Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian: Temper and all, Frank Martin thrives

South Carolina men’s basketball coach Frank Martin talked to his team during a practice session Friday at the NCAA Final Four in Glendale, Ariz.
South Carolina men’s basketball coach Frank Martin talked to his team during a practice session Friday at the NCAA Final Four in Glendale, Ariz. The Associated Press

On a basketball court, Frank Martin constantly simmers on the verge of caricature.

Sometimes, he seems a volatile Scorsese character in the making, along the lines of “Raging Bull” or “Scarface” — a movie Martin has said reflects the Little Havana area of Miami in which he grew up as the son of Cuban immigrants.

Martin’s at-times unhinged fury included smacking Chris Merriewether on the arm during a Kansas State game at Missouri in 2010 and serving a suspension after a foul-mouthed altercation in 2014 with one of his South Carolina players.

The latter action left Martin acknowledging that his fire “becomes a weakness at times” that he has to work on daily.

Try as he might, though, he remains a spectacle waiting to happen.

He’s well aware of that, too, mocking his own facial contortions in interviews and using the word “defuse” when he speaks of someone trying to calm him and playfully thanking his players for putting up with him because it’s “not easy to do.”

As his team was confronted by the endless demands for tickets this week, Martin told them, “If you don’t want to be the bad guy, there’s a lot of people that think I’m a bad guy. Just add to the list. I’ll be more than happy to be the bad guy.”

But there is this confounding dilemma when it comes to processing Martin, the former Kansas State coach who coaxed the Gamecocks to their first men’s NCAA Tournament win since 1973 and proceeded to prod them to the school’s first men’s Final Four.

As his team prepares to play Gonzaga in the national semifinals Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium, Martin is about the most charismatic, thought-provoking and striking figure here.

He’s a man whose admirable and clear convictions and all-consuming dedication leave you thinking about his ideas and ways and trying to reconcile them with his on-court persona.

In one sense, those aspects of him all are tethered together, emanating from the same places deep inside.

In another, maybe he’s a lot like many people … only more so:

“Do I contradict myself?” poet Walt Whitman wrote. “Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

This is the complexity that makes Martin a polarizing figure, one who went 117-54 at Kansas State and took the Wildcats to four NCAA Tournaments, including a run to the Elite Eight in 2010.

Many K-State fans still are upset that he left in 2012 because of the perception that then-athletic director John Currie was unnecessarily meddling with Martin by trying to reel him in.

It was all more complicated than that, of course, but it still spoke to this fundamental question:

Do Martin’s style and methods stand for and mean more than what he seems to want to achieve with every fiber of his being: teach?

Or should you take the excesses in stride with the good?

It’s hard not to be fascinated by Martin’s side in all that when you observe his authenticity and sincerity in action like it was during an illuminating news conference Friday.

Martin was asked whether he ever regretted administering tough love.

As he spoke, three players alongside on the podium were mesmerized.

Among them was Duane Notice, the one at whom the snarling profanity was directed when Martin was suspended three years ago.

“What is tough love? I don’t know what tough love is. If people love you, they tell you the truth. They don’t lie to you,” Martin said. “... If you love people, then that means that you’re honest. That means there’s trust in your relationship, and that means that there’s loyalty in your relationship. All those words are two-way streets.

“Then you get the love. If you get the love, then you deal with the good and the bad the same way because of the commitment that you have to one another. … 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.”

Now, that can’t be carte blanche for ends justifying means (though it does evoke the words of New York power-broker Robert Moses, who wondered “if the ends don’t justify the means, what does?”).

Still, his point, and his player’s fixation as he made it, resonates.

While he’s quick to give credit to players and assistants and about everyone else in his life, there is plenty of symbolism in the fact that Martin likes to play Sinatra’s “My Way” on game days.

But you can ask a lot, and take a lot, when you trust that it comes from the heart and is intended to make you better.

So you can’t overstate the impact of Martin’s sheer will on this team’s improbable journey to within one win of playing for a national title.

“We trusted in him in everything,” South Carolina star Sindarius Thornwell said after the Gamecocks won the East Regional. “We had this thing … ‘Don’t let go of the rope, no matter what happens, no matter the outcome of anything, don’t let go of that rope.’”

And you also can’t escape how his colorful past led to him being fueled this way and becoming the only minority head coach to get his team as far as the Sweet 16 this season.

That’s why he had such an emotional talk and embrace with his mother, Lourdes, after South Carolina beat Florida to reach the Final Four.

“Strongest woman I’ve ever met: Husband runs out, leaves her, never gives her a penny, she never takes him to court. Doesn’t make excuses,” he said at Madison Square Garden. “... Watching her cry tears of joy because of all her sacrifices have allowed me and my sister to move forward in life.

“Those are the tears that are important to me.”

That sort of persistence drives Martin, who likes to say his eventual wife, Anya, turned him down the first seven times he asked her out.

It’s what he fell back on after he left his job as a bouncer (soon after men fired shots at him for kicking them out of a club) and turned to coach high school basketball.

He did that for 16 years that started at the junior-varsity level and ended with winning three state titles (and being fired after the state found rules violations that Martin has denied) and teaching math.

Which is what he falls back on now.

“You know what pressure is? 35 students, 27 desks, 18 textbooks, 180 days. You’ve got to educate every single kid in that classroom for 180 days,” he said Thursday. “That’s pressure.”

On Friday, he amplified how he handled that pressure.

“When you embrace your job, you figure it out,” he said. “You don’t make excuses. You don’t pout. You don’t blame. It is what it is.”

Most of all, he had to be creative.

Still is.

“I try to use every moment of every single day I’ve been in education to maximize my message, my vision, the opportunities,” he said.

Unsightly as those moments might be at times, it’s all part of the same inseparable instinct that ultimately makes Martin good for the game — and makes it so regrettable that it couldn’t be worked out at K-State.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian