Commentary: Martin throws culture under the bus

pobley@thestate.comFebruary 19, 2013 

Head coach Frank Martin shows one of his trademark faces Saturday afternoon at the Colonial Life Arena. After a slow start the Gamecocks controlled the game and beat the Razorbacks 75-54.

C MICHAEL BERGEN — mbergen@thestate.com

So, Frank Martin threw his players under the bus on Thursday night after USC lost to LSU, 64-46. If that isn’t what he did, then at the very least, he lined them up in front of the bus and revved the engine.

I know it, you know it, blog headlines trumpeted it and the national media ran with it.

On Tuesday, Martin opened his weekly press conference with this:

“If you know anything about me, for 28 years, I don’t throw my players under the bus.”

As I settled in to review Martin’s take on the Valentine’s Day massacre and an afternoon of guffaws, I had a revelation. See if you can pick up on what I saw in these, the most widely circulated quotes from Thursday:

1. "I've been doing this for 28 years, nine of which were as a junior varsity high school coach. That means I dealt with 14-year-olds. I've never been more embarrassed to call myself a basketball coach than I am today."

2. "If you take Bruce Ellington off our team, you'd probably have the 12 leading candidates for starring roles in ... The Return of the Living Dead, the zombie movie. If you took Bruce off our team, our guys would probably win Academy Awards for their performance in that movie."

3. "If this was the NBA, we'd fine them, we'd take their money, we'd release them and we'd say good luck finding another job."

4. "If I've lost them, then they better disappear. Because it's going to be hard for them to be here next year if I've lost them 10 months into the job. ... I haven't lost Bruce, I'll tell you that. I haven't lost Michael Carrera, even though he's a freshman and he runs around like a chicken with his head cut off half the time and doesn't know what happening. But outside of those two guys, if I have lost them, they better figure out where home is at because obviously it's not going to be here."

5. “We lead the country in airball layups. Guys can't make layups, it's hard to win. Open threes. You've got guys who are supposed to make open threes, and they never make an open three. It's hard to do.”

6. “I've been telling our team for three weeks that ... if the word pride is not in your vocabulary, you have no chance of ever sniffing success. I'm a lot of things, but I've got pride. I'm just telling you. I'm doing this right now out of respect to you and your jobs and because it's part of my job, but I have never been so embarrassed. I shouldn't coach basketball ever again if this is how my team plays.”

7. “You've heard me say this before: In life, you get what you deserve. You've got to invest yourself to be good, and we've got guys who don't comprehend that. They put in the time when I make them put in the time, but they don't put in the time for the love of the game. Until that changes, it ain't going to get any better.”

8. “If I had Jacob Pullen, Rodney McGruder, Denis Clemente, Brent Wright, Silver Robinson, Udonis Haslem, Steve Blake, Jose Mesu, Jamel Martinez, Allen Edwards, Steve Edwards, Doug Edwards ... if I had any of those guys on my team, then I'd have a guy I could trust on my team. Then we'd be alright tomorrow. Then again, I could tell you we wouldn't have played like we did today.”

Did you see it?

Yes, Martin clearly wasn’t pleased with the team. But did he single anyone out in a negative light? Did he call them out by name?

“I threw the culture under the bus,” Martin said Tuesday. “I threw our approach under the bus. Don’t ever say I throw my players under the bus.”

That is a fine line, but an important distinction. Looking back, Martin – with exceedingly few exceptions – has been very consistent in not naming names when something has gone askew. Those times when he does say something disparaging – such as that Carrera quote above – he does so in a manner consistent with his coaching style.

That is, he may tear down a player, but he immediately builds him back up.

Martin is blunt. He seems as if he’s talking off the cuff with very little thought to tact. He can be pretty darn funny when doing so. He can also sound quite mean. But taken in the context of what he is trying to do at USC, taken in context of what he has said throughout the season, he has been remarkably consistent and impressively careful in his choice of words

There is one person he has very consistently thrown under the bus: Himself.

How many times has he accepted the responsibility for his team’s pratfalls? How many times has he admitted to being the bad guy? For every goofy comment on Carrera or Chatkevicius (personal favorite: “Look through your notebook and if you see a rebound in there, call me, because I’m getting sick and tired of getting bored to death watching film and him not rebounding the ball.”), there has been a soliloquy on his own failure to communicate or keep himself focused on what’s important.

It’s all about accountability. Martin definitely holds himself accountable to his players, his assistants, the media and the fan base. By saying things the way he says them regarding the team, he is gradually building a culture where the players hold each other accountable.

Martin saw a glimmer of that process taking hold in the loss at Alabama this past Saturday. When Bruce Ellington took his play to another level and got on his teammates, the entire team responded.

Outscoring the Tide, 49-36, after falling in a 32-9 hole had Martin feeling a little better when he woke up Sunday morning. That’s a new sensation for him, for losing is not something he has a lot of experience with.

Losses stink and more are certain to follow, but lasting programs cannot be built in a day. Martin had some wild successes at Kansas State partly because:

1. Kansas State has 26 NCAA Tournament appearances, tied for 14th historically.

2. Kansas State was ranked the No. 27 program in Jeff Sagarin’s all-time rankings.

3. Kansas State was ranked No. 22 on a similar list by Street & Smith’s.

4. Kansas State has four Final Four appearances and has reached the Sweet 16 on 15 occasions.

5. A partial list of Kansas State’s past coaches include: Tex Winter, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Jack Hartman, Lon Kruger, Dana Altman, and for one year, Bob Huggins.

In other words, Kansas State had a winning culture in place by the time Martin arrived, albeit somewhat dormant. It’s intangible, but it matters. Sprinkle in NBA-caliber talent and the sky is the limit.

USC’s most significant claim to fame in the post-Frank McGuire era is its loss as a No. 2 seed to Coppin State and an NCAA tournament victory drought that spans four decades.

Therefore, there are going to be more days like Thursday until the day when the Gamecocks make tournament appearances routine.

Here’s a little excerpt from Martin’s syllabus for Theory of Winning Cultures 101:

“It takes time. My whole thing with them is we need to worry about figuring out, teaching, learning what it takes to win. Once we embrace all that, then we can worry about winning. That has been my whole goal all year. It has never changed. It didn’t change when we won five in a row or whatever we did. It didn’t change when we beat LSU at LSU. It didn’t change when we beat Arkansas.

“We’ve got limitations as a program. My job is to make sure we continue to fight the insecurities that people have when they’re not used to winning. And we have to make sure we manage that. We’re in a tough stretch right now and there’s only one way that this is going to go away: if we take it head on and not run away from it. We understand that we’re getting put in a grinder right now. Well, what are you going to do? Just lay there? Or are you going to deal with it and get better for it?

“That Alabama game, when it got kind of ugly there again in the first half, I saw Bruce Ellington say, ‘You know what, man, I am done with this nonsense. I’m going to do this and whoever wants to help me, come on.’

“Well, now I can help Bruce because he puts his foot in the ground. As I started to help Bruce, then we saw two or three other guys kind of join in his effort, his desire, his unwillingness to give in to that difficult moment.

“It was fun to coach that game and that’s why, for the first time in 28 years, I actually went home after a loss and I felt encouraged.”

So the moral of the story is this. If there’s a bus and Martin is behind the wheel, don’t go looking for his players underneath it. If all is well, they’re on it.

“Don’t ever say I throw my players under the bus. If you know anything about me, that’s never happened in 28 years,” Martin said. “It ain’t happening yesterday. It ain’t happening today, and the day they kick me out of here and out of this business, I still won’t do it.

“Now, our culture, our approach? It’s no good. That has to change,” he concluded. “But I’m not throwing players under the bus. I fight for my guys. I don’t kick them.”

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