The South Carolina Gamecocks defeated the Florida Gators, 77-70, in the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional Final at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, advancing to the school’s first ever Final Four.
The 7-seeded Gamecocks will be, by far, the most unlikely participants in Phoenix next weekend. They the lowest-seeded team of the four remaining in the tournament and a school that is known much more as a “football school.” They are also led by a coach in Frank Martin whose improbable journey to this point forces even the most skeptical of humans to acknowledge that dreams actually do come true, as long as you don’t “lose your dream,” as Martin would say.
From a pure basketball or coaching perspective, it isn’t all that surprising that Martin was able to reach this plateau. Martin took Kansas State to the NCAA Tournament in four of his five years at the helm and led the Wildcats to an Elite Eight appearance in 2010. He won 68% of his games before deciding to take the head coaching position at South Carolina in 2012.
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At the time, his decision to take over the Gamecocks’ basketball program seemed curious because of the school’s lack of basketball history and recent struggles in a very competitive Southeastern Conference. Some, like me, also may have wondered about the cultural fit of a seemingly rambunctious man — on the coaching sidelines, anyway — of Hispanic descent, in the deep south. Any such concerns seem to have been unfounded.
“Columbia is a special place, it’s got great people,” Martin said after Sunday’s game. “The way it welcomed our family from day one, and we were all outsiders.”
It took time for Martin to build the program, but last season it became clear that he had. Despite missing out on the NCAA Tournament, Martin led the Gamecocks to a 25-9 record and an NIT bid. This season, from the start, it was apparent that the South Carolina basketball program had turned the corner. They got off to an 8-0 start, including wins over ranked Michigan and Syracuse teams, while playing the rough and rugged signature defense that Martin’s Kansas State teams were known for.
However, after reaching one of the pinnacles of college coaching on Sunday, the improbability of Martin’s personal and professional ascent was far from lost on him. When I asked him if the moment was everything he had dreamed it to be, he was introspective and emotional, as he was throughout his press conference.
“In 16 years as a head high school coach, I was a part of eight state championships, and every year I would sit around and I would say, ‘maybe one day, if maybe someday I get a chance, maybe I can [get to a Final Four] one day,’” Martin said. “But, I realized I didn’t have the pedigree or the background or the basketball history as a player.”
In expressing his feelings about this accomplishment, he went even further back to his mother and grandmother.
“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 6AM to 9PM 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, some way, here I am today, all because of her courage. So, you know, it’s just a lot of stuff, man, a lot of stuff right now. But you can’t lose your dream.”
As it turned out, there is no doubt Martin had the proper pedigree to become a great coach at the college level, if not the typical story. He’s done it the only way he knows how, through extremely hard work and using the same values and tenets to coach his teams and teach his players that enabled him to get to where he is.
“When I go in kids’ homes and I recruit, what I tell their parents is, you guys might be mad at me sometimes. I’m ok with that. But the one thing you never have to worry about with me is that I’m going to lie or I’m going to cheat your child. Neither one of those two things is ever happening,” Martin said during his team’s day off on Saturday.
“I got four core values I live my life by and I run my teams by and I run my family with,” he continued. “Honesty, loyalty, trust and love. And the only way you get to love is if you experience the other three. When you get to love, that gets strong. I don’t care what storm comes through, you’re not breaking love.”
Those don’t seem like basketball values. Those seem like life values.
But, as it turns out, they work really well on the court, too. The Gamecocks are a selfless group that clearly exhibits trust and love in each other. Those attributes have translated into four NCAA Tournament wins over the last week and a half, including upset wins over Duke and Baylor and culminating in a stifling second-half defensive performance against Florida to overcome a seven-point halftime deficit.
South Carolina will face 1 seed Gonzaga in Phoenix on Saturday night. They will be underdogs yet again. But, it should shock no one if they pull off another upset. The sky is the limit for the Gamecocks and coach Martin, or Frank, as his players call him.
Frank Martin won’t stop dreaming and you can bet his players won’t either.
Jamal Murphy is a contributor to CBS Local. He writes extensively about college basketball, the NBA and other sports, often focusing on the intersection of sports and social justice/awareness. Listen to Jamal on the Bill Rhoden On Sports podcast (iTunes & Soundcloud) that he cohosts with legendary sports columnist, Bill Rhoden. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @Blacketologist.