Florence, Alabama, a town of less than 40,000 near the Tennessee state line, is new to men’s Division I college basketball. Its home team, the North Alabama Lions, begins Season No. 2 at that level Wednesday night when it faces South Carolina at Colonial Life Arena. The game is one of three the Lions will play this year against Power 5 competition, all coming on the road.
It’s a seven-hour drive from Florence to Columbia, a six-hour drive to Bloomington, Indiana (for the Lions’ game against the Hoosiers on Nov. 12) and a six-and-a-half-hour drive to Tallahassee, Florida (for their game against Florida State on Dec. 28).
This is the life of most small conference programs during the non-conference season. They’ll get a shot at the big boys — but only if they’re willing to travel. The Atlantic Sun’s North Alabama is no different, except for the fact they’re coached by Tony Pujol.
And Tony Pujol is a longtime friend of Frank Martin’s.
The Gamecocks and Lions are scheduled to play each other three times over the next four seasons, including a USC trip to Florence in 2021-22.
“Not everybody does that,” Pujol told The State. “Frank has no reason to do that other than to support a fellow coach that he has a relationship with.”
After several years as an assistant at three different schools, Pujol was named head coach at North Alabama on April 2, 2018. The hire was announced in a UNA press release covered in endorsements. Martin’s chief among them.
“Tony Pujol is a first class human being and coach,” Martin said. “The University of North Alabama is getting ready to be touched by a winner on and off the court.”
The quote is rooted in over three decades of companionship.
Like Martin, Pujol is a first generation Cuban-American who grew up in the Miami neighborhood of Little Havana. They bonded in the early 1990s as two of the rising high school basketball coaches in the area — Martin at Miami Senior and North Miami, Pujol at La Progresiva Presbyterian and Northwest Christian Academy.
They’d work on the same AAU staffs in the summers. Pujol’s wife taught Martin’s oldest son kindergarten.
“They have a lot of similar qualities,” said Anthony Grant, University of Dayton’s coach and another Miami native who went to high school with Martin and coached with Pujol, “both being Cuban-Americans and just the upbringing of their families. They’re just blue-collar hard-working guys that kind of had to work their way up.
“I think they struck a kinship because of their similarities and their pasts, so to speak. Both of them got started in coaching at very young ages and knew what their passion was and what they wanted to be.”
Martin, Pujol, Arkansas State’s Mike Balado and Charlotte’s Ron Sanchez are the only Hispanic-American coaches in Division I basketball. Wednesdays game between the Gamecocks and Lions is the only one this season with such backgrounds on both benches.
Martin and Pujol have faced each other before, but only when Pujol was an assistant for Grant at Alabama. When Martin took South Carolina to the Final Four in 2017, Pujol called it “one of the proudest moments of my life.”
“It created hope,” Pujol said. “It created hope for future Cuban-American coaches that, man, if you buckle down and do it the right way, great things are gonna happen. Those are the things that I took from it. Was I there on the journey with him? Yeah, we would connect, we would talk on the phone. We’d text with one another.
“It’s a time I’m going to relish for the rest of my life because I’m very proud. I consider Frank a brother, I don’t consider Frank a friend. I consider Frank like family. And for him to do that, it just made me so proud.”
Wednesday’s game is the first in a reunion week for Martin. On Sunday, South Carolina hosts Wyoming. The Cowboys are coached by Allen Edwards, a former player of Martin’s at Miami Senior. The noon tip-off will cap a series that started in Columbia in 2017-18 and went to Laramie, Wyoming, last year.
South Carolina-North Alabama will take on a similar pattern. After the 2021-22 matchup in Florence, they’ll meet back at Colonial Life Arena in 2022-23.
These aren’t typical series for SEC programs, scheduling two-for-ones with small schools. But Martin isn’t a typical coach.
“That’s Frank,” Grant said. “From a loyalty standpoint, friendship standpoint, that’s who Frank is. That’s the way he was raised.”
Who: North Alabama at South Carolina
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Colonial Life Arena
TV: Streaming on SEC Network Plus via WatchESPN app