Martin embraces challenge of South Carolina basketball

Frank Martin won at least 20 games each season during the five years he coached at Kansas State.

COLUMBIA — Another typical night wound down at the Miami bar where Frank Martin worked as a bouncer. It was the summer of 1992, and Martin spent the evening just as he spent many others — breaking up a fight and showing the participants the door.

Martin, then 26, bounced to make money while attending Florida International University and working as an assistant basketball coach at his alma mater, Miami Senior High. He didn’t mind bouncing, and with his broad shoulders and no-nonsense stare, he certainly looked the part.

When the bar closed, Martin and the other bouncers locked up and left at 2:30 a.m. They walked out into an empty parking lot, except for one car, off to the side, its lights off. Martin grew up in inner-city Miami, so he could sense a dangerous situation. And this felt like one.

The car drove toward the bouncers, and they dove behind another vehicle, narrowly avoiding the spray of bullets as the car sped away.

“What that did is make me understand that I’m so close to taking that next step in my life that I didn’t need to be doing that anymore,” Martin said.

He was a semester away from a college degree and loved coaching. Thirty-one years earlier, his grandparents fled Cuba after Fidel Castro took power and started over in the United States, hoping to create a better life for their descendants, of which Martin was the first born here.

It would be such a waste to throw it all away because of some angry drunks. So Martin quit bouncing. The next year, he graduated college and became the head coach at North Miami High. From there, he clawed and climbed, just as his grandparents and mother did. Last month, he received a six-year, $12.3 million contract to become South Carolina’s new head coach.

Everybody expects the Gamecocks to struggle next season. Turning around a losing program will not be easy for Martin. That’s fine with him. He’s used to fighting.

Cuba in the mid-1950s was a beautiful place, as Martin’s mother, Lourdes, remembers it. Her family lived in a nice house in Havana. Her dad, Jose, managed a bank, and made enough money that her mom, Ernestina, didn’t need to work. Lourdes loved her Catholic school, even the nuns.

Every summer, her family relaxed in the fine white sand and crystal clear water at Varadero Beach. Jose loved driving Lourdes and her brother around the island. He told them it put him at peace. Three times in the early 1950s, the family vacationed in America, and drove from Florida to New York.

Lourdes was 13 years old when Castro became prime minister in 1959. Two years later, Jose had seen enough of Castro’s policies. He arranged for his family to travel to New Jersey, where relatives lived, on Pan American Airways. In those days, several flights a day left for America, and all you needed was a visa. Jose figured the stay in America would last a couple years, and in due time, “the Cuban people would kick (Castro) out of there,” Lourdes said.

But after she boarded that flight, she never again saw her relatives who stayed behind. Her voice still cracks with emotion when she talks about them.

She embraced America, even the mornings shoveling snow. She quickly learned English at school. Her parents both had to work — Jose in an entry-level job at a bank, Ernestina sewing winter coats in a factory. Jose would leave at 5:30 a.m. for a commute of two bus trips and a subway ride into Manhattan. He returned home 14 hours later, exhausted, missing his country.

“I knew he was suffering,” Lourdes said. “There was a sadness in his face.”

In 1964, he got a shot at a better job. He knew someone opening banks in Venezuela, but his wife had a sense of her own, and leaving their new country so soon didn’t feel right. So Jose spent the next five years living alone in Venezuela, coming home every month, while making better money and sending it to Ernestina. They had their eyes on a duplex in Miami.

Jose finally got his old bank manager job in 1969, at a new branch in Venezuela — a fresh start at age 57. His co-workers played Cuban music for him at the branch’s opening party, because they knew he was nostalgic. They later told Ernestina how emotional it made him. Moments later, he was slumped over, his eyes closed. He died of a heart attack as the music played.

A year later, the money he made in Venezuela was finally enough. Ernestina bought the duplex.

‘Not much of a player’ Every Saturday morning, Lourdes packed her son Frank and his buddies into her car and drove them to the Kiwanis basketball games on the courts next to the Orange Bowl. He loved basketball, and he loved his mom. It was just the two of them and his younger sister, because his father, also named Frank, walked out when he was 9.

“He’s not a bad man, but there are some men that are not born to be husbands and daddies,” Lourdes said.

When her husband left, she moved in with her mom, in a duplex on 35th Avenue — Jose’s legacy. Lourdes worked as a paralegal. Her ambitious son insisted on helping, so he convinced her to let him take a job at Dairy Queen. He was 12.

Martin plugged away at basketball, too, all through high school, but “I wouldn’t say he was much of a player,” said his high school friend Anthony Grant, who now coaches Alabama. Martin was a pudgy sophomore when Miami Senior got a new coach, 26-year-old Marcos “Shakey” Rodriguez, and Martin attached himself to Rodriguez while riding the bench.

“He loved the intricacies of the game, asked a lot of questions,” Rodriguez said.

After high school, Rodriguez let Martin be a junior varsity assistant. One day, the JV head coach didn’t show up. Martin asked Rodriguez what to do. “You coach the team,” Rodriguez said. So from 1985-93, he went to college, bounced at the bar and coached. He also assisted Rodriguez with Miami Senior’s nationally prominent varsity team.

Rodriguez was relentless. He made his players get to school at 6 a.m. and run stairs while wearing weighted vests. Martin “grew up in that philosophy and certainly enhanced it,” Rodriguez said. As a JV coach, Martin was so intense — something most people know him for now — that Grant and Rodriguez hid in the locker room showers at halftime so they could marvel at his screaming speech.

But his approach worked. He had credibility with the kids. He grew up in their working class Cuban-American neighborhood. He endured Rodriguez’s 6 a.m. stair workouts. In 1995, he took over for Rodriguez and won two state championships.

“Our community, they didn’t accept outsiders very well,” Rodriguez said. “Frank was never an outsider.”

Lots of outsiders came to Miami Senior — college coaches like Dean Smith, Jim Valvano and Bob Huggins sitting in the bleachers at practice, eyeing the team’s talented players.

Huggins liked Martin, then an assistant. They’d go out to eat during Huggins’ recruiting trips to Miami and talk basketball for hours. Huggins said he found it “refreshing.” Martin started following Huggins’ career. Any time Huggins spoke at a coaching clinic, Martin went.

No one has advocated Martin more than Huggins. In 2001, Martin finished his first season as a college assistant, at Northeastern. The coach who hired him, Rudy Keeling, was being replaced by Ron Everhart, Huggins’ friend. Huggins told Everhart, “You need to keep Frank.” He did.

Three years later, Huggins hired Martin at Cincinnati. In 2006, Martin joined Huggins at Kansas State. A year later, Martin replaced Huggins as Kansas State’s head coach after Huggins left for West Virginia and implored Kansas State to hire Martin — his first college head coaching job.

“There were a lot of people in Kansas who said it was a bad hire,” Huggins said.

Martin fought to prove them wrong. He won at least 20 games in all five of his seasons at Kansas State and made the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight in 2010. He could afford to lavish his mom with jewelry every holiday, and she now lives in a posh Miami neighborhood near Doral Golf Resort. He won the fight.

Maybe it’s the immigrant’s son in him, but even in his latest lucrative job, at USC, he holds on to memories of what it felt like to lose.

He got his break at Northeastern in 2000 after buying a plane ticket to Boston to meet Keeling face-to-face “to show him how much I wanted the job,” Martin said.

When he got it, he made so little money that his mom had to send him cash. He lived in Providence because he couldn’t afford Boston rent. He didn’t own a car, so every day, he woke up early, just like his grandfather, and took the 5 a.m. bus, then a commuter rail and a subway. Because the train home didn’t run late, he had to sleep at the office after night games.

Other evenings, in the middle of a miserable season for Northeastern, the Providence bus schedule forced him to walk the final mile back to his apartment, shivering his way down the snowy sidewalks. He missed everything that felt familiar.

“I’m saying, ‘What am I doing here?’” he recalled shortly after taking the USC job.

“But that’s what makes you appreciate when you get a great opportunity like this. I’ve been there, and I ain’t going to let go of this.”