South Carolina & Frank Martin both came long way

NCAA South Carolina Florida Basketball
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin swings the net around after the East Regional championship game of the NCAA tournament, Sunday, March 26, 2017, in New York.

THE 1969-70 South Carolina team was so good that it went unbeaten in the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season, and so unfortunate that it did not even make the NCAA Tournament, losing in the conference tournament when one of its best players was injured.

Most of those players were on the only team to beat the great 1968-69 LaSalle Explorers. School officials were so unhappy with the format that decided the ACC's NCAA berth that they left the league in a huff after the 1970-71 season when they actually won the ACC Tournament. As decisions go, it was one of the worst in college sports history.

South Carolina proceeded to wander in the basketball wilderness through years as an independent, then in the Metro Conference and, since 1991, the Southeastern Conference. That's what Frank Martin — who grew up in Miami's Little Havana, worked as a bouncer and a high school assistant and head coach — walked into five years ago: a school with just about no basketball tradition and a fan base that could not even be called apathetic.

So why was Martin near tears last Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden? South Carolina — yes, South Carolina — was going to the Final Four.

"Anyone that's in sports dreams of moments like this," Martin said. "It's not something that you start dreaming the year you win 25 games. You dream it every single day."

Martin's high school coach, Shakey Rodriguez, "took a chance on a guy that wasn't worth a crap as a player and for whatever reason believed in me. And became a father figure in my life."

In 16 years as high school coach, Martin was an assistant on five state champions and a head coach for three other champions. Even then, he was thinking about college coaching.

"Every year I would sit around and I would say, 'Maybe one day, if maybe someday I get a chance, maybe I can do that one day,'" Martin said. "But I realized I didn't have the pedigree or the background or the basketball history as a player."

Northeastern University coach Rudy Keeling recruited one of his players in Miami. When he needed an assistant, he called Martin, who took a pay cut from teaching and coaching high school — from $32,000 to $28,000 — and shared a one-bedroom apartment in East Providence, R.I., with another assistant because they could not afford Boston rent. He hooked on with Bob Huggins at Cincinnati and then at Kansas State. When "Huggs" left for West Virginia, Martin became head coach at K-State. He won big there with players he and Huggins had recruited, so big that he was in demand. He chose South Carolina.

"A lot of people have believed in me and not given up on me when they should have, to be honest with you," Martin said.

You see Martin on the sideline and the first impression is that he is a madman — scowling, angry, about to explode. That is the same man who said this Sunday about his mother: "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. Worked on a salary as a secretary. Raised my sister and I. We'd go to Wendy's or Burger King every two Fridays. That was our family meal. She gave me the courage to try to do this for a living."

Still, South Carolina is where coaches go to die — unless they can persuade the state's best players to play for the state university in the state capital.

Sindarius Thornwell left South Carolina to play his final season of high school at Oak Hill (Va.) Academy. He came home to play for South Carolina and Martin. He was voted best player in the SEC this season and most outstanding player of the East Region.

"At the time, Jadeveon Clowney and Marcus Lattimore were football players here," Martin said. "And I sold him on, like, 'You can be them for our basketball program.'"

Martin will never forget the phone call he got from Thornwell, who could have gone anywhere, telling him, "I want to do this with you."

PJ Dozier, a Columbia native and son of Perry Dozier, one of the Dozier twins (brother Terry) who played on a legendary Baltimore Dunbar high school team before playing at South Carolina, decided to stay home and play for Martin.

"Signing and growing up in South Carolina, all we asked for was a chance to make it," Thornwell said.

They have made it all the way to Arizona, where they will play Gonzaga in the first national semifinal Saturday at the University of Phoenix Stadium.

The home attendance has gone from 3,000 the first game Martin coached to 14,000 per game. The coach went to Dawn Staley's games with the highly successful women's program, which also is in the Final Four. He went to the sold-out football games, the sold-out games for minor sports. He knew the fan base was there.

"But adversity, how we handle that, determines what comes forward," said Martin, the son of Cuban political exiles. "Go back to my mom, my grandma. They told my grandma, you got to leave your house now. And you're going to this country where you don't speak their language. And you got to go sew from 6a.m. to 6p.m. and figure it out.

"She lost her husband to a heart attack, so now she was left with my mom and my uncle as teenagers, didn't speak a lick of English. Somehow, someway, here I am today, all because of her courage. So, you know, it's just a lot of stuff right now. But you can't lose your dream."

He never did. They never did.

"If you ever lose your dream or your desire to fight for your dream, then don't get mad when you don't get it," Martin said.

South Carolina started 15-0 last season, but did not make the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks were afterthoughts or no thoughts in November. The great defense they have played all season is now complemented by an offense that has put up 93, 88, 70 and 77 in four NCAA games. Now, Martin, Thornwell, Dozier and the rest of them are two wins from a national championship.

"Why not us, why not go win it all?" Thornwell said.

They are the longest shot left, but nowhere near the 150-1 they were two weeks ago. You beat Marquette, Duke, Baylor and Florida in succession, you are the very definition of dangerous.

jerardd@phillynews.com

@DickJerardi