When Frank Martin walked onto the Colonial Life Arena court for South Carolina’s first basketball game of the season, the flashy introduction with the bright lights, loud music and cheerleaders doing flips in the air isn’t what stuck with him.
The men’s basketball coach remembers scores of empty seats in the 18,000-seat venue, a reality that was different from his initial perception of the program’s connection to its fan base.
Martin had been receiving positive feedback from the community leading up to the game about the excitement surrounding him being named the head coach. But instead of the marriage between the team and fans that Martin expected, he said it was like a blind date.
As his inaugural year with the Gamecocks progressed, Martin began to see the relationship as more complicated. Not only was there a divide between the community and the team, Martin said the fan base is like a “scorned lover” when it comes to men’s basketball, keeping its distance after numerous disappointing campaigns.
Reflecting on last season and looking forward to the next one in his office on Thursday, Martin said for the culture to change in and around the program, he needs to assemble a team that can get past the awkward first-date phase with the fans through its commitment to playing a passionate and disciplined brand of basketball.
With a clean-slate team that will have seven freshmen, Martin said he hopes to take the next step as a program, both in his team’s performance and in repairing the apathy surrounding it.
“We’ve got to show that we’re willing to grow,” Martin said. “I can’t expect our arena to go from 3,000 to 18,000 a game (in one season). I’d love for it to, but I can’t expect that. I can’t expect our team to go from 10 wins to 28 wins just like that. It’s just not going to happen, so you have to consistently invest just a little more. You need that bank account to keep growing and the only way it grows is by investing.”
Plagued by attendance woes for years, USC averaged a paid home attendance of 8,603, down from 8,868 per game in 2011.
Martin said he has observed a severed connection to the community, campus and its former players that he can’t explain. He said he is still studying the team’s history in his efforts to rebuild those relationships.
Winning consistently can raise interest in the team, but Martin doesn’t care for the people who only want to give their support when the record is better.
“I don’t want those fans,” Martin said. “I don’t want fans that come out when we win. I want fans to come out because they respect what we’re doing and they’re excited about their team because they’re excited about their school. Fair-weather fans can stay home.”
Martin said he recognizes that recruits might see a USC basketball game on television with rows of empty seats, so he tries to get the recruits he targets excited about his vision of the program returning to its glory days. He doesn’t shy away from USC’s past, but brags about the early ’70s and late ’90s “where you couldn’t get a seat in the house,” he said.
Martin’s culture change within the team includes stronger nonconference scheduling, which was a focus for the basketball coaches at the SEC meetings in Destin, Fla., on Tuesday and Wednesday. Martin mostly inherited last year’s nonconference schedule from previous coach Darrin Horn, so Martin said it should be more challenging next season.
Though the full nonconference slate has not been released, USC has been paired with Oklahoma State in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. The Gamecocks will also compete in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic with Akron, Boise State, George Mason, Iowa State, Saint Mary’s, Oregon State and Hawaii.
“Having three teams in the NCAA tournament (from the SEC) is not acceptable,” Martin said. “We all have to do our part to make sure the SEC is back on par with what it’s been for so many years in college basketball. The part we have to do as coaches is our nonconference schedules need to get better.”
The USC team will have a new look next year with Eric Smith, Damien Leonard, RJ Slawson and Brian Richardson asking for their release. Smith has transferred to Coastal Carolina while Leonard has signed with Furman.
Martin’s top assistant Brad Underwood also will not be returning next season after he took a head coaching position at Stephen F. Austin. Martin said he will offer the assistant coaching vacancy this weekend.
Martin said his first season was the laying of a foundation, so in his second season, he’s looking for development.
“When you want all of those people to be a part of it and you want 18,000 to come out and watch you play, it puts an unbelievable responsibility on your shoulders to perform, to go out there and play with a passion and discipline that’s second to none,” Martin said. “We didn’t have that. We’re building that. As that’s built, I think all that apathy I speak about and the culture will change.”