COLUMBIA - Frank Martin's spirits were lifted before he pulled into a Tennessee hotel Saturday in time to catch the final 30 seconds of South Carolina's win at Mississippi State.
All day, he stayed away from the game. Suspended for the first time in his 30-year coaching career, Martin couldn't watch his team play live. There were too many emotions, too much grief in his own undoing. Plus, the coach had a pleasant distraction.
His daughter was cheerleading.
"God works in mysterious ways," Martin said. "It's just funny that I put myself in a predicament, and my daughter happened to have a cheerleading competition the same weekend. Why wasn't that competition the next weekend? Why wasn't it the weekend before?"
He marveled Monday about how things work out.
Martin took the time away from his job and gave it to his family. His 8-year-old daughter competed with girls five years older, a child among teenagers. Martin, the proud papa, was a "train wreck" as he watched from the crowd, so consumed his mind ventured away from basketball.
His attention didn't shift for long.
As soon as the family got to their car, Martin checked the score on his phone. He told his wife, Anya, South Carolina was winning. Her answer surprised him.
"She said, 'I know. They've been texting me the score,'" Martin said. "I said, 'You weren't going to tell me?' She said, 'Nope.'"
Martin won't need to check the score from his phone this week. He'll return to the sideline when the Gamecocks open the SEC tournament against Auburn on Wednesday in Atlanta. Neither team is expected to advance far in the tournament. Both could desperately use a postseason win.
Perhaps more than the outcome, fans will be interested with how Martin behaves in the spotlight. He was suspended for Saturday's regular-season finale for "inappropriate verbal communication" with a player after cursing out freshman guard Duane Notice on the sideline against Florida a week ago.
On Monday, senior Brenton Williams and freshman Sindarius Thornwell gave their full support to Martin. Both players said they'll be happy to have their coach back - screaming, cursing and all.
"We don't have a problem with it," Thornwell said of his coach's aggressive sideline demeanor. "We love him. We wouldn't want him to go anywhere, or whatnot. We're all for him. I think people misunderstand his curse words or his passion for the game. Everybody has their way of showing their passion, and that's the way he shows it.
"We don't really look at it like, 'He's too hard on us.' We see it as, 'OK, he's showing that passion.'"
Williams also said fans misunderstand Martin.
The senior would comprehend his coach's wrath as well as anyone. Martin issued a public apology to Williams in January after unleashing on him during a one-point loss to Mississippi. If anything, the scene made Williams better.
Williams scored nine points against the Rebels. He's reached double figures in 12 of the 14 games since, averaging 20 points.
"I think a lot of people misinterpret how coach is," Williams said. "He may curse and whatnot, but it's not really a personal thing with him. That's what people think it is when he gets all up in our face, but it's all just motivation to get a fire in us. He sees us being lackadaisical. If we're better than what we're playing, he's going to get in our faces to amp us up. We don't take it personally at all."
Martin is ready to put the suspension behind him. Now, the real struggle begins.
The coach was asked Monday if he can change. Could a weekend away from the game - spent in the hills of Tennessee with family - calm his inner demons at the end of a long season?
Martin paused long before answering.
"I don't know. I am who I am. I'm proud of who I am," Martin said. ". When I went here for the last four days and I kind of reflected on me and who I am, I felt good about myself. I made a mistake, but I felt good that what I do has helped a heck of a lot more people than hurt.
"Now, will I be different? I have to be. I don't know what better answer I can give you than that. I've gotta be who I am."
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