When the schedule allowed, Frank Martin would be there. He’d sit in South Carolina high school gyms from Columbia to Sumter to Spartanburg and take a break from his day job.
“He was just Dad,” recalled Philip Deter.
Martin is USC’s basketball coach, but also a father to three children. The oldest is Brandon, a 6-foot-5 forward who played for Deter at Cardinal Newman. From 2015-17, Deter would occasionally peek across the floor and into the bleachers to find the most high-profile of Cardinal supporters.
“He always had the same look as he’s watching the games,” Deter said. “It doesn’t really matter what it is, whether he’s maybe recruiting or watching Brandon play.”
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Martin made headlines last season when he followed a tweet about an embarrassing scene in youth sports with a passionate message on the topic during a news conference. All that ranting and raving you might see from him while leading the Gamecocks? It never follows him when he watches his kids play. “I don’t say boo,” Martin revealed.
Aside from grinning for a selfie with a fan, Martin remains mostly reserved while taking in a loved one’s game. That’s how Deter tells it when describing what it was like to coach the son of one of college basketball’s biggest characters.
Except there’s always chance for change, an opportunity for Dad to break out in the best way possible.
It happened to Martin on Dec. 9, 2016. After Brandon hit a buzzer-beating layup to give the Cardinals an overtime win against AC Flora, the Newman floor was covered in jubilant students. The chaos didn’t allow Deter to spot Martin, but he heard from enough parents afterward to paint an accurate picture of Martin’s reaction.
“He was just smiling from ear to ear,” Deter said. “He did a great job of being Dad.”
The next time Martin watches his son play comes 7 p.m. Tuesday when South Carolina hosts USC Upstate in the 2018-19 opener. Brandon Martin is a freshman for the Spartans.
“I’ve tried as hard as I can to omit that from my thoughts,” Martin said Monday, “because that’s going to be hard for me. Proud, but hard.”
The blending of Dad and coach is not easy. This type of matchup is rare.
The NBA has had George Karl (Denver Nuggets coach from 2005-13) against Coby Karl (Los Angeles Lakers guard in 2007-08) and Mike Dunleavy Sr. (Los Angeles Clippers coach from 2003-10) against Mike Dunleavy Jr. (Golden State Warriors guard from 2002-07; Indiana Pacers guard from 2007-11). The most recent college example came last November when Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange got down 3-0 to Cornell thanks to a corner jumper from Jimmy Boeheim.
(Syracuse still won the game by 32.)
“You want them to do well, but you know you’re really trying to coach your team,” Boeheim said during ACC media day last month. “He made the first shot of the game against me, and I was really mad. But then looking back on it, I was kind of glad he made it.
“But you want your son to play well. But you’re more focused on what your team’s doing in those situations.”
Over his 374 games as a college head coach, Martin has had to go against some of his closest friends in life. Old pals Andy Kennedy (Ole Miss 2006-18) and Anthony Grant (Alabama 2009-15) used to be conference rivals. Those clashes were tough, but the spirit of competition got him through.
How will he handle Tuesday?
Dave Dickerson has a feel. The first-year USC Upstate coach has known Martin for more than two decades. He nearly joined his Carolina staff in 2016.
“Frank is a very emotional person, very loyal person,” Dickerson said. “But the one thing that drives him is his family. And he’s very, very protective of his family. And being in a situation now where he’s got to compete and coach against his son and get his players to prepare to go out and take away things that his son does well is going to be very, very difficult.
“But he’s a professional. And regardless of what he says or doesn’t say — before the game might be a little tense and after the game might be a little tense — once he gets on that sideline, he’s going to be coaching his program to try and be the best team on the floor for 40 minutes.”
Dickerson, hired in late March at a program coming off a seven-win season, needed players. He soon sent Stacey Palmore, his assistant, on a recruiting trip to the Northeast. When Palmore discovered the roster at St. Thomas More, a prep school in Connecticut, he phoned back to Dickerson.
“Hey,” Palmore said, “do you know Frank’s son plays up here?”
A scouting report followed and Dickerson was intrigued to hear more about a tough-minded forward who went to high school less than two hours from Upstate’s campus. He called Frank Martin.
“And he was thrilled,” Dickerson said. “He was thrilled just like I would be if a coach was calling about my son. But, true to form, Frank did not sell me on his son. He was very political about what kind of player he is and what kind of player he could be. But he thought that he could be a glue guy and someone that could come in and help you build a program.”
When Brandon Martin — passing on, among other opportunities, a walk-on spot with the Gamecocks — signed with Upstate in June, this game was in place.
“We scheduled the game and three, four days later (Dickerson) calls me about Brandon,” Martin said. “I’m not even thinking about them being on the schedule. I was ecstatic about the whole thing, and then I kind of sat back and ‘Ugh, we play each other.’
“This has been weighing on me for a while, and it’s finally here. So it’s time to play it.”
Brandon Martin wasn’t available to comment for this story, but speaking to The State in February 2017, he acknowledged the advice he receives from his father.
“He tells me to go out and play my hardest and tells me you can’t teach effort,” Brandon Martin said. “He tells me no matter how bad I play to give 100 percent, be a good leader and motivate my teammates to do better.”
Martin averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds as a senior at Cardinal Newman. After recovery from a foot injury, he blossomed into a starter for Jere Quinn at St. Thomas More.
“Brandon’s going to give you his best,” Quinn said. “He’s a 6-5 kid who’s just a big, strong kid who can do a few things pretty well. But he competes, and he’s as respectful and as polite and structured a kid as there is.”
Quinn, like Dickerson, goes way back with Frank Martin. He knew of the Final Four coach when he was a young assistant at Northeastern.
“He’s still a kid in my eyes,” Quinn said.
So when Quinn took on Martin’s 18-year-old son, what did he discover?
“They’re really two different people,” Quinn said. “They both have a lot of passion and they both have a lot of competitiveness, but Frank wears it more on his sleeve where Brandon keeps it in the cuff.”
Perhaps on Tuesday they’ll find a common ground. No matter the result, they’re still Dad and Son.
Cue the ear-to-ear smiles.
“The emotion of the game and how the game goes and who wins, who loses, all that’s a part of it,” Martin said. “But at the end of the day and once the game ends, the emotion of how proud I am as a Dad and how hard he’s worked, that will overwhelm me.
“I don’t want to speak for Brandon, but he’s extremely proud that his family’s all going to be here. Not to support me, but to support him. They all know how hard he’s worked for this.”