Frank Martin expects to win

New South Carolina coach welcomes chance to turn Gamecocks around.

Originally Published: April 19, 2012
By Jason King | ESPN.com

When Frank Martin took over Kansas State's men's basketball program in 2007, the response from his colleagues in the coaching profession was almost always the same.

"People didn't understand it," Martin said. "Everyone was like, 'Why would you want to work there? It's a graveyard for coaches.'"

Five years later, Martin is hearing the same type of questions as he embarks on the next phase of his career at South Carolina. Just like he did in Manhattan, Kan. -- where he led K-State to four NCAA tournament berths -- Martin sees opportunity at a place where so many others have lost hope.

"I look at it the other way," Martin said. "I'm a glass half-full guy. When people ask me 'why,' I ask, 'why not?'"

Others may not have been so optimistic.

[+] EnlargeFrank Martin
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesFrank Martin couldn't pass on the opportunity to help turn South Carolina's program around.

The Gamecocks experienced three straight losing seasons under former coach Darrin Horn, including a 10-21 mark in 2011-12, when they won just two SEC contests. South Carolina's last NCAA tournament victory came in 1973 -- and it has appeared in the field only once since 1998.

Still, that wasn't enough to scare off Martin, who won more games in a five-year period than any coach in Kansas State history.

"The more I studied it," Martin said, "I thought it would be a great challenge, a great opportunity to do some of the things we did at K-State -- take a program with a great history but has kind of been disconnected from that history for a while, and try to put it all back together again.

"I just couldn't say no."

South Carolina fans are glad he didn't.

Local media types hailed Martin's hiring as a "home run" before he ever held his introductory press conference. More than 40,000 fans gave Martin a standing ovation when football coach Steve Spurrier called him down to the field for an introduction during the Gamecocks' spring game earlier this month.

Whenever Martin goes out to lunch or stops by a gas station, he's almost always approached by a well-wisher.

"Wherever I am," Martin said, "everyone walks up to me and says, 'We can't wait. We're so excited for South Carolina basketball.'"

Those types of interactions reinforce Martin's belief that he'll be able to win -- and win big -- at South Carolina. Another encouraging sign: The Gamecocks boast Top 25 teams in football, women's basketball and baseball.

"There's no reason we shouldn't be there in men's basketball," he said. "If we can get 13,000 people for a game in Manhattan, Kan., we can do it here, too. We have 700,000 people to draw from in the Columbia area, when you include the suburbs.

"We've got to do our part, though. We've got to coach our guys, play the game the right way, recruit. We've got to get out in public and show people that we're a part of this community."

Martin has spent the past few weeks reconnecting with colleagues he knew from his days as a high school and AAU coach in Miami. Charlotte, N.C., is about a two-hour drive from South Carolina's campus in Columbia; Atlanta is about a four-hour drive; Jacksonville, Fla., is about five hours away. Martin will mine those areas for prospects while also trying to lure the best in-state talent.

But one of the main reasons athletic director Eric Hyman hired Martin was because of his ties outside of the region. At Kansas State, Martin signed players from places such as Chicago, Texas, New York and Washington, D.C.

"You have to be able to recruit outside the state," Hyman said. "That's why we [hired Martin], because of his unbelievable contacts. He's a proven recruiter. I totally anticipate him being able to bring that talent to the University of South Carolina."

Martin said he's "ecstatic" about the response he's received from recruits in what has been a whirlwind of a month for the head coach.

Martin had been contacted by third parties about job openings in the past, but each time he said he wasn't interested. Martin said last month marked the first time in his career that he's ever had discussions with another athletic director about an opening.

"Eric Hyman basically put his arms around my head and let me know, 'You are the man I want leading our basketball program. It's not just about how good you are as a coach. You are the person I need to lead my basketball program,'" Martin said.

"When somebody comes at you with that kind of passion about who you are, it gets your attention."

If the South Carolina opportunity hadn't presented itself, Martin said he would've been perfectly happy to remain at Kansas State. The Wildcats gave Martin his first head-coaching job after he'd spent just one year there as an assistant under Bob Huggins.

For that, Martin said, he'll always be grateful.

"They gave me an opportunity and believed in me," Martin said. "A new administration came in, and they stayed in my corner. They gave us what we needed to win. As a coach, that's all you could ever ask for.

"I loved K-State. That will always be my first job. My youngest son will have always been born in Manhattan, Kan. It's a place that was and will always be special to me. I wasn't trying to run away from there. I loved it there. My family loved it there. This opportunity came across, and I was forced to make a decision."

I thought it would be a great challenge, a great opportunity to do some of the things we did at K-State -- take a program with a great history but has kind of been disconnected from that history for a while, and try to put it all back together again.

-- New South Carolina coach Frank Martin

Martin said it would be inaccurate to assume that he was looking to be "reinvigorated" by a new challenge. Martin noted the satisfaction he took in watching a relatively young Kansas State squad improve throughout the course of last season. The Wildcats, who finished 22-11, were down by only two points with six minutes remaining against No. 1 seed Syracuse with a chance to go to the Sweet 16 last month.

"We coached that team up," Martin said. "I was full of energy in Manhattan, Kan. It broke my heart to make the decision I made. That was difficult. I'm all about family. I'm a family man. That's why people in that community loved our program.

"I had to step away from that and make a selfish decision. I had to make a decision that was about me. I had to separate myself from the family we'd built. It was hard. It was the first time I'd ever done that in my life."

Speculation in Manhattan was that a conflict between Martin and Kansas State athletic director John Currie was one of the main reasons for Martin's departure. The night before the Syracuse game, Currie informed Martin that senior forward Jamar Samuels would not be allowed to play after the school received information that he'd received $200 earlier in the week from his AAU coach.

Martin was obviously livid with Currie's decision and indicated as much during his press conference following the loss.

"I wasn't happy about that the night before," Martin said, "I wasn't happy about it the day of the game, and I wasn't happy about it on Sunday morning. The day they bury me, I still won't be happy about it. But the decision I made was not based on that. It wasn't.

"John respects me. I respect him. He's done a lot of good at that school. Did we have some disagreements in private? Of course we did. What bosses and employees don't have disagreements? I've moved on."

As excited as he is to be at South Carolina, Martin has already encountered his share of obstacles during his first few weeks on the job. Two of the Gamecocks' leading returning scorers (Damontre Harris and Anthony Gill) have decided to transfer.

Martin, though, hardly seems deterred.

"It's a young team that's going through a transition," Martin said. "Unfortunately, they didn't win last year. So there were some guys who were unhappy. Then there was a coaching change. A couple of guys did what they thought they had to do.

"I didn't come in here with a hammer. I came in here willing to coach everyone and help the guys who were here. I'll get it going again."

Just like he did at Kansas State. Martin is confident of that.

"I'm having the time of my life, man," he said. "I'm having the time of my life."