruited as a track guy at USC, and I got there a little late,” McCulloch said. “When I got placed in a room at the old Roost, I ended up on the basketball floor. I had a chance to meet these guys and play with them. Coach McGuire was one of those coaches, who was not only about success, but all about the players.”
McCulloch labeled his efforts as a labor of love, another reminder of just how good USC was under McGuire and a promise of what it can be again.
“I think it is kind of lost in a lot of the young folks’ mind, the history of this school’s success in basketball,” McCulloch said. “USC was a national power in the ’70s, because of Frank McGuire and the then-young men. It’s pretty important to think that there was a basketball goal at the end of every driveway in South Carolina.”
McCulloch was instrumental in luring former players back and getting the city to buy into the celebration as well. To rub shoulders with former players is a chance for everyone to feel young again. The old stories are very likely to be told, and Martin, McCulloch and company will be very glad to hear them.
Casey Manning (1971-73) remembered how McGuire used to be close friends with the owner of South of the Border, the tourist stop off I-95 near Dillon, and the first road trip USC would take every year would be there. A brunch was held for all of the area high-school basketball players, and Manning first met McGuire there.
“Frank was the 13th child of the McGuires, and had 12 sisters,” Manning said. “You got to be a tough guy, or a wimp. Frank ended up being a tough guy.”
That toughness led onto the court and Manning wanted to be a part of it. He eventually did a few years after that first meeting, and was part of some of the greatest teams in school history.
“People were proud of Frank and the team because we were the biggest thing in the state,” Manning said. “It was the hardest ticket in town. It was the best show in town. They’d mention Frank’s name along with John Wooden’s name. People remember the best times, because they are the best times. And there was a reason for that — we were that good.”
McGuire went to NCAA tournaments and hung an ACC tournament championship banner in Carolina Coliseum, seeing several of his players go on to long and fruitful professional careers. He remained in Columbia until his death in 1994, watching the Gamecocks fight to rediscover the magic that he had graced the program during his reign.
The memories remain. How he used to tug at his necktie as an official ran by, subtly reminding that the last call wasn’t good. How he would enter the arena and kiss his disabled son, Frankie, as he faithfully sat courtside in his wheelchair. How his only advice to the 6-foot-3 Joyce before he was about to match up with 6-10 North Carolina center Lee Dedmon for the ACC title was “Jump to the moon.”
How he won.
“This is getting ready to be a huge celebration of a wonderful time for this school’s athletic program in basketball and to really bridge that great success in the past,” McCulloch said. “Hopefully this will rev fans up — we did it once, and we got a coach that can do it again.”