It’s no secret that Illinois head coach John Groce is on the hot seat. After an exciting late-season run, the Illini suffered and embarrassing defeat to Rutgers, all but ending their NCAA tournament hopes. Many are calling for AD Josh Whitman to find a replacement for Groce. Despite their recent struggles, Illinois has a rich basketball history and could potentially be the most attractive job available this offseason, given nothing shocking happens at a place like Indiana.
So who are some candidates to replace the head honcho in Champaign? As a part of our coaching profile series, today we examine current South Carolina head coach Frank Martin.
Martin, who was born and raised in Miami, graduated from FIU in 1993. His first basketball gig was at a local high school in north Miami, where he served as their head coach for eight seasons. His team, which featured Udonis Haslem and Steve Blake, managed to win three consecutive state championships from 1996 to 1998. However, the last of those three titles was vacated upon the discovery of Martin involving boosters and employees in a recruiting scandal. He was dismissed from the school in 1999.
Martin then made his way to the college game, working as an assistant coach at Northeastern University and then accepting a similar role at Cincinnati from 2000 to 2006. In early 2007 Martin was announced as Bob Huggins’ successor at Kansas State, which would become his first collegiate head coaching job. His Wildcat teams, known for their scrappy defense and tough demeanor, reached the postseason in each of Martin’s first two years in charge. In 2010, he was awarded Big 12 Coach of the Year prior to taking Kansas State to the Elite Eight, their deepest tournament run since 1988. His fourth and fifth seasons in Manhattan also included NCAA tournament appearances, but he was never able to get back past the second round.
In March of 2012, South Carolina announced that they were hiring Martin to replace Darrin Horn as head coach. It was a somewhat surprising move, as Martin seemed stable in Kansas and had no ties to the South Carolina program. His first three seasons in charge were difficult as he began to rebuild the Gamecocks, posting only one above-.500 record. But in 2015 he managed to take South Carolina to the NIT, a place they hadn’t been in years. This season Martin has the Gamecocks sitting at 21-8 and in third place in the SEC. It looks like South Carolina might get their first NCAA tournament appearance under Martin if they can close out the season strongly.
No direct ties to the Illini. Martin’s time at Kansas State means he has midwestern connections and knows the area recruiting landscape pretty well, but he doesn’t have any history with the Illinois program.
1. Program builder
Kansas State was in a state of turmoil after Bob Huggins’ resignation, but Martin was there to quickly pick up the pieces. He led the Wildcats to four NCAA tournament appearances in five seasons, and one at least one game in the Big Dance each time. Then he moved on to South Carolina, another place that was in desperate need for a rebuild, and had them sitting at 15-0 last season and currently at 21-8 this year. There’s no doubt that Martin has a unique and strong ability to quickly turn around a struggling program, which is something Illinois could really use right now.
2. Tough and scrappy system
Martin’s Kansas State teams were known for their defensive intensity. They were always on top of the Big 12 in turnovers forced and points allowed per game. While his Gamecock squads haven’t been quite as dominant, they are still known for their defensive prowess. Martin’s system of toughness and lockdown D would translate well to the Big Ten, where nearly every team is going to give you a fight on any given night.
Martin’s fiery passion for the game can easily cross the line — as you’ll see in the “cons” section of this profile. But when he doesn’t let his temper get the best of him, he’s clearly a very passionate and energetic coach that wants nothing more than to see his team succeed. Whenever you see Martin pacing the sidelines he looks like he’s ready to go to war for his players. There’d be no questioning Martin’s motivation if he were hired; he’s one of the most high-energy and flamboyant guys on this list of candidates.
On the flip side of that energetic passion is Martin’s temper. Usually this isn’t an issue for big-name, power-five conference coaches, but in this case it’s a legitimate concern fans might have if he were hired. Back in 2014 Martin was suspended for one game by South Carolina for using inappropriate language towards players on the team. The gif of exactly what was said can be seen here. One year earlier Martin took criticism from the media of the way he handled a postgame press conference, where he repeatedly threw his players under the bus. The entirety of that press conference can be seen here. And don’t forget the recruiting scandal mentioned above to add to Martin’s list of wrongdoings. There are video montages like this all over the internet that showcase his sometimes-uncontrollable rage, too:
Obviously this is just one side to Martin, and it only comes out every so often, but it would still be a concern if I were Josh Whitman.
Martin makes almost $2.5 million a year at South Carolina. His buyout is reportedly upwards of $4.6 million. That would be a lot of money for Whitman to shell out to hire Martin. That’s not to say it would be an impossible financial move for Whitman to make, but is a clearly “B-tier” candidate worth that amount of money? No doubt about it, Martin is a great coach. But I think it’s fair to say that if Illinois hires him something had to have gone wrong with a candidate higher up on their preference list. So dish out this kind of money for a backup option would be difficult for Whitman to achieve.
3. No Illinois background
As mentioned in previous coaching profiles, this isn’t a huge sticking point but is nevertheless important to talk about. Some of the coaches on our list have no ties to the Illini and I would still be very pleased if Illinois hired them. But a bigger point to discuss, specifically with Martin, is that no ties to the state of Illinois means very little recruiting in Chicago. Martin has had two easier recruiting areas in his time as a head coach: Kansas and South Carolina. Those are areas that aren’t necessarily rich with basketball talent or difficult to recruit in. Martin’s lack of an Illinois background means he would have to learn how recruiting in Chicago works, and he’d have little-to-no reputation when walking into the high school gyms. He’d need to ensure there was a “Chicago guy” on his staff because Martin’s lack of experience both coaching and recruiting in the state of Illinois could be the reason why he’s not considered for the job.
No offense to Martin, but if he’s hired to be the next coach at Illinois it means something has gone wrong. He’s a second or third tier option for Whitman, certainly below guys like Cuonzo Martin or Monty Williams. Martin has shown he can bring consistent success to power-five conference schools, and that’s something I’m sure most Illinois fans would take in a second. But he’s got his issues too, and I can’t see him being the long-term future face of Illinois basketball. I would be surprised and a little disappointed if Martin were announced as the next head coach, but there are certainly worse options out there.
Have thoughts on Frank Martin and his chances of potentially becoming the next head coach at Illinois? Drop by in the comments section below and let us know what you think!