GLENDALE, Arizona – Often it starts with just a look. Frank Martin’s glare alone is worth a thousand words. Many of those words would be rated R.
And if that glare is not enough for South Carolina’s coach to get a point across to a player, he has louder ways that will do the trick.
Rodney McGruder played three seasons for Martin at Kansas State and was on the receiving end of so many of the coach’s tirades that he laughs when asked to recall one or two that stand out.
“My entire freshman season, man,” McGruder said. “I never knew what I was going to do to get one of those crazy stares and him stomping his foot at me and him yelling at me. I remember turning the ball over and looking over at the bench and that look that he has in his eyes, I see that now.”
Martin might be the most intense coach in college basketball and in many ways has been the breakout star of this Final Four, leading his seventh-seeded Gamecocks to the first NCAA Tournament semifinals appearance in school history. South Carolina (26-10) plays top-seeded Gonzaga (36-1) on Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Barrel-chested and built like the night-club bouncer he once was, Martin cuts an imposing figure on the sideline in a garnet suit. He believes in being brutally honesty with his players, but do not call it tough love.
“If people love you, they tell you the truth. They don’t lie to you. So I hear tough love, and I’ve been hearing it for a long time. I don’t know what that is,” Martin said during a news conference Friday with three of his players. “People use that term all the time. Because if you’re not being honest with your players and you’re not giving them passion, then there is no love. That’s phoniness. And, I don’t know, it’s my experience in 32, 33 years coaching guys like the ones to my left that if you’re phony with them, they got no time for anything I say regardless of how nice I am.”
Martin’s players say they appreciate his bluntness, but it can take some getting used to.
“All of our guys that come in, when you first get that first Frank holler-at, it’s tough but you know it’s coming,” guard PJ Dozier said.
Chris Silva is a soft-spoken sophomore who grew up in Gabon in central Africa and played high school basketball in New Jersey for a coach that, he said, usually did not raise his voice.
“It’s completely different from Coach Frank,” Silva said. “He’s going to let you know loudly.” Silva credits Martin with helping him become more assertive as a player and more vocal on and off the court.
Senior Duane Notice was the target of an intense, obscenity laced scolding from Martin that was caught by television cameras and microphones during a blowout loss against Florida in 2014. South Carolina suspended Martin for a game and he talked at that time about needing to mature.
“Have I gone home days and said, ‘You know what, I might have been too hard on a player?’ Absolutely,” Martin said Friday. “There’s days I think I’m too hard on my own children. That’s what an honest relationship is about. I’ll come back and tell them, I’ll say, man, what do you think? You understand? You realize what we’re doing here?”
Three years later, Notice has been one of South Carolina’s best players during this NCAA Tournament. He smiled when asked about Martin going off on him.
“You have to adjust to it, but once you see where it comes from you understand it and you kind of like it,” Notice said. “He’s very intense and passionate and it’s to the point where you feel like he wants to play. That’s how much he cares about the game. He wants us to win so bad not for himself, but for us.”
Notice said Martin can be intimidating to new players, but he now sees the coach as a father figure.
“You can’t listen to the tone, you have to listen to the message,” Notice said.
Sometimes that message can be kind of funny, Dozier said.
“His sarcasm is really good though,” he said.
Notice said the younger guys really have not seen the worst of it from Martin.
“We’re winning games right now. We’re in the Final Four. He’s not the same Frank he was five, four years ago,” Notice said. “He’s calmed down a lot.”
McGruder said Martin taught him to be accountable and prepared him for life in the NBA, but acknowledged that there were some former teammates who might not speak so highly of their old coach.
“Frank’s not for everybody,” McGruder said. “If you can deal with Frank you can deal with life.”
RALPH D. RUSSO