Men’s basketball coach Frank Martin supporting UMass’ decision to join MAC: “They believed in me, and they haven’t lied to me since I’ve been here”

UMass men’s basketball head coach Frank Martin speaks during a press conference at the Martin Jacobson Football Performance Center last  Thursday regarding the University of Massachusetts joining the Mid-American Conference.

UMass men’s basketball head coach Frank Martin speaks during a press conference at the Martin Jacobson Football Performance Center last Thursday regarding the University of Massachusetts joining the Mid-American Conference. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-14-2024 3:01 PM

AMHERST — From a basketball perspective, Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said it was a no-brainer to add UMass to his conference.

The men’s basketball program was perhaps the most appealing of the school’s athletic teams given its high-profile coach, sizable budget and long-standing history, and the Minutemen — under head coach Frank Martin — could very well be competing for MAC championships immediately in the 2025-26 campaign.

When Martin accepted the head coaching job two years ago, he said he knew that UMass director of athletics Ryan Bamford was actively searching for a conference for the football program — and Martin understood that likely meant his team would be uprooted from the Atlantic 10.

Martin, Bamford and the rest of the members of the athletic department met countless times prior to the decision to join the MAC, and the veteran coach told his boss he was 100 percent supportive of the move.

“They believed in me, and they haven’t lied to me since I’ve been here so why would I not believe in their vision as to what’s best for us,” Martin said of the institution’s leadership committee. “As long as the school leadership is committed to allowing us to continue to grow, I’m all in. We’ll go play on the beach, we’ll play at a park, in the backyard — at the end of the day you’re competing… We’re gonna go out there and play whoever is in front of us, and our job is to represent this university.”

While coaching in a historic conference like the A-10 was appealing for Martin during the interview process, he said it wasn’t the sole purpose he took the position.

Martin said he won’t change his mindset with UMass set to join the MAC after next year. His goal has always been to win a conference title and compete in the Big Dance. Although it’ll be against a different set of opponents, that goal will still be right in front of him and his team in the MAC.

“The MAC has some very respected basketball programs in it,” Martin said. “I’ve got some guys that coach in that league that I respect and I’m very friendly with. Conference basketball is really hard. Don’t fall victim to the analytics of the rankings of conferences… Everything I know about the MAC, it’s really good basketball. My vision, as we go into the MAC, is no different than the one I had in the A-10 when I got here. Let’s build a program that can compete for a conference championship. And if we can do that, then it puts you in a place where you can succeed in an NCAA tournament. If you can [do that], everything is where it needs to be.”

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Throughout Martin’s previous stops, specifically as an assistant at Cincinnati and head coach at Kansas State, he witnessed first-hand what the commitment to investing in the school’s football program can do for the rest of the athletic programs.

He thought back to those moments when the move became official — that UMass’ football program competing in the MAC is only going to trickle down to the rest of the school’s teams, most notably men’s basketball.

“Coming from where I’ve been before UMass, I’ve seen what investing in football does for a whole athletic department,” Martin said. “As a coach, when I was young, I’d get frustrated when I needed more for our program and they’d say they can’t and then I saw all this investment in football. As I’ve gone through my journey, [I realized] there’s one sport that elevates all of us to a different place. And that’s football. I understood all of this before I took the job, that eventually this day was coming.”

Over the course of his coaching career, Martin’s recruiting trail has focused mainly up and down the East Coast. The 57-year-old’s East Coast ties start with his upbringing in Miami (where he became a high school head coach). He then spent time as an assistant coach at Northeastern and brought South Carolina to a Final Four before starting at UMass ahead of the 2022-23 season among a plethora of other stops.

Martin confessed he does the majority of his recruiting on the east coast, but he isn’t a complete stranger to the Midwest (Kansas State, Cincinnati). With MAC schools residing out that way, Martin is going to have to dip back into that location to compete with his new peers.

“I haven’t recruited the Midwest in awhile,” Martin said. “With Cincinnati and K-State, I spent a lot of time in the Midwest recruiting. I’m excited to merge the east coast and the Midwest and figure it out. That’s where change is fun.”

Bamford promised Martin that, if a level of dedication was shown through two years, he would invest more into the men’s basketball program — that a huge leap would be taken.

On Wednesday, UMass put themselves in position for a double-bye in the A-10 tournament with its 20th win of the season (most since 2013-14).

The Minutemen’s league and opponents may be changing come 2025-26, but Bamford’s pledge to Martin isn’t.

“Good, really good,” Bamford said, referring to what his initial conversations with Martin were like. “Frank understands where we are in college athletics, and Frank is protective of his program, but I meant it when I said that after two years, our offseason – whether we were staying in the Atlantic 10 or going to the MAC — was going to be about taking the next step. Frank, to his credit, was like, ‘I think I can get this going by year two.’ Everything that we talked about two years ago, it’s all still happening.”