How’s everybody feeling?
Yeah, I’m feeling pretty darn good too.
Last Sunday, much of the nation learned something that Gamecock Nation already knew: What we have here in Columbia is very special. We have a fan base as passionate as any you’ll find in college sports. And we have a group of young men who are as impressive as any you’ll find in the country. They also happen to play some pretty good basketball.
Of course, this didn’t just happen. Basketball at South Carolina hasn’t always been so good.
When people ask me to describe what this program was like when I first got here, I usually tell them one story. We have a beautiful arena that seats 18,000 people. The first regular-season game I coached at South Carolina … the stadium wasn’t even filled halfway. It was a ghost town. And I’m not talking about ancient history here. This was 2012.
In fact, it was so quiet that I could literally hear a gentleman have a conversation on his cellphone, word for word … from across the court … while the game was going on.
Coming off of a 10-win season, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
Today, I think I’d be just as surprised to see an empty seat.
This season, we were 13th in the country in total attendance — and that ranking may fluctuate. And in Greenville this past weekend, our fans created an amazing home atmosphere for the first and second rounds of the East Regional. Their spirit helped propel us to our first NCAA tournament victories in 44 years. Let that sink in.
We ask our fans to give us three things — three very precious things.
We ask for their time, which is the most valuable possession that any of us have.
We ask for some of their hard-earned money, which is what we all fight our tails off to earn. (And to get a ticket to a tourney game in blue-blood country, I know it must have cost you all a pretty penny. That means the world to me.)
And we ask for their passion. Any time you give something, or someone, your passion, you’re making a personal sacrifice.
This season, in particular, South Carolina fans have given this program those three things — their time, money and passion — in a way that I’ve never really seen before. And it’s important to me that you all know something: It hasn’t been lost on us. I can speak on behalf of the whole team when I tell you that we appreciate it from the bottom of our hearts.
I’m a Miami guy, so I know a little something about people in big cities. In a big city, when it comes to college sports, a lot of times people make noise on only two occasions: When you’re winning — and when it’s time to fire the coach.
But that’s not how it works in Columbia. Our fans started showing up even when we weren’t winning. They began supporting this team just based on the heart and commitment our players were showing on the court. They nurtured that. And those results this past weekend? They were possible because of the emotional investment that our fans put in — because of the faith they showed in us.
Here’s something you should know about me: I’m not someone who seeks approval from people I don’t know. Truly, I don’t care what you think about how I dress or how I choose to coach my team or how I act on the sidelines. That’s just noise.
But I’ll admit, when I decided to take this job five years ago, the skepticism I heard — just from within the coaching community alone — was emphatic.
When I came to Columbia for an interview, South Carolina hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1973 — way back when the legendary Frank McGuire coached the team. Since he retired in 1980, almost every coach that followed him never coached another day after they left Columbia. And you’re talking about some unbelievably talented and successful people.
So when I was contemplating making the move here, what I heard from people was, “Frank, everyone loses their job there.”
Nobody gets out of there alive.
But I saw this as an opportunity to do something great at a place where that really means something. I figured that if this place was good enough for Ray Tanner — a Hall of Fame baseball coach — it was good enough for me. If it was good enough for Steve Spurrier — a legend — it was good enough for me. And if it was good enough for Dawn Staley — one of the most talented players and coaches of all time — you can be damn certain, it was good enough for me.
All of those people came from other places, and they made Columbia home. There had to be a reason for that. And at the end of the day, that’s what drew me here.
I spent 15 years as a high school math teacher. That was the first job where I learned how to help young people grow and develop. Before I even got into college coaching, I had a good understanding of the importance of building trust with the people you’re trying to teach. And the only way you develop trust is through honesty.
When I’m recruiting, one thing I tell parents and kids all the time is that I can’t guarantee that we’re going to win. I simply can’t.
And sometimes that shocks them. It’s a bit of reverse psychology.
I definitely told that to the guys who now make up the senior class on this team. When I recruited them, I was very honest about what I expected from them, and I gave a truthful assessment of what I would give to them in return.
This is what I told them: If you want to get better … if you’re willing to listen … if you’re honest and you’re fearless about how hard you can work and how good you want to be … then playing for me will be a whole lot of fun.
And if you don’t like to work … if you seek out excuses … if you’re not fueled to improve every day … then it won’t be fun to play for me. Not at all.
The guys who are leading our team this season didn’t have the benefit playing with a senior class that could show them how to win. They had to develop that culture on their own.
There were some tough losses — ugly games even — in their first couple of years here, but these guys put their trust in me. They put their trust in me even when it seemed impossible that we’d ever be able to do what we’re doing now.
When you lose games, kids become vulnerable. They start listening to voices on the outside. That’s what losing does — it tears you apart.
But Justin, Duane and Sindarius — from that very first year, their ears never left me. When we lost nine of our first 10 SEC games their freshman year, they stayed with me. When we finished below .500 my first two seasons here, they continued to work. They trusted that we were building something, even when nobody else really saw it.
Now, these guys who didn’t have anyone to lead them have become leaders themselves. I watch how these seniors mentor our young players and it’s the most gratifying part of my job. And what it’s done is let me just coach basketball. I don’t have to worry about whether my players buy into a winning culture — because now they’re the ones spreading it.
I’ll admit, not everyone is a fit for this program. But the guys who are, and who truly commit to it, tend to blossom.
That’s how you end up with a Michael Carrera, who went from being a two-star recruit to being named first-team all-conference last year. And that’s how you get a Sindarius Thornwell, who came here with a lot of buzz, and then went out and actually exceeded all the hype.
One of my favorite moments this season was when I gathered the entire team in the weight room and surprised them with the news that Sindarius had been named SEC Player of the Year. The place went crazy. They celebrated as loudly as they had all season. And that really showed me something. Because that right there, it can’t be recruited. It has to be grown.
There’s only one ball, and only one player can shoot at a time. So naturally, this is a sport where egos can overtake teamwork if you’re not careful. But in that moment in particular, I could see there was none of that on this team. There was only love.
Before we took the floor against Marquette in the first round, I told our guys to stay true to themselves. I told them not to worry about the stage or the opponent. Just play basketball. Play like we practice.
I let them know that we weren’t there because somebody had drawn our name out of a hat. We had earned that spot. We had established ourselves as a very good team, and that was our reward.
Then we went out and we played like we belonged.
And after we won that game, our prize was a matchup with the most celebrated team in college basketball. The team that just about anyone with any sense had chosen to win the whole tournament.
At halftime against Duke, we were down by seven points. But honestly, the vibe in the locker room was pretty positive. When I walked in there and looked around at our guys, I saw that they didn’t look scared at all. They were just focused.
“You guys are playing the game, not me. But based on what I see, I think your defense is really bothering them.”
And I looked around the room.
“What do you think?”
They all responded, “Yeah!”
“So if you know you can guard them, and we’re only down seven after shooting 7 of 35 from the field, do you think we can win this game if we start taking better shots?”
They all said, “Yeah!”
And I just nodded, “Me too. Let’s go.”
When the second half began we started driving the ball to the basket more. Sure enough, good things started to happen. We threw down a few dunks and made some free throws. Then, during our first time out, while the team was gathered around me, I could see in their eyes that they all believed that we could do this. We were playing our game.
When all was said and done, we shot better than 71% in the second half. That’s crazy. Ludicrous. Simply doesn’t happen — ever.
But it did. It happened. Because we made it happen.
And down the stretch, college basketball fans saw something out of our guys that I’ve witnessed a lot in the last four years. Something that was apparent to me even when we were losing a lot of games.
I’ve seen these guys lose. But I have never seen them defeated. We have never carried ourselves like a losing basketball team. And that night, man did we look like winners.
When the clock was ticking down at the end of the game, a lot of emotions rushed through me all at once.
I thought about was how proud I was of my guys.
They came in as 17-year-old teenagers who were wet behind the ears. You could hardly carry on a normal conversation with them because they were more focused on what Twitter was saying than what was going on right in front of them.
But four years later, on that court, a group of grown men came together and took care of business. They answered every challenge with poise. They hustled on defense, they broke the press, they hit their free throws — they did everything they had to do to close out that game.
I’m not usually a very touchy feely type, sappy sentiments guy, but you know what, I have to admit, watching them perform on the biggest stage of their lives was a really emotional experience for me.
It wasn’t emotional just because of what they did on the floor that day. That game was just a small reflection of all the other great things these guys have accomplished this season and throughout their time at South Carolina. We set a school record for community service hours. We all know we don’t get judged on things like that, but you better believe it played a role in what you saw happen on Sunday. Because it showed these kids weren’t just committed to becoming a winning team, they wanted to become winning people.
As a coach, as a mentor, what more can you ask for?
As I walked over to shake Coach K’s hand, I felt chills go up and down my body. It really hit me all at once that we were advancing to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history. When we met at half court, the winningest coach in college basketball history told me something that I know I’m never going to forget: “Frank, you’ve got a great team. You’re building something special here.”
And when he said that, combined with all the other thoughts whirling around my head, it made me tear up right then and there.
Not only because I knew this was one of the biggest victories in this program’s history. But because I knew that this was only the beginning.
I’ll see you at Madison Square Garden, Gamecocks.