GLENDALE, Ariz. — Frank Martin held another roomful of people under his sway on Friday, delivering lessons that are essentially unchanged from his days working in front of a classroom. After more than 30 years of coaching, including more than a dozen at high schools in his hometown, Miami, Martin finally has an audience commensurate with his outsize personality.
South Carolina’s run to its first Final Four has been a godsend for its coach, Martin, who has used his three weeks in the national spotlight to dispense wisdom acquired during a life spent seizing opportunities. This week, Martin scoffed at the suggestion that the Gamecocks’ national championship semifinal game on Saturday against Gonzaga, another program making its Final Four debut, would be a pressure-packed experience.
“You know what pressure is?” Martin asked. “Thirty-five students, 27 desks, 18 textbooks, and you’ve got to educate every single kid in that classroom for 180 days.”
Martin, 51, was referring to his time spent teaching math at his alma mater, Miami Senior High School, after earning his physical-education degree at nearby Florida International University. Because of his background, Martin rejects the suggestion that his seventh-seeded Gamecocks are a long shot to advance to Monday’s final. “Why not them?” he asked this week.
The full, far more complex picture of Francisco Jose Martin includes a father who left the family when Martin was in grade school, leading to formative years working low-paying jobs, including time as a short-order cook and dishwasher, while attending school and playing basketball. It includes his years as a young high school coach in Miami, where he groomed future N.B.A. players and won championships, only to see his last one stripped because of a recruiting scandal that cost him his job. It includes the frightening temper that has made him a famous — and fearsome — sideline presence but once led him to apologize for striking a player during a timeout.
Martin bristles at the idea that he is dispensing tough love.
“I don’t know what that is,” he said, adding, “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.”
He returned to Miami Senior High in 1995 to coach the varsity and led the team to three state championships, the last of which, in 1998, was later revoked after it was revealed that several of Martin’s players had been recruited and received housing assistance from school employees and boosters.
In Boston, Martin eked out a hand-to-mouth existence for the privilege of pursuing his dream of becoming a college head coach. His perseverance paid off in 2007, when he was promoted at Kansas State after one of his many mentors, Bob Huggins, took the head-coaching job at West Virginia. Martin left Kansas State in 2012 for South Carolina, where he has built a winning culture by refusing to accept that basketball had to take a back seat on the football-mad campus.
“When you embrace your job, you figure it out,” Martin said. “You don’t make excuses. You don’t pout. You figure it out.”
“My job is to help the young people that are put in front of me, so I can help them become better human beings in life,” Martin said.
Once a high school math teacher, always an educator — that’s Martin, who has used his basketball pulpit to do more than dissect his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. Last weekend, Martin took umbrage at the notion that young people have changed, making it harder for strict disciplinarians like him to survive, much less thrive, in the coaching profession.
“We’ve changed as adults,” he said. “We demand less of kids. We expect less of kids. We make their lives easier instead of preparing them for what life is truly about. We’re the ones that have changed.”
The South Carolina team includes five players who were not born in the United States, and Martin did not shy away from the hot-button political issue that would have sent other coaches into the four-corner stall offense. Asked if he would have any hesitation to visit the White House with his team if the Gamecocks were to emerge as the champions, Martin said he would not.
“This is the way I look at it — it’s the way I express it to our team,” he said. “We’re visiting the top building that represents the great country that’s given every single one of us an opportunity.”
The onetime math teacher looks at life, and basketball, as a complicated equation that can be boiled down to this: What you give = what you get.