Martin defends Underwood’s tactics, sees bright future for Illini

Martin defends Underwood’s tactics, sees bright future for Illini

GIFFORD — Frank Martin gave up the beaches of Jamaica for a western-themed Coaches vs. Cancer event at Gordyville USA on Tuesday. A family vacation to the Caribbean was worth interrupting, though, in the South Carolina men's basketball coach's eyes.

Martin has long been involved in the Coaches vs. Cancer cause. He also promised Illinois coach Brad Underwood he would make the trip. That's what nearly 20 years of friendship — including seven on the sideline together at Kansas State and South Carolina — means.

"I've been dying to come up here," Martin said. "Obviously, Brad's a dear friend — more like family than a friend — and Illinois basketball is what it's all about. It's big-time basketball, and Coaches vs. Cancer is an organization that I know that my family and I have been very committed to helping.

"What's a day of getting on a plane and coming to a great event? And when he explained the atmosphere of the event, I said, 'I'm not missing it.'"

Martin met Underwood in 2000 when they were both what he called "underpaid" assistants at Northeastern and Western Illinois, respectively. When Underwood was the coach at Daytona Beach Community College, Martin recruited one his players. And when Bob Huggins got the Kansas State job, he offered Underwood a job at his alma mater alongside Martin.

Martin promoted Underwood twice when he took over for Huggins in Manhattan, Kan., and kept him on staff when he left Kansas State for South Carolina.

"It was an easy decision to promote Brad," Martin said.

"Great basketball person," Martin continued. "Unbelievable drive to help people get better. Loyal. Honest. Anything I was looking for to help build our program at K-State. ... When we got to South Carolina, I was lucky I had him there my first year to help me build."

There are few in the coaching world, then, that really know Underwood better than Martin. That's why he was quick to defend Underwood after allegations were levied against him because of his language and treatment of players. That led to an internal investigation the Illini coach was ultimately cleared from upon its completion.

"I know Brad," Martin said. "I know Brad doesn't mistreat anybody. Is he going to demand? Yes. Am I going to demand? Yes. It's kind of what we do."

Underwood and Martin don't just have a nearly 20-year friendship and overlapping coaching jobs. Their styles — sideline demeanor included — are pretty much mirror images.

"We recruit the players that play in our programs," Martin said. "They don't just show up and we put them on the team. We spend a lot of time with their families and those people in recruitment. They sign up to come play at Illinois for Brad Underwood. It's not like it's a surprise that he's going to demand they do things the right way. Not just when they're in the mood. Every day."

Martin doesn't shy away from expressing his opinion. He did the same during South Carolina's run to the Final Four in 2017 when he spoke candidly about how he coaches. The gist? Young people haven't changed. Adults have been demanding less and expecting less of them.

"I've got an old saying that I share with players all the time," Martin said Tuesday evening at Gordyville. "When you play college basketball, you have to be a real good teammate 35 times a year. If that's all you can do, shame on you and shame on me for allowing that to happen. ... It's teaching kids how to do their jobs every day, how to be a good teammate every day. That's what (Underwood) pushes, and that's what he preaches.

"I'm not going to do the politically correct thing and change who I am to satisfy people I don't know. My job — my duty — is to coach the players I recruit. I know Brad does the same."

Martin said Illinois fans have only seen the beginning of what an Underwood-coached team can accomplish. The Illini haven't yet hit consistently on the aggressive style of play at both ends of the court.

"When people say aggression, we always think we're talking about defense and rebounding," Martin said. "There's teams that play with aggression on offense. Brad's teams play with aggression. They screen. They cut hard. They run.

"It's not a walk it up the floor, pass it 57 times. If they need to, they'll do that, but they play with an aggression in all facets of the game that makes it very fun to watch. He brings that mindset you've got to have to get the players to play at that level."

And Martin doesn't want to see Underwood change.

"Let me say this," he said. "If Brad Underwood changes who he is, there's going to be a lot of unhappy players in that locker room because they didn't sign up to come here and be coddled. They signed up to come here to be competitive and grow and become better men."

Scott Richey covers college basketball for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351-5605, by email at srichey@news-gazette.com and on Twitter@srrichey.

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