Photo: Victoria Richman / The Daily Gamecock

Column: Martin's ability to embrace local values propelled tournament run

A Yankee transplanted from the shores of Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts, I remember driving with my dad down Gervais Street in a rented Chevy Impala the day before my orientation. I had never spent a night in Columbia.

It was late in the afternoon and the AC wasn't working, but the monitor still reminded me that it was 102 degrees Fahrenheit.

My dad was a Carolinian. I had fair warning about the oppressive heat.

I had been forewarned about Southern pride too. How couldn't I have been? The Confederate flag had flown high over the Statehouse until two days before my arrival.

We heard the protesters before we saw them. Then the enormous "Stars and Bars" banner came into view. It was a little lower than it had been from its perch for the previous 56 years, handled at ground level by cross-generational protesters, but still felt very much present.

Mingled in with the masses bemoaning the loss of the icon of their Southern heritage was another group celebrating a victory, or even simply just expressing relief.

Traffic was building up as motorists couldn't resist from rubbernecking. I stopped and took a video to send back to my friends at school up North.

When I stepped back into my car, the monitor graciously ticked back to 101 degrees.

My dad suggested that we go check out Colonial Life Arena. We had already sought out Williams-Brice Stadium and the then-named Carolina Stadium, literally our first two appoints when getting in town. I wasn't in a rush to see the basketball stadium — the SEC was a football country, and I was still an ACC snob anyway.

I knew about Frank McGuire and Alex English. I remembered seeing Devan Downey's wizardry on SportsCenter. I was familiar with Frank Martin, mostly for his mythical sideline shouting performances — "The Screamer," my mom once called him.

South Carolina had won fewer than 28 percent of its conference games in Martin's three seasons at that point. Visiting the CLA could wait.

This week, "The Screamer" addressed the South Carolina media after the Gamecocks defeated Florida in the Elite Eight at Madison Square Garden. In his first NCAA Tournament at South Carolina, Martin matched the previous total for tournament wins in program history — four.

Previewing the Gamecocks' first Final Four appearance, Martin was reminded that the state of South Carolina currently possesses the reigning national champions on the diamond and on the gridiron. Of course South Carolina's men's and women's basketball teams both cut down the nets this week in their regional championships.

"Life is about people," Martin said. "When you put special people in a room you get them to co-exist and respect each other, and live for one another, then — and only then — do you have special things come your way. That's what this state is about."

"You think of all the controversy — I said this a couple of years ago — our state handled controversy around here a heck of a lot better than the rest of the country has. It's because of people," Martin said. "It's because of people."

From the time Martin arrived in Columbia until the start of his first winning season with the Gamecocks, the state was rocked by the flag controversy, the Emanuel AME church shooting and the devastating flash floods of October 2015. 

"They love their state," Martin said of South Carolinians. "That's why what's happened might be a surprise to a lot — it's not a surprise to me. After five years here I've learned the values and the passion of the people of South Carolina. I'm not surprised that you've had leadership at different universities put people in place, and they're so excited for representing what this state is about, that this kind of success has taken place."

I had another conversation with my dad as we left behind the train of protesters, bypassed CLA and headed back to our hotel. He encouraged me to go out and join the student newspaper, maybe cover sports again as I had done in high school. I was lukewarm on the proposal. I had decided to enroll in the Darla Moore business school instead of going the journalism route, and I had no expectations that they would let a freshman with minimal experience cover baseball or football in the foreseeable future.

My dad reminded me about basketball again.

I stepped into the role of sports editor less than five months later, covering my first men's basketball game at CLA around the same time.

I have known nothing but a winning program since my arrival on campus. The Gamecocks have reached the 25-win mark in each of the last two seasons, but even earlier this month when I was covering the SEC Tournament in Nashville, I never expected to be preparing to travel to the Final Four.

For that matter, when covering South Carolina in Greenville for the first two rounds of the tournament, a Final Four trip still seemed out the realm of likelihood. That in itself was a small miracle considering that the state of South Carolina was barred from hosting major NCAA tournament events until this year because of the flag that once flew over the Statehouse. 

As Martin pointed out, it takes a lot of people to change a culture and to foster a winning environment. As I pack for Phoenix, however, I have to express gratitude to one particular individual for the opportunity.

He's not "The Screamer" anymore. Even my mom knows his name, albeit mostly because of his suits. The national media's portrayal of Martin has changed too, he's suddenly passionate now and not a lunatic.

I give all the credit in the world to the athletic department and to seniors like Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice and Justin McKie. A lot of people were behind the program's rapid ascent. But there was really one leader.



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