Frank Martin Laid His Final Four Foundation on High School Hardwoods

The South Carolina head coach transitioned from Miami preps to college basketball

South Carolina head basketball coach Frank Martin is an outlier among his Final Four counterparts.

 

In the 1999-2000 season, Gonzaga's Mark Few was in the first year of the position he holds today. North Carolina's Roy Williams celebrated 12 years at Kansas, and Oregon's Dana Altman had settled in at Creighton — his third Div. I program in what was then a decade-long career.

 

That same year, Martin led the varsity team at Miami's Booker T. Washington High School.

 

It's not unheard of for a coach to transition from the high school hardwood to the second-highest level of basketball behind only the NBA. Williams — coaching in his ninth Final Four and fifth at North Carolina — first strolled the sidelines at Charles D. Owen High School in Black Mountain, N.C., in the mid-to-late 1970s.

 

But Martin rose the ranks in remarkable fashion, ascending from high school head coach to Div. I assistant to Div. I head coach in just six years. A decade into the college game and just four years in as a head coach, he reached his first Elite Eight at Kansas State.

 

Just 17 years after leaving Miami and high school basketball — kids born when he was still in Miami are now his recruits — Martin's coaching in his first Final Four.

 

Unique as Martin's career trajectory might be, it's a story that began like many in college basketball: With a coach recruiting a player and finding a hidden gem along the way.

 

"Charlton Young, who was from Miami, was recruiting my point guard," Martin said of the process that led him to the college game.

 

Young — currently an assistant at Florida State — was then at Northeastern University in Boston. Those initial recruiting feelers brought then-Huskies head coach, the late Rudy Keeling, to Miami.

 

"That's where the conversation started," Martin said.

 

The conversation to which Martin refers is vital to the history of college basketball. It led Martin from Miami, his home for more than 30 years, to the Northeast, setting in motion the series of events that would eventually lead to Glendale, Arizona, and the Final Four.

 

Giving up the high school game for the collegiate grind wasn't exactly a glamorous move. Aside from leaving the warm weather of South Florida for New England's frigid winters, Martin said he made $28,000 a year — hardly enough to afford housing in Boston.

 

Instead, he shared less-than-luxurious accommodations with a colleague.

 

"A one-bedroom apartment at the Captain Willett Apartments in East Providence [Rhode Island]," Martin said. "He had a car, I did not. So I would ride in [to Boston] with him sometimes. When he was out recruiting, I'd have to take the bus, downtown Providence and get a commuter rail to downtown Boston.

 

"You make it work," Martin added. "You figure out a way to make ends meet and that's what I did."

 

That kind of resourcefulness is reflected in Martin's coaching style. He's had the fortune to coach some uniquely skilled players, dating back to his high school days. At Miami Senior High School, it was former Maryland Terrapins point guard Steve Blake and Florida Gators big man Udonis Haslem, both of whom enjoyed long NBA careers.

 

Likewise, Martin has a special talent in guard Sindarius Thornwell. The SEC Player of the Year averages 21.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, and he's been central to the Gamecocks' historic season.

 

But Martin's ability to adapt and improvise, making things work on the fly, has led South Carolina to its first Final Four. He's made lineup adjustments to rejuvenate a once-struggling offense. The Gamecocks are now one of the NCAA Tournament's most explosive teams, evident in a 65-point, second half outburst against Duke in the Round of 32.

 

At the same time, South Carolina's been able to slow the pace when situations called for it. The Gamecocks' stifling defense on Baylor powered them into the Elite Eight, where they picked up the tempo against defensive-minded Florida.

 

Those salad days at Northeastern helped shape Martin's approach. So, too, did his preceding high school seasons, where he gained unique perspective on recruiting.

 

"I was fortunate that at our high school, we had some very good players that got recruited at a high level," he said. "Watching people recruit firsthand allowed me to see some of the things I liked and didn't like. So whenever I got the opportunity, I tried to recruit in a way that I thought people would respect."

 

And respect is a core tenet of Martin's overall coaching approach. His demeanor on the sidelines is fiery and demonstrative, but when the clock strikes zeroes, there's a mutual respect within the South Carolina locker room that resonates through this Final Four run.

 

"Coach didn't promise us anything," guard P.J. Dozier said following the Elite Eight win, via ASAP Sports transcripts. "But he did promise us that if we had faith in him and we listened to what he had to say, and we did what he had to say, we did what he said to do, that we would be successful here and it shows."

 

Martin does not stray from the approach he used in the Miami high schools, where he oversaw three state championships. And while he may have left those gyms in Florida for the grandeur of Madison Square Garden and University of Phoenix Stadium, his philosophy remains rooted in the Sunshine State.

 

"Miami solidified who I am as a human being and instilled the values that I live my life by," he said. "It's the duty that's been instilled in me. That neighborhood, those people in my life, taught me to become a man and they taught me how to do things right and taught me how to make the right decisions and how to respect. And I got into coaching to help young people have a chance to move forward in the same neighborhood that helped me learn how to move forward."

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

Event Date: 
Monday, March 27, 2017 - 17:44

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