COLUMBIA, S.C. -- There are two Frank Martins. OK, actually, there's just one. But these days it certainly feels like there are two. There's Frank Martin, the 51-year old head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks, the team that has spent March rising from the basement of college basketball obscurity to make its Final Four debut on Saturday against Gonzaga.
Then there is ... FRANK MARTIN(!), the dapper, gregarious head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks who is the sudden subject of any and all media. He's the toast of anyone with a digital recording device, from crusty old sportswriters to shiny morning news anchors. He is not 51. He is just a little more than two weeks old, birthed in the press room of an arena in Greenville, South Carolina, and then voted Most Likely To Succeed one week later at Madison Square Garden.
The original model, he's sitting back and watching the emergence of this new version with all the same fascination and curiosity as the rest of us.
"Yeah, this guy I keep reading and hearing about, he sounds like a really great guy, doesn't he?" Martin said Tuesday. "They're referring to this guy as 'passionate' and 'a master motivator.' Well, I know this can't possibly be about me, because a month ago what I was reading about me was what I've always read about me, that I was a yeller and a screamer and way too over the top. This guy here, though, he's really got it together, doesn't he? He sounds great. I want to read all I can about that guy."
The got-it-together guy is the one who has been on display as his seventh-seeded team has toppled Marquette, Duke, Baylor and Florida. He's the one wearing the suits that look like they were stolen from Don Draper's closet. He's the one with his arms perpetually outstretched, every facial expression recorded by dozens of courtside cameras, ready to take up column inches and to take on a starring role in "One Shining Moment."
The real Frank Martin, the one who had to navigate wobbly knees as he sat down to chat before his team's final pre-Final Four practice, doesn't look quite so shiny. He looks exhausted. When asked if he has slept, he shrugs.
"I've slept whenever I've actually laid my head down on a pillow," he said. "The trick is actually getting to that point.
"I am having the time of my life. But as many times as I have been involved in this tournament, my experience was over last weekend. As much basketball as I have coached, the only place I have never been before is this week right here. I know I can coach. I know my team can play. I know we can win it all. The part I don't want to screw up is all the stuff that leads up to the stuff that I know we can do. I'm talking about the basketball stuff."
The real Frank Martin, here in the bowels of South Carolina's Colonial Life Arena, does not wear a suit and tie. He wears baggy gym shorts and a hoodie. His knees are scarred. His forehead carries the wrinkles of a man who has spent a lot of time with his brow furrowed. He wrings his hands ... a lot. He doesn't walk. He stalks, with a bit of hunch and more than a bit of bowleg. When practice begins a few hours later, the trudge continues, dividing time between two workouts on two courts. The few times he allows himself to lean up against the pads behind the basket, he catches himself staring at a spot in the floor ... then starts pacing again.
It is the gait of a man who spent a not small portion of his career carrying baggage. Some of it has been well documented by those who have helped introduce the world to Martin over the past two weeks. The stories have been written about the kid whose family was forced to flee to Miami from Cuba and how his father walked out on that family, leaving his mother alone to raise little Frank and his sister. He himself has talked of "moving 15-16 times over my first 17 years" and shared the story of his personal epiphany, when as a college student-turned-bouncer he was shot at by a group of rumblers he'd thrown out of the club earlier that night. From that point forward he promised to focus on studying, teaching and coaching.
"Some of you guys are brand new to the party here," he joked with the packed room of assembled media on Tuesday morning. "Back in my bouncing days I knew exactly who you were because I wouldn't have let you through the door because I hadn't seen you before."
But for every Frank Martin story of inspiration that has been reported this March, there are large pieces of that luggage that have gone largely unchecked. You might have read about his taking over as a JV high school coach, his first time sitting at the boss end of a bench, when the guy who was supposed to be coaching didn't show up. You probably read about his rise through the Miami high school ranks under the guidance of his old coach, Shakey Rodriguez. And you've most definitely heard that he won three straight state titles leading the Miami High Stingarees, led by Udonis Haslem. But unless you've done some digging you probably haven't heard that the last of three championships was vacated over an incident involving improper benefits, school administrators and a booster. Martin was not among those formally accused by the state investigation, and he has always denied any wrongdoing. But the head coach did lose his job.
If you've just joined the Frank Martin praise party, you've heard about his relationship with Bob Huggins, his first real college coaching mentor, and how he took over at Kansas State after Huggs bolted. You know he led the Wildcats to four NCAA appearances in five years. But unless you are the hardest of hard-core college basketball fans, you probably don't remember the somewhat overcooked controversy of 2010 when he hit player Chris Merriewether on the arm with the back of his hand, and you probably don't know that he left Little Manhattan in a feud with his athletic director.
And unless you are in that smallest of college sports minorities -- longtime, dedicated fans of South Carolina's men's basketball program -- then you certainly didn't read the declarations that he was insane for taking the job or the shouts at the end of the 2014-15 season calling for the head of the coach with a three-year record of 45-54 and 15-39 in the SEC with zero postseason appearances. In the middle of it all, he was suspended one game for, in the words of athletic director Ray Tanner, "inappropriate verbal communication as it relates to the well-being of our student athletes."
Those who have jumped onto the garnet-and-black bandwagon only over the past month probably don't know about the suspensions of Rakym Felder and superstar senior Sindarius Thornwell earlier this season.
In central Kansas, Columbia, and within the world of South Florida prep hoops, they remember. So do his former players, who to a man remain fiercely loyal. And so does Martin, who never flinches at the mention of any of it.
"I wasn't a feel-good story then, was I?" Martin recalled Tuesday. "I am fortunate that I have never been one to spend a lot of time worrying about what other people said or wrote about me, because a lot of it wasn't good. But there have been so many people who stood by me, who did it, quite frankly, when I probably didn't deserve it. I remember who those people were. And I know people will remember when I did the same for them."
He recalls a moment after a heartbreaking loss at Kansas State, a close loss in a showdown with Missouri on a night when they were both top-10 teams. A reporter asked, "Since you guys lost, do you think now you can get your team's attention?" Martin bristled simply recalling the exchange. He recalled thinking to himself, Dude, we're ranked in the top 10. ... You think we don't already have their attention?! Instead, he calmly took a breath and replied, "If I were to take your approach toward education, then I would only teach students when they failed a test."
Frank Martin -- the real Frank Martin -- tightens his lips and shakes his head.
"At heart I am still a high school math teacher," he said. "I have done things I'm not proud of, and I have done a lot of things I am proud of. No matter what I have done, I'm an open book. I've got no secrets. My players aren't going to learn from me unless they know everything about me."
Now, as the wave of this incredible run to the biggest game of his life reaches its peak, he hopes that maybe other people might learn from him, too. Hopefully, the Gamecocks will give those people a reason to stick around. Maybe he'll become the next great inspirational speaker-coach, like Jimmy Valvano or, just up the road, Dabo Swinney.
Or maybe those suddenly so obsessed with FRANK MARTIN(!) will vanish as quickly as they have appeared during this memorable march of March. None of that matters now. Only now matters now. In the meantime, he's going to keep on relishing this out-of-body experience.
"Two weeks ago I walked into the press room, and there were five guys sitting in there," he said of the Q&A that followed the announcement of South Carolina's NCAA berth, coming after a 3-6 finish to the season. "Now it's wall-to-wall in there, and in Arizona it's going to fill a football stadium. This is the biggest stage our sport has to offer. You know what? If some folks hear the story of this team or hear my story and can get something from that, great. But I'm just Coach Frank, man. We've got two games to win."