He is not a crazy man, this Frank Martin. He is not the fire-breathing tough guy who always seems to be on the edge on the South Carolina sideline. The coach who on Sunday willed his team into the Final Four for the first time in school history is something else, something more.
“He’s a teddy bear,” said Lourdes, his mother.
And don’t think she is an easy grader. Lourdes Perez Martin recognizes all of life’s sharp edges, having fled Cuba with her mom in 1961 with only two outfits in a skimpy travel bag after having had a nice life as a banker’s daughter.
“Strongest woman I’ve ever met,” Martin said at the news conference after the Gamecocks’ 77-70 East Regional final win over Florida at the Garden. “Husband runs out, leaves her, never gives her a penny, she never takes him to court. Doesn’t make excuses. Worked as a secretary. Raised my sister and me. We’d go to Wendy’s or Burger King every [other] Friday. That was our family meal. She gave me the courage to try and do this for a living.”
Courage is what he passes along to his team every day in, yes, a very forceful, blunt, abrupt manner. That is just the way he has had to do it, making his way from a career high school benchwarmer in Miami to a JV coach, high school coach, college assistant and seven-figure-salary big-time head coach. He does yell and scream. But he also cries and says “I love you” back and forth with his mom after the biggest win of his life.
Said Lourdes, “My mom used to play basketball in Cuba. She was the captain of her team. That’s where he gets it from. I dreamed about it: He’s going to the Final Four someday.
“I love him with all my heart. He’s my baby,” she said of the man who turned 51 Thursday. “He’s a good coach. Honest. Loyal. I couldn’t have a better son. He is a softie.”
A softie who demands that his team play relentless, fearless, thumping defense. He says his players are not out to hurt or knock down opponents. He describes the philosophy this way: “We don’t get out of the way.”
Getting young people to buy in means he does not get out of their faces. So be it.
PJ Dozier, who scored 17 points Sunday and made the all-regional team, said, “I know that when Frank Martin stepped foot on campus, you just got this vibe that the ball was rolling.”
Rakym Felder, a guard from Brooklyn, said: “Lovable, real, caring. Unselfish. There’s a lot of words to describe him. He is definitely a great guy when you sit down and talk to him. The ones that talk negative about him probably never had a conversation with him. He’s definitely demanding, but that’s why we’re so good and that’s why we’re where we’re at right now.”
Country music star Darius Rucker, an alumnus who was in the front row during the game and in tears afterward, considers Martin a close friend. “I knew he was going to turn it around. I didn’t know he was going to turn it around this fast,” Rucker said. “But the way they play defense, they just don’t give up. He has done everything for our university.”
Former players stop by the family home all the time, said Martin’s wife, Anya, who rejected his first seven pleas for a first date when they both worked at Northeastern. “He cares. He loves these guys,” she said.
She grew up in Queens and ran track at Jamaica High School, and her parents still live in Uniondale. So it turns out that this regional had a local flavor after all. As Martin was cutting down the net, the sound system poured out Frank Sinatra — his favorite artist — singing “New York, New York.”
Minutes later, he was talking about having once made Lourdes cry with his behavior as a teenager. “I’m never making her cry again because I made a wrong choice. Watching her cry tears of joy . . . those are the tears that are important to me. That’s extending her life,” he said, emotional in his own right, the softie that he is.