COLUMBIA, S.C. — Frank Martin said he's ready to take on the difficult task of turning last-place South Carolina into winners.
Martin was introduced Tuesday as the Gamecocks new coach, leaving Kansas State after four NCAA tournament appearances in five years.
"Some people run away from challenges," Martin told a crowd of about several hundred people gathered at the Colonial Life Arena. "I run to them. I always have."
And make no mistake, this job is a challenge.
The Gamecocks have only been to the NCAA tournament once since 1998. They finished last in the Southeastern Conference this season at 2-14, leading to coach Darrin Horn's firing after four seasons.
South Carolina gave Martin plenty of time to turn things around with a six-year, $12.3 million contract. The university's board of trustees approved the deal shortly before Martin met with fans and the media.
Martin called it a whirlwind courtship with South Carolina that really took off this weekend while the coach was in New York helping CBS Sports with its coverage of the NCAA tournament. Martin joked that he had basketball studio analysts Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith urging him to take the job before he left.
"That's how much respect people have for South Carolina," Martin said.
Martin was 117-54 in five years with the Wildcats. They reached the NCAA regional finals in 2010 and lost to Syracuse in the third round this season.
Martin thanked everyone at Kansas State and discounted any rift with the athletic administration contributing to decision to leave. Martin was upset that the school suspended forward Jamar Samuels for the Wildcats' NCAA tournament loss to Syracuse.
"Everybody's trying to create a firestorm," Martin said. "But they've been tremendous" at Kansas State.
Martin is the son of Cuban immigrants who coached high school basketball in Miami for 15 years and was an assistant at Northeastern for four seasons before Bob Huggins brought him on to his staff at Cincinnati. Martin credits Huggins with jump starting his career, saying the current coach at West Virginia helped him get into college coaching.
Martin knew about South Carolina's program from following former Gamecocks star Devan Downey, who spent his freshman year at Cincinnati when Martin was assistant to then Bearcats coach Bob Huggins. Martin remembered watching highlights of Downey and his teammates celebrating their stunning 68-62 victory over then No. 1 Kentucky in 2010.
Things slumped for South Carolina under Horn since that high point. The Gamecocks lost 24 of their last 27 SEC games. Horn finished his career at South Carolina 23-45 in league games and 60-63 overall with thee losing seasons in a row. Attendance fell drastically this season with opponents like Ohio State and Kentucky outdrawing the Gamecocks in games played here this winter.
Martin praised Horn for running a clean program and improving the team's once poor academic showing. Horn did a lot of good for this basketball team, except for winning. "It's my duty to try and complete that part," he said.
Martin promised his team's tough-nosed style and relentless work ethic would fill the arena. "We will put 18-thousand in this place every game," he said.
The new coach met with his players earlier Tuesday and asked them to get ready to work hard. It will take plenty of effort to catch up with South Carolina's other successful major programs.
Football coach Steve Spurrier won a record 11 games last fall, baseball coach Ray Tanner has won the past two College World Series and women's basketball coach Dawn Staley earned the team's first trip to the NCAA tournament in nine years.
Spurrier said he met with Martin for a few moments before the press conference.
"I think we've hired a winner," Spurrier said. "I think he's got a pretty good track record."
Martin was asked about his plain-spoken, harsh style and that famous glare. The coach said he's worked on calming his brash nature the past few years but said it might not be long before South Carolina fans see the stare.
"Probably after the first turnover," Martin joked.