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Here’s how South Carolina coach Frank Martin inspired FIU’s Mike Oliva to change his life

Rafael "Tuna" Oliva and son Mike Oliva, FIU Director of Basketball Operations, with South Carolina Gamecocks coach Frank Martin (center) after FIU Panthers played the Gamecocks at FIU in Miami, Florida, Nov. 27, 2017.
Rafael "Tuna" Oliva and son Mike Oliva, FIU Director of Basketball Operations, with South Carolina Gamecocks coach Frank Martin (center) after FIU Panthers played the Gamecocks at FIU in Miami, Florida, Nov. 27, 2017. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

When Mike Oliva and South Carolina coach Frank Martin see each other before Monday night’s men’s basketball game between host FIU and the Gamecocks, the two men will embrace.

“There will be a hug and a kiss,” Oliva said, “Cuban style.”

Oliva, 37, played for Martin at Miami High from 1996-98 and is now FIU’s director of basketball operations. Martin, 51, is known for his coaching intensity and his “if looks could kill” stare.

This past spring, Martin made history, taking the Gamecocks — in their 109th season — to their first NCAA Final Four. And Monday night’s game — which the Gamecocks (5-1) won 78-61 — was the first time Martin coached at his alma mater, FIU (2-4).

But the connection between Oliva and Martin runs deeper than just coach-player. Oliva’s father, Rafael “Tuna” Oliva, was one of Martin’s mentors.

From 1981 to 1984 — when Mike Oliva was a toddler — “Tuna” was Miami High’s junior varsity coach, and Martin was his assistant.

Martin had tried to play for Miami High, Tuna said, but knee issues crushed that dream. Shakey Rodriguez, Miami High’s coach at that time, saw something special in Martin and made him the team manager.

michael oliva
Michael Oliva Courtesy photo

“Frank was totally committed to becoming a good coach,” Rodriguez said. “He worked hard as hell. He had a great feel for the game. You saw intensity right away. A lot of people talk, but they don’t walk the walk.”

It was under “Shakey and Tuna” that Martin learned how to drive players to perform at their best.

“Frank always had that intensity, but he learned it from us,” Tuna said. “We were as wild then as Frank is now. We coached hard and our practices were intense.”

CHANGE OF PLANS

Martin has had a profound effect on Mike Oliva, who was working as an events coordinator on South Beach when he got an epiphany.

It was 2007, and Oliva had just seen Martin get the biggest break of his career, taking over as head coach at Kansas State. The Wildcats, powered that season by future NBA first-rounder Mike Beasley, beat second-ranked Kansas, their first home win over their rivals since 1983.

Also that season, Martin was named Big 12 Conference Coach of the Year after he led K-State to the NCAA Elite Eight, the Wildcats’ best tournament performance in two decades.

“I saw what Frank was doing,” Oliva said, “and I wanted to be a part of basketball again.”

Oliva called Martin, who offered advice: Go back to school, finish your bachelor’s degree, earn a master’s and then serve as a volunteer assistant coach, working your way up.

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The Miami High State Championship team from 1997-98. Udonis Haslem (50), Steve Blake (25) and Michael R. Oliva (11) are pictured here. Courtesy of Michael Oliva

This was difficult advice. Oliva was 27 at the time, and he had a steady girlfriend, Alexandra, who is now his wife.

The prospect of going to school for several years and then earning little or no money before getting untracked in his career was difficult for Oliva and his life plan. But Alexandra, her family and his family were all supportive.

Oliva went to FIU, earning a bachelor’s degree in hospitality and tourism management in 2012 and a master’s in recreation and sports management in 2014.

USC coach Frank Martin addresses fans at welcome back celebration

He then volunteered under FIU coach Richard Pitino in the 2012-2013 season. After Pitino left to coach Minnesota, Oliva stayed on with his FIU replacement Anthony Evans and has worked his way up. This is his sixth year with the FIU program and his first as director of basketball operations.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Oliva said. “It was a complete reboot of my career.”

Oliva said the fact that Martin had been a bouncer at one point in his life gave him further motivation that he, too, could make it in basketball even if his journey was anything but traditional.

“The night life gets old,” Oliva said. “When Frank made it, I realized basketball was my passion.”

It’s a passion that connects many in the Miami High community who revere Martin as one of their own who went on to greatness.

A large number of Martin’s family members and friends are expected to be in the stands Monday night.

That includes Tuna Oliva, who will sit right behind FIU’s bench.

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Rafael “Tuna” Oliva, left, congratulates Frank Martin on his NCAA Final Four run. Courtesy of Michael Oliva

“Seeing Frank on the other side will be difficult,” Tuna said. “He’s like a son to me.”

As director of basketball operations, Oliva coordinates travel, meals and other aspects of the FIU players’ day-to-day lives, including serving as an academic monitor. He also coordinates Evans’ basketball camp, FIU’s video program and community relations.

South Carolina coach Frank Martin describes the "surreal" feeling of making his first Final Four with the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Coaching is on the horizon — at least that’s the plan.

“I’m bottling up all my fire for when I get a chance to coach,” Oliva said. “I’m there at practices, but I’m holding back because I know it’s not my turn yet.

“But every time I see Frank coaching, it brings me back. Coaching is what it’s all about for me.”

THIS AND THAT

▪ Mike Oliva’s junior year was his last being coached by Martin. Miami High went 36-1 and won a third consecutive state championship, and that Stingarees team included current Miami Heat forward Udonis Haslem, as well as former NBA guard Steve Blake.

▪ Frank Martin is 2-0 as a head coach against FIU, but both of those games were at South Carolina.

▪ FIU’s only wins this season have come against an NAIA school (Florida Memorial) and one from NCAA Division II (Concordia).

▪ South Carolina, which competes in the Southeastern Conference, is the only Power Five opponent on FIU’s schedule.

▪ The Gamecocks went 26-11 last season, setting a school record for wins. This season, three starters from the Final Four team have graduated, but Martin still stresses tough defense. Opponents are shooting just 39 percent against the Gamecocks.

▪ Among active Division I head coaches, Martin is sixth with a .667 NCAA Tournament winning percentage, trailing Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Kentucky’s John Calipari, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Kansas’ Bill Self.

▪ Two South Carolina freshmen played high school ball locally: Felipe Haase at Miami Christian and Ibrahim Famouke Doumbia at Miami Country Day.

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