The East Regional trophy sits on the glass-topped table in Frank Martin’s new office, a short reach from his leather recliner. It’s still in view if he’s at his desk on the other side of the room.
“It’s powerful,” Martin said. “I sit at my desk and I look, whether I’m watching TV or we’re sitting here with a visitor, and it’s sitting there; it lets me know of that moment. Winning’s one thing, but the way it happened at Madison Square Garden … Frank McGuire, my family, my wife’s family, the Dunleavys, Kevin Joyce, all of the above from back then.
“When you combine all that, that could have been Oklahoma City or anywhere else, but it was South Carolina in Madison Square Garden. Pretty unbelievable.”
Martin met with The State this week to reflect on the whirlwind ride he’s been on since making history during his fifth year at the helm of Gamecock basketball. He spoke of what went into a Final Four season and what’s next.
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Q: You’re going into your 11th season as a college head coach. You’ve posted the best season by wins for two schools in that time. What does that accomplishment mean to you?
A: “Proud. And it’s at two schools that there hadn’t been a whole lot of winning before we showed up on campus. But it just reaffirms to me, it’s not about me. It’s about the guys around me, the staff, how committed they are to helping me in recruiting the right players. Because everything’s about recruiting. You recruit the wrong players, I don’t care how talented you are, you’re not doing those things. And we’ve recruited the right guys. And the right guys have grown up, they believe, and we’re all rolling in the right direction. I said it five years ago when I took the job here — I’m kind of wired a little differently, I guess. I like taking on difficult tasks and kind of being a part of something for the first time. I had no guarantee that that was going to happen here, none. After my first year, I was like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot more work to do than I thought.’ And after my third year, there were days where I kind of sat back and said, ‘I don’t know if we can ever completely turn the corner.’ But my staff is the right people, our players that were in place, they kept my faith and my enthusiasm in the right place, and now here we are five years later. I’m not saying we turned the corner, I’m not saying we arrived; but once again, we’re part of something for the first time here at the school and that’s pretty special.”
Q: How much does a Final Four berth aid you in recruiting, in scheduling more games with a national reach?
A: “It’s not like we woke up March 26 and we said, ‘Hey, guess what? We get a chance to play for the Final Four today.’ It’s been a five-year process to allow us to have the opportunity to get to that day. We’ve recruited better every single year. At the end of the day, you can recruit all the players you want; the question that has to be answered is, the ones that sign up, are they getting better? Because of the five-year process, it’s been one layer on top of another. It gave us a chance to play on that day against the Gators to go to the Final Four. We were fortunate enough to win that game and go to the Final Four. That’s created another layer to add on all the layers that we worked so hard to build for five years … that impacts recruiting. It validates. ‘I could be a McDonald’s All-American and be good at South Carolina, and win at South Carolina.’ It validates that. Now there’s certain players that when you call, they’re like, ‘Man, I watch you guys play. Man, I love how you guys play!’ Two years ago, we didn’t have that conversation. After last year’s 25-win season, we had some conversations, now the conversations are more. It gives you a bigger pool to recruit from. Now the question is, don’t go recruit a guy that sounds right but is not about the things that helped you build to become the team that you were for the last two years. That’s what we have to be careful about.”
Q: How much does the publicity of two potential NBA draft picks help?
A: “Internally, that’s what it’s about. When that day comes and both of those guys’ names go up on the board, that means they did their jobs and we did ours. That means that as a campus, as a staff, all the adults around them, from family to coaches to teachers, we all did our jobs to help them continue to improve as people. It means they did their jobs. From the outside, any time a player from your team gets drafted in the NBA, there’s only 60 slots. And you’re drafting players from all over the world. That means that you recruited the right guys and you helped them get better. And that the NBA, the elite group of people that play basketball in the world, formulated the opinion that you had two of the top 60 players in the world on that given year. That’s pretty powerful.”
Q: You’ve spoken a lot about your star players at Kansas State and how they were models of other players you want to coach. Where will Sindarius Thornwell fit into future speeches?
A: “All four of those guys, actually, the three seniors and P.J. It’s easy to sign up to be the next guy. There’s a lot of big safety nets underneath that decision. It’s hard to sign up when you’re expected to be a real good player and go to a situation where you’re going to face failure, or the possibility of failure is greater, so that safety net underneath you is a lot smaller. And those guys signed up for that. They signed up on faith. I couldn’t tell them, ‘Hey, we’re going to win.’ They didn’t know. I had nothing to prove to them that we were going to win. And they signed up for it. And there were things they handled right, there were things I handled right, there were things I handled wrong, there were things they handled wrong. But the faith in one another never wavered. And that’s why those guys are so special. That’s why we won 51 games over the last two years. After P.J.’s freshman year, I answered a lot of questions, ‘Oh, P.J.’s not playing well.’ And my response is pretty consistent – ‘Funny that the starting point guard on a team that won 25 games doesn’t play well. How does that work?’ He was a freshman. He was trying to figure it out. He didn’t run away from it, went at it every day, grew up. And we go to the Final Four with him as a sophomore point guard. Then you take Duane, Justin and then obviously Sindarius, because he was the first high-profile guy to sign up. And he took on what I’ve always called the burden of winning. He took that on without anyone there to help him manage that. See, he helped P.J. manage that from freshman to sophomore. Sindarius never had help. The only guy that understood that was Bruce Ellington, but Bruce wasn’t in the locker room with Sin but for maybe two weeks. It was hard for Bruce from afar, through text messages and all that, to help Sindarius with all that. Sin had to figure it out on his own. That’s powerful stuff. Jacob Pullen had Denis Clemente to learn from. Then Jake passed it on to the next guy and the next guy passed it on to Rodney McGruder and so forth. But Sin never had anybody in front of him to help, and that’s what makes him … he could have done what most good players that don’t have immediate success do in today’s day and age – transfer. He didn’t. He didn’t run away from it. On the contrary, he kept showing up every day and getting better and getting better and he’s right in there. When I speak about guys now, he’s going to be in that conversation.”
Q: How do you replace the leadership you lost?
A: “I don’t tell individuals how they need to do things. I spend a lot of time with them trying to figure out where they think they’re at and where they want to be. And then my challenge is to help them get there. I spend a lot of time with the team in front of everybody pressuring all of them for better leadership. Then from those conversations privately to the ones with the team, certain guys start taking ownership of continuing to improve themselves but taking ownership of leading. As I create that internal peer pressure to figure out who wants to take on those responsibilities, then me and my staff, we start helping those guys that signed up for the job. I’ve never been a big believer that because a guy averages 18 points a game, he’s your leader. Some guys want to do their part and don’t want to get involved in other people doing their part. One of the best leaders I’ve ever been around was a guy named Chris Merriewether. Came in as a walk-on, averaged maybe 1.5 points per game as a career. He’s as good a leader as I ever had, because he brought an enthusiasm, a work ethic, a relentless approach every single day, great teammate, so I played him. And because I played him, it validated to his teammates that I trusted him. And it validated to him, ‘I got to make sure I do my part, because Frank trusts me, that’s why he plays me.’ And he became an unbelievable leader for a guy that scored 1.5, two points a game for a career. So that’s how I kind of go about it, and now we use the summer to try to figure out who wants to embrace the new roles and new responsibilities, and the ones that kind of sign up for it now are the ones I trust in come next fall.”
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