NEW YORK — Justin McKie first noticed it when he was being recruited.
Then an Irmo High School standout, McKie was watching footage of Frank Martin coaching at Kansas State when he realized that all Martin’s players called him Frank. It struck McKie as different at the time and when he came to South Carolina to play for Martin, it admittedly was a little bit weird.
But then it became normal. He’s just Frank.
“To be honest with you, it’s just what we call him,” McKie said.
For as long as Martin has coached — more than 30 years now — his players have called him by his first name. It’s not coach. It’s not coach Martin. It’s Frank.
He said Saturday that it started with his first coaching job, when he was 19 and an assistant coach at Miami High School. He had torn his ACL a year before and his high school coach asked him to come and help him because of the respect he had in their neighborhood.
Martin obliged, setting him on the path to playing for a Final Four appearance against Florida on Sunday. But first it was about spending 16 years coaching high school basketball in Miami, in the community that raised him and now gave him an opportunity to help raise others.
“I had to go back and coach the sons, the younger brothers, of people I grew up with,” Martin said. “They knew me as Frank. I was Frank. I was not coach, I was Frank, because I was their guy from the neighborhood.
“If I didn’t coach those kids, I didn’t have to worry about the scoreboard, it was going to be the people showing up on my house to rip my head off for disrespecting their brothers, their kids, their children. I had to do my part. But I started coaching as Frank because I was coaching dudes that I grew up with. And it’s just continued.”
Gamecocks associate coach Matt Figger has seen it happen for 10 years now since he joined Martin’s staff at Kansas State in 2007: Every player they have recruited and coached has called Martin by his first name. It’s about respect, Figger said, as Martin insists a title isn’t necessary to be respected. But by cutting down a potential barrier between player and coach, Martin seeks to make his players feel comfortable with a “better bonding relationship.”
Figger believes it comes from Martin’s focus on “winning the game of life” as more important than winning basketball games. Martin makes it personal with his players, his intense sideline persona matched by his nurturing side off the court.
“It’s like, ‘Hey, dad.’ — it’s equal to that,” Figger said. “Those are the things that draw players into him. They always know they can look him in the eye and say this is how I feel. It’s not, ‘hey, coach, hey, coach Martin, can I talk to you for a second?’ It’s more personal. That’s just something that he has done as long as I have known him.
“He has always said I don’t need to be called coach to be respected.”
Players at South Carolina respecting Martin is certainly not an issue. They rattle off words to describe him from father figure to leader to teacher, praising the passion he comes to work with every day.
“We respect him to new heights,” sophomore guard PJ Dozier said. “We have the utmost respect for him. Him allowing us to call him Frank, it makes us comfortable. We don’t really pay too much attention to it. All his players have always done that.”
His players say the personal level of relationship makes Martin more approachable. He treats them as peers, equal adults instead of children. There’s no curfews and micromanaging their lives off the court, which the Gamecocks view as preparation for the real world.
“He is going to treat us like grown men, so we act like grown men,” freshman guard Rakym Felder said.
Martin would not have it any other way. He’s in his fifth year at South Carolina now, his fourth college coaching stop. At all four, he has recruited players, lived life with players and built relationships with players.
And to all of them, he’s just Frank.
“What am I going to do tell them? They got to call me coach and that gives me a different platform, makes me feel important?” Martin said. “I’m trying to help them find success. And this is the way I learned when I was a young adult and helping the young people in my life find success.
“But I got to. That’s how I started. And I did that for 16 years and I’m not going to change because I’m older, I am who I am.”