One coach will snip the net after the national championship game Monday and enjoy the spoils of a well-earned title. Either Gonzaga’s Mark Few or North Carolina’s Roy Williams will smile, lift their arms and let the sights and sounds of a celebration at University of Phoenix Stadium wash over them in a proud moment that will mark college basketball’s peak.
Despite that, South Carolina’s Frank Martin will remain one of the largest winners of the past three days.
Too often, the spotlight only is big enough for one champion, the confetti reserved for a single title holder. Too often, the praise is saved for a lone heartbeat produced by one coach and one collection of stars.
Yet Martin should be lifted as one of the brightest diamonds that shined in Arizona’s desert.
Martin’s impact goes beyond leading the Gamecocks to a surprise East Region title and to a gritty effort in a loss to Gonzaga in the Final Four. His postgame remarks Saturday about being “fearless of your dreams and fearless of the work” is the kind of stuff Hallmark wishes it could cook up. The comments from South Carolina players about their coach after time ran out on their magical ride revealed the mutual respect formed between a mentor and the lives he worked to mold.
“He just told us to keep our heads up,” South Carolina senior guard Justin McKie told SEC Country’s Mike Wilson. “Told us he was proud of us and told the guys that are coming back to build on what we did this year. Told us three seniors that are leaving to enjoy what we have accomplished over four years and that if we need anything, he and our Gamecock family would always be here for us.”
Memories of this run by the Gamecocks will stay with McKie, Martin and everyone who found joy in this wild, wondrous experience that will tickle the imagination of South Carolina fans for years.
What garnet-and-black heart didn’t burst with pride when seeing Marquette mangled to mark the Gamecocks’ first NCAA Tournament victory since 1973? What Sandstorm-loving soul didn’t savor dumping Duke, blowing out Baylor and frustrating Florida to reach the program’s first Final Four?
Martin made it all possible. Teams reflect their leaders, for better and for worse, and South Carolina benefited from the vision produced by someone who grinded to reach a grand stage. At this point, it’s hard to picture the Gamecocks reaching Arizona with any other coach after a so-so 22-10 record prior to the NCAA Tournament. South Carolina entered the Dance having lost six of nine games.
Before the curtain closed on his memorable masterpiece, Martin took a beautiful bow.
Every time South Carolina coach Frank Martin opens his mouth, there's a chance to you'll hit gold pic.twitter.com/XcyMjQGIHF
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) March 31, 2017
Martin’s story is well-known by now. He’s a former Miami nightclub bouncer. He’s a former junior-varsity basketball coach. He’s a former assistant under Bob Huggins. He’s a former coach at Kansas State who ran into a dead end when he reportedly clashed with athletic director John Currie, now at Tennessee.
There are many lessons in Martin’s climb. Among the most powerful is this: Detours don’t have to mean a dream’s death, and with the right amount of sweat and belief, anything can be achieved.
Yes, challenges are a part of life. The scenery might change, expectations can be adjusted and more steps may be required to reach a destination than first thought. But if you fight hard enough, if you refuse to give in to fatigue and frustration, even the tallest of mountains can be climbed.
Sure, Gonzaga and North Carolina offer strong story lines of their own. Few has built a monster in the Pacific Northwest outside the Power 5 sphere with admirable consistency. Williams has the Tar Heel machine humming again, and North Carolina seeks its third national title under the decorated coach.
Both men deserve to stalk their benches with the sport’s largest prize at stake.
But Martin’s tale of what can be done with will and tireless work will remain compelling after “One Shining Moment” fades into the night. If Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski is a Goldman Sachs banker, Martin is a lunch-pail-carrying coal miner who has shown us all that it pays to keep chipping away at a dream.
Martin struck gold this March, even if South Carolina finished two wins short of a national title.
For that, he doesn’t need to climb a ladder to leave Arizona as a champion.