GLENDALE, ARIZ. – Ron Everhart was only a couple of days removed from being hired as Northeastern’s coach when he arrived at the 2001 Final Four in Minneapolis in search of an assistant coach.
He left with one of the best he has ever had: Frank Martin.
As he interviewed Martin, Everhart’s first impression was that he was talking to an intellectual and man of principles — someone as proud to be a former high school basketball coach as he was to be a math teacher and the son of Cuban immigrants.
“I just knew Frank was the guy,” said Everhart, now a West Virginia assistant. “He was about making young men become men and holding them accountable, creating a situation through basketball where kids could grow up and understand things about life. Frank’s had a tough life and he’s used that as a positive and an advantage for him, as opposed to one of those people who runs around complaining about how tough things are.”
At the time, Martin had spent one season as an assistant at Northeastern. But he had more than a decade of experience as a high school coach with strong connections in Miami.
And Bob Huggins, then coaching at Cincinnati, encouraged Everhart to retain Martin.
Martin will coach the biggest game of his life Saturday when his Gamecocks face Gonzaga in the national semifinals for the right to face the winner of the North Carolina-Oregon game on Monday for the championship.
Martin’s players might be more afraid to let him down than to actually go and play the biggest game of their lives.
“All you have to do is listen to what he says and you’ll be in a position to win,” Gamecocks star guard P.J. Dozier said. “He tells us all the time he learns day in and day out from us, but how much we learn from him is amazing.”
Three years ago, the Gamecocks were playing through their second consecutive 14-win season and had not made the postseason yet under Martin. There might have been panic outside of the program, but Martin never looked at losing games as facing real adversity.
His grandmother came to the United States without a husband. She spoke no English and worked sewing jobs for 12 hours a day to provide for her family. Martin’s mother also raised him and his sister on her own.
“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,” the 51-year-old Martin said. “Adversity, how we handle that, determines what comes forward.”
Aside from the adversity his family faced during his childhood, Martin overcame his own struggles. He was once shot at while working as a nightclub bouncer while attending Florida International.
He started coaching at the high school junior varsity level in 1985 at Miami High and eventually became one of the most prominent high school coaches in the state, winning three consecutive state titles at Miami Senior. But he was fired in 1998 after two championships were vacated when the state high school league ruled several players were ineligible.
“I was a part of an unfortunate situation, coaching high school basketball,” Martin said. “And it was under my watch. I still to this day say we were not guilty, but I was responsible for that situation. And I lost my job. And that was the first time I ever said, ‘You know what, I’m going to try this college thing.’ ”
In his early 30s at the time, Martin mailed more than 100 letters to Division I college coaches across the country looking for a job. He received one response. It was from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who didn’t have an opening but complimented Martin.
A year later, Martin was hired at Northeastern by Rudy Keeling. It was there that he saw for the first time how a turnaround could happen for a college program.
The Huskies went 10-19 in 2000-01 when Keeling was fired and Martin was fortunate enough to stick around with Everhart. In their time together, Northeastern went from 7-21 in Year 1 to winning 16 and 19 games the following two seasons.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino was hired at Northeastern after Martin left to join Huggins at Cincinnati. Pitino ended up coaching Martin’s best recruit, former Timberwolves guard J.J. Barea, who was Colonial Athletic Conference Player of the Year in 2005-06.
“When I got there we had a really good player who Frank Martin brought in with Jose Juan,” Pitino said. “He did a lot of good things and Frank was certainly responsible for it. Coach Everhart really spoke highly of him.”
Everhart, a West Virginia native, helped Martin get the job with Huggins, who kept him on staff for three seasons with Cincinnati and later at Kansas State.
Martin replaced Huggins as Kansas State’s coach in 2007 and reached the NCAA tournament four times in his first five seasons, which included an Elite Eight appearance in 2010. It took five years for Martin to make another NCAA tournament run this year at South Carolina. But Everhart had a feeling it would happen again.
From the first time they met in Minneapolis 16 years ago, Everhart could see why players wanted to give everything they had for Martin.
“He’s not going to back down from the principles that he thinks that are important,” Everhart said. “When players mess up, he’s still going to love them, but he’s going to be demanding. We as parents, teachers, educators and coaches have not been nearly as hard on the younger generation as we had it growing up. He speaks from the heart and is passionate about what he does. He’s not going to change.”