College Sports

‘A kid in a candy store’: An energized Frank Martin is eager to help revitalize UMass men’s hoops

"I like taking on challenges. Some people call me stupid for it, but it’s who I am."

New UMass men's basketball head coach Frank Martin is eager for the challenge. Chris Tucci/Massachusetts Athletics

On the 32nd floor of the skyscraper at 1 Beacon Street in Boston, Frank Martin has an unmistakable glow as he sits in a burgundy booth in a corner of the UMass Club and gushes about his new job.

Martin, 56, is faced with a daunting task of revitalizing a men’s basketball program that has made the NCAA Tournament just once since 1998. The new UMass head coach knows it’s a steep climb, but he’s never been one to shy away from something that may seem difficult at first.

“I like taking on challenges,” Martin told Boston.com. “Some people call me stupid for it, but it’s who I am. When things are crazy and uncomfortable, I feel really good. When things are easy, I feel very uncomfortable. It’s just my journey.”

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His wife, Anya Martin, a former track star at UMass, said it’s easy to tell how revitalized he feels. Martin, who was fired earlier in March following a largely successful 10-year run at South Carolina, accepted the job at UMass last Thursday at midnight, and she said he’s been buzzing ever since.

Anya has strongly encouraged him to keep a notepad on the side of the bed so he can jot down his ideas in the middle of the night instead of pacing around the room and waking her up.

“He’s like a kid in a candy store,” Anya told Boston.com. “He can’t sit still. He can’t sleep straight through the night.”

He comes from humble beginnings.

Growing up in Little Havana, a neighborhood in Miami, Martin wasn’t exposed to the NBA or college basketball much at a young age. His grandmother, who played in Cuba, and his high school coach, helped draw him to the sport, and he was hooked right away.

Martin tore up his knee after high school and initially quit college, but he returned to get his degree after some persuading because he knew he wanted to be a fixture in the area.

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“All I wanted to do was coach my high school team and be a teacher in my community where I lived,” Martin said. “That was the vision.”

He was an assistant on five state championship teams and a head coach for two more at Miami Senior High School while working with 14 future Division 1 players. Two years later, mentor Bob Huggins helped him land a job as an assistant at Northeastern University.

Martin, who didn’t have a car initially, remembers sleeping on his friend’s couch for two months in a one-bedroom South End apartment. He knew it wasn’t sustainable, so when a fellow assistant offered him a place at his two-bedroom in North Attleboro, Martin pounced on the opportunity. The friend moved to East Providence a month later, and Martin decided to join him despite the schlep.

He recalls living there without a car and taking the public bus at 5:30 a.m. to downtown Providence, hopping on the commuter rail to South Station, then riding the Orange Line to Ruggles to finish a brutal commute. The job made it all worth it, as he helped the program ascend from seven wins in 2000 to 19 in 2004. 

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“It fit me, because you had to roll up your sleeves and work,” Martin said. “It wasn’t a job where you just showed up and the job was done. You had to work at it every single day.”

The fit and family ties appealed.

Around that time, Martin first met Anya through mutual friends. He asked her out, but she turned him down four or five times. She didn’t have an excuse, she said. Truthfully, she just didn’t feel like going. 

One night, after a big Northeastern win, Anya was confused to learn that her tab was already paid. The waitress told him it was all set, and Anya turned around to see Martin standing in front of her. Finally, Anya was convinced, and they started dating and eventually moved to Braintree together. They were married in Boston in 2005 and now have three children.

Anya, who remembers difficult statistics classes, trucking across campus through the snow, and taking long Peter Pan bus rides – and yes, the parties – from her time at UMass, came on to help Director of Athletics Ryan Bamford and Co. fundraise for the track program. Martin and Bamford met, and got to know each other, and the foundation was set for a potential partnership in the future.

Martin, who spent time as an assistant at Cincinnati and Kansas State, helped restore both Kansas State and South Carolina as the programs’ head coach. The Gamecocks reached the Final Four in 2017, but they struggled and finished 6-15 in a shortened 2020-21 season. When Martin learned his run there was over following an 18-13 campaign in 2022, and Bamford expressed interest, Martin requested a bit more time to get his thoughts in order.

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“I wasn’t prepared to speak about the job,” Martin said. “I needed to separate my emotions from that moment.”

He appeared on CBS as an analyst earlier this March, which he said helped clear his mind. Bamford called again last Monday, Martin came to UMass last Tuesday, and Bamford visited Martin last Thursday. 

The family has a rule that Martin can’t say anything about a job unless it’s serious. It can be a brutal business sometimes, Anya said, and they agreed it’s best not to get anyone’s hopes up or upset anyone. When he approached her and proposed the idea, she was giddy and in disbelief at the full-circle nature of the possibility.

Anya, who called it “very surreal,” proudly conveyed what made UMass special in her eyes. She was overjoyed to see how quickly he realized he authentically felt the same way.

“I came from there. I know what it’s like,” Anya said. “I just needed you to find it on your own. I didn’t want you to do it because of me. I wanted you to feel like this was the right fit and the right place for you.”

He wants fans to jump for joy.

With everyone in the family on board, the nervous energy quickly shifted to a sense of collective jubilation. Martin said all he needs is the feeling that someone needs him. Once he has that, he’s fully invested. 

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Martin enthusiastically accepted the offer – much to the delight of Bamford, who was able to make a splash hire while finding someone who perfectly fit the program’s needs.

“He’s highly respected, has a great brand, and is a wonderful person,” Bamford told Boston.com. “It’s an opportunity for us to get somebody that’s a game-changer.”

Director of Athletics Ryan Bamford is thrilled to welcome Frank Martin to campus.

Bamford said Martin, who replaces Matt McCall, is someone who embodies the mindset of tough love and treats his players as though they’re his children. He likened his style to that of Greg Carvel, the UMass men’s hockey coach who helped the program capture a national championship last year.

With the men’s hockey program as a blueprint, Tory Verdi’s vision for the women’s hoops team coming to fruition, and veteran Don Brown inked as the football coach, Bamford believes Martin can help continue the upward trajectory.

“It’s a sport we’ve obviously had good history in, a sport we take a lot of pride in, and a sport we want to invest in,” Bamford said. “We think we can be good. It’s something that we think can be the front porch of the institution when we do have success, to drive eyeballs to the university, to our brand, and help build that brand even better.”

The Atlantic-10 is perennially strong, and Richmond and Davidson both qualified for the tournament this season. While making a steady stream of March Madness runs and eventually winning championships is the ultimate goal, Martin knows it won’t happen overnight.

He believes everything is in place – the facility, the alumni network, the fan base, and the history. His goal is to blend it all together, add his own flavor, and collaborate to put UMass back on the map.

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“I want to give our fans hope that we’ll be able to win again,” Martin said. “I can’t wait. It’s going to be an incredible ride. There are going to be days that I’m going to be mad after games. On those days, I want our fans to be mad. There are going to be days where I’m going to be jumping for joy. I want our fans to be jumping for joy.”

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