HOOVER, Ala. — Less than four months into his new job, Frank Martin received the first alteration to his restoration project.
“I tell you what surprised me,” the first-year head coach at South Carolina said, “I had an AD change about an hour into my job.”
His new boss at the time, athletic director Eric Hyman, quickly became his former boss when he accepted the Texas A&M job in June. For Martin, the man with little affection for plans gone awry, the timing was inopportune. But Hyman’s replacement, the school’s championship-winning baseball coach Ray Tanner, was named just two weeks later. In a statement following Tanner’s hire, Martin embraced the decision. If anything, he supported the fact that the distraction passed quickly.
It was back to the plan.
Martin’s task is one of patience, of small steps to a sizable goal: Making South Carolina basketball relevant again. It is a program that has posted just one winning record in conference play over the past decade. Only Ole Miss possesses a worse winning percentage in SEC competition. It’s a portrait of roundball futility.
So Martin looks to the past to find a potential building block for his future in Columbia.
“People tend to forget that you couldn’t get a seat in the Frank McGuire Coliseum back in the day,” he said Thursday morning at SEC basketball media day. “People tend to forget that. Rekindling that passion and reconnecting that great past with the present.”
Martin’s personal success may somewhat cloud his vision of the challenges he faces — after all, the Frank McGuire heyday came in the 1970s — but he’s earned his right to confidence. Even with underdog-type squads at Kansas State, he led the Wildcats to five consecutive postseason appearances and a 6-4 record in the NCAA Tournament.
The issue, much like it was at Kansas State, will be if he can collect enough talent — in a basketball talent-poor state, no less— to compete with the likes of Kentucky, Florida and former Big 12 foe, Missouri.
“Here’s the deal: Good players want to play for schools where their fans care. Well when you go to a football game and there’s 85,000 people in the stands, when you go to a baseball game and there’s 9,000 people in the stands, and you go to a volleyball game and it’s standing room only, it’s pretty clear and evident that the people at South Carolina care.”
But that deal fails to mention that the athletic department’s football, baseball and volleyball programs have enjoyed massive amounts of success in the small window of Martin’s involvement with South Carolina. It was not too long ago — before Steve Spurrier’s revolution — that South Carolina football wallowed in mediocrity. People enjoy success; people support success. One man can change a lot, but a lot must go according to plan.
And plans, when they hinge on the whims and production of teenagers and young adults, can change at the drop of a hat.
“Every other multi-million dollar company in the world depends on grown people. College athletics is the only multi-million corporation that depends on 18- and 19-year-olds,” Martin said. “Sometimes it’s looked upon as the job not getting done when it’s not that far off. It’s just that you’re dealing with kids.”
When speaking with Martin, it is apparent that even he grasps the gravity of his current situation. This season’s team lacks size and experience, unlike many of his Wildcat teams, instead relying on speed and execution. The team lost three of its top four scorers and the fourth, guard Bruce Ellington, might not even play due to his commitment to Spurrier’s football team. Can the Gamecocks pick up the new system before league play? That remains to be seen.
“I think I said it the day I got hired: I liked challenges. I like taking challenges.”
Frank Martin is certainly taking on one in Columbia.
We’ll know how much he truly likes it in a few weeks.