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Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Frank Martin: Best Gamecocks coach ever?

By Eamonn Brennan


OK, OK, I know, I know: Frank Martin has yet to coach a game at South Carolina. You have to coach a game at a school before you can be placed in the annals of said school's greatest all-time coaches. Coaching at Kansas State is not quite like coaching at South Carolina, and there's a chance Martin could fail miserably in Columbia. I don't think that's likely, but I get what you're saying.

So let's ignore the superlatives. Let's instead talk about the hire itself, which Martin and South Carolina officially announced Tuesday. The Gamecocks somehow convinced Martin to leave a burgeoning basketball school with an intense fan base in Manhattan, Kan. -- one Martin guided to four NCAA tournaments, including a 2010 Elite Eight appearance -- to take over a program that has made exactly eight NCAA tournament appearances in school history. The Gamecocks have won six conference titles all time. The first four came in the Southern Conference in 1927, 1933, 1934 and 1945. The fifth came in the school's final year in the ACC in 1970. And the most recent -- and the only one in USC's current conference, the SEC -- came in 1997.

Frank Martin
Frank Martin was introduced Tuesday as the Gamecocks' new men's basketball coach.
The best coach in Gamecocks school history? Frank McGuire. McGuire arrived in Columbia in 1964 after tenures at St. John's and North Carolina (where, after Dean Smith and Roy Williams, he remains the third-winningest coach in the school's history), and his hiring was accompanied by fanfare. McGuire won nearly 300 games in 16 seasons at the school, and from 1971 to 1974, he appeared in the NCAA tournament four times.

For that stretch of unbridled excellence (sarcasm alert), in 1977 -- while McGuire was still the coach at the school -- the Gamecocks renamed their arena in his honor.

The eras are different, of course, and the NCAA tournament was still a much smaller affair in McGuire's day. But since 1997, South Carolina has gone to three NCAA tournaments, the latest of which came in 2004. To paraphrase the immortal words of Mr. Larson from "Happy Gilmore," Martin eclipsed that feat in Manhattan in no more than five years. ("Well, moron, good for Happy Gil-MOH MY GOD.")

All of which has begged the question: Why? Why would Martin make this move?

At Tuesday's introductory news conference, Martin said it's because he relishes a challenge. ("Some people run away from challenges. I run to them. I always have.") That's a fair point, I suppose, but isn't taking on the Bill Self-led juggernaut that is Kansas -- and, now that Missouri has left for the SEC, fomenting a two-sided rivalry out of the current big-brother-little-brother dynamic -- challenge enough? That seems pretty challenging. Daunting, even.

Which is why many have speculated that the coach grew weary of a rift between himself and his athletic director and administration, which came to a head during this year's tournament, when forward Jamar Samuels was suspended for receiving a $200 wire transfer just before Kansas State's second-round game versus Syracuse. Which may or may not be true. Martin has denied as much, as has Kansas State AD John Currie, who told the Associated Press he tried to renegotiate Martin's contract as recently as this week. Whatever happened, it's clearly not as simple as the desire to take on a new challenge. There's something else there.

We may find out sooner rather than later ... but from South Carolina's perspective, who cares? The Gamecocks just made their most accomplished basketball hire since McGuire. They hired a coach with half as many tournament appearances in four years as the program has in its entire history, and they got a guy used to scrapping for success in a traditionally disadvantageous environment.

Martin may not go down as the greatest coach in USC hoops history, but he's immediately in the running. Hires like this just don't happen. Whatever the underlying reasons may be, the end result was one of the best weeks in Gamecocks men's hoops history. Martin hasn't even coached a game in Columbia, but that much is already true.