College Sports

Frank Martin came to talk leadership. He revealed some of his toughest days as USC’s coach

Frank Martin: ‘If you want to lead, you gotta stay true to who you are.’

South Carolina coach Frank Martin spoke on leadership to residents of the Shaw Air Force Base on May 15, 2019.
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South Carolina coach Frank Martin spoke on leadership to residents of the Shaw Air Force Base on May 15, 2019.

Senior Master Sgt. Christopher Harvey wasn’t surprised. He had never met Frank Martin until Wednesday, but Harvey had read enough stories (and perhaps seen enough YouTube clips) to know South Carolina’s basketball coach isn’t a man who holds back. Even to a room full of strangers, Martin will happily take everyone with him on a deep dive into his life and career — the good, bad and ugly.

To Harvey, Martin was the ideal person to kick off a leadership series for military and civilian personnel of Shaw Air Force Base.

“Reading about him beforehand,” Harvey said, “he struck me as a candid person and somebody who is outspoken and honest. So the perspective he provided today wasn’t surprising to me. It was actually refreshing to hear his approach to leadership and how similar it was to the approaches we use in the military.”

Martin spoke for an hour Wednesday, leaving the last 30 minutes for an intriguing question-and-answer session that took his audience behind the curtain on how a coach manages real-life issues within a Division I basketball program.

“I don’t care what walk of life you take, leadership is something that we all take for granted sometimes,” Martin said. “In today’s day and age, opposition to leadership has existed more than it’s ever existed. And it’s important that we all who have leadership jobs continue to convey that we all have similar challenges so we can stay excited about the jobs we’re trying to do.

“I get to coach basketball and our players play basketball because of the sacrifices of our military in this country. So any time I can be a part of what the military stands for, I’m all in. It’s no questions asked. And there’s similarities between the organizations. We recruit 18-year-olds just like the military and we deal with their growth between the ages of 18 and 22, 23, with the hope that eventually they’ll become successful men and women that gather success through the structure that’s added in their life.”

Martin used several anecdotes from his seven-year run on the USC sideline to help illustrate his points. He’s learned lessons from the darkest of times.

Remember that epic rant after the LSU loss in 2013? He didn’t feel all that great about it the next day at practice.

“It didn’t fix anything,” Martin said. “You know what it did? It created negative stories. It created more problems for me to manage internally.

“A lot of times, when things aren’t going well, you can’t get wrapped up in the outside world. And that was a powerful moment for me because I had never ever called a player or a team out publicly. I tell them the truth in private, but I had never called them out publicly. I called out our whole team publicly. I’m telling you I went home that night and I felt real good. Like, ‘Phew, I got that off my chest.’

“I woke up the next day and went into practice. Guess who I had to coach the next day? The same people I called out publicly. I was like, ‘Frank, you’re really stupid.’ ”

A year later, Martin was served a one-game suspension from Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner after Martin was caught on camera cursing at Duane Notice during a loss to Florida.

“Whether I agreed with (the suspension) or not is irrelevant,” Martin said. “That was a great moment for my players, for my staff to understand that we’re all part of a team. And the people above me, whether I agreed with it or not, was irrelevant. I had to take ownership of that moment.

“I could have said, ‘You don’t like it? Too bad!’ Well, I wouldn’t be coaching here much longer. But I had to be part of that team and had to take ownership of that moment so my players understand that we all make mistakes. That was a powerful moment in our program and that allowed all our guys to continue to accept direction, responsibility, growth. And that’s the way I try to keep it.”

On how he balances trust and responsibility with his players, Martin referenced Rakym Felder’s April 2018 dismissal from the team — the impact it still has today.

“I had to put him out because he wouldn’t stay out of Five Points,” Martin said. “And then because he didn’t want to stay out of Five Points, he’d always get in trouble there, our team was always in Five Points. For seven years, I never limited them going to Five Points. My whole deal is real simple. If I get a call at 1 a.m. and I was told you were there, you’re guilty, ain’t no conversation. ‘But I didn’t do it.’ I don’t care, you and me are gonna have some bad days. So don’t go to Five Points at 5 a.m.

“But now Five Points is off limits. I get a call that our guys are at Five Points at 8 o’clock at night, that guy and me got a problem. And it’s because they couldn’t manage their responsibility. That team. I haven’t changed the policy yet, but it’s something I put in last year because that team couldn’t manage me giving them responsibility.”

Andrew Ramspacher has been covering college athletics since 2010, serving as The State’s USC men’s basketball beat writer since October 2017. His work has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors, Virginia Press Association and West Virginia Press Association. At a program-listed 5-foot-10, he’s always been destined to write about the game. Not play it.
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