Florida International U

Coach who took Gamecocks to Final Four says he’s willing to work ‘rear end off’ for FIU

Rafael “Tuna” Oliva and son Mike Oliva, FIU’s director of basketball operations, with South Carolina Gamecocks coach Frank Martin, center, after the FIU Panthers played the Gamecocks in Miami on Monday, Nov. 27, 2017.
Rafael “Tuna” Oliva and son Mike Oliva, FIU’s director of basketball operations, with South Carolina Gamecocks coach Frank Martin, center, after the FIU Panthers played the Gamecocks in Miami on Monday, Nov. 27, 2017. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Miami native son Frank Martin is employed by South Carolina … but he’s willing to work his “rear end off” for his alma mater, FIU.

That was among the thoughts Martin revealed in his press conference late Monday night, just minutes after his Gamecocks had defeated the FIU Panthers 78-61 in men’s basketball.

It was the first time Martin had ever coached at FIU, but it was much more than that. It was a high school reunion, college reunion, coach-player reunion and family/friends reunion, all rolled into one.

“To be back, to be able to coach a game in my city, in front of so many friends and family — it’s been a powerful 48 hours,” Martin said.

“I’m sure when I get on the plane [going back to Columbia, South Carolina], the emotion of the game will pass and the emotion of life will settle in … I’m sure it will be even more moving for me.”

Martin, a Miami High graduate, said that as soon as he arrived in town Sunday, he went back to the neighborhood he adores, the place where he spent his formative years.

“We spent a lot of time in Little Havana,” Martin said of his activities before Monday night’s game. “We spent time in areas that raised me, made me.

“Then we got back to the [team] hotel, and there was a slew of former players — people I played with, grew up with … people I coached, guys who coached with me … just hanging out at the hotel lobby.”

Martin has long been a hero to many in Miami. His fans recall his coaching highlights, including three consecutive state titles at Miami High on teams that included future NBA players Udonis Haslem and Steve Blake.

South Carolina Gamecocks coach Frank Martin screams at his players during his game against the FIU Panthers in Miami on Monday, Nov. 27, 2017. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

As an assistant at Northeastern, he recruited future NBA point guard Jose Juan Barea. As a first-time head coach at Kansas State, he knocked off No. 2 Kansas, took his Wildcats to the NCAA Elite Eight for the first time in two decades and coached future NBA players Michael Beasley and the Heat’s Rodney McGruder.

But this past season was the greatest of Martin’s career. In the 109th season of South Carolina basketball, he took the Gamecocks to their first-ever Final Four.

And yet, even after all that, Martin hasn’t forgotten Miami, and he hasn’t forgotten FIU, which is where he earned his Bachelor’s degree, a fact he brought up again late Monday night with sometimes brutal honesty.

“This university believed in me,” Martin said of FIU. “I wasn’t a bad student, [but] I should have been a really good student. College was never important to me. This university took a chance on a kid like me when they didn’t have to. … They helped me, and because of them I get to do what I do for a living.”

FIU (2-4), much like the personality of the intense Martin, showed some fight on Monday against South Carolina (5-1). The Panthers went on a 27-7 run and led 31-23 in the first half before fading.

But, win or lose, Martin said he is committed to helping his alma mater in any way possible, and he said he reached out to FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg in an attempt to better promote Monday’s game and the Panthers’ basketball program.

“This university is dear to me,” Martin said of FIU. “I told President Rosenberg that I want to help this university.”

Martin’s helping hand extends to FIU director of basketball operations Mike Oliva, whose father, Rafael “Tuna” Oliva, was one of Martin’s mentors during his early coaching days at Miami High.

Helping Mike Oliva with career advice is something Martin considers his duty.

“That’s what his father did for me, and I’m just paying back a debt that no one ever asked to collect,” Martin said. “Mike is going to be a great basketball coach. He’s got the Oliva work ethic, and anybody who knows [Tuna] knows there are not many who have a better work ethic than him.”