South Carolina, which faces UK on Saturday, Feb. 13, has been playing winning basketball this season, going all the way to a No. 15 national ranking recently. The Gamecocks are now 19-2 going into this week's action.
After his first three seasons at South Carolina which saw records of 14-18, 14-20 and 17-16, fourth-year coach Frank Martin is now seeing a rising success in the Gamecock program.
Many Kentucky fans may be surprised to learn that a Kentuckian is playing a significant role in South Carolina's recent success. The guy's name is Matt Figger (pictured), who grew up in Jenkins, Ky., in Letcher County. Figger is South Carolina's associate head coach and recruiting coordinator, and he has been with Martin since 2007 when they were at Kansas State.
Asked about the Gamecocks' winning atmosphere after three struggling campaigns, Figger commented, "Building programs have been kind of the thing I have been a part of for the past 17 years. My last four jobs have been at places that needed rebuilding. I am fortunate to have been around great coaches that I have learned so much from and with that being said I have worked for a guy the past nine years that is as good of a teacher of not only basketball but life and that's Frank Martin. He has led this program from the ground up.
"The biggest thing for the steady improvement has been getting the kids to buy into our culture. And when a culture is established winning starts to happen. We have three seniors and two juniors who have tasted bad losses, heartbreaking losses and now when they are in that position they don't panic and now are reaping the benefits."
During his assistant coaching career, which began at Wabash Valley College in Illinois under Somerset, Ky., native and coach Pat Smith in 1993, Figger has had several memorable moments, including USC's 72-67 upset victory over eventual Final Four-bound Kentucky in 2014.
"That (UK) game was a huge game for our program," recalled Figger. "It was our second year and we were really struggling in conference play with all the young kids we had and we beat a really good Kentucky team that ended up playing for a national championship.
"We had lost a tough game in 2008 to Kentucky in Las Vegas when we were at Kansas State. Jodie Meeks hit us for 37 (points) and that was a tough loss, but the week we beat Kentucky (in 2014) was whirlwind for me because the following Saturday I was coaching the team at Mississippi State.
"In a week's time I was a part of beating my childhood favorite team and then coaching our team to an SEC win (74-62) at Mississippi State. I never imagined that I would be a college coach for the past 23 years. I have lived a blessed life."
Figger had to take Martin's place for one game as the head coach was suspended by the athletic director for cursing against one of his players during South Carolina's 26-point loss to No.1 Florida.
When he was growing up in Letcher County in the eastern Kentucky mountains, Figger followed the Wildcats faithfully. They were his favorite team.
"I grew up a huge UK fan," Figger added. "All I ever wanted to be was Kyle Macy. I never missed watching a game from 1978 until I became a college coach. I still have all the memories. I loved the '78 team and watched every game on Jefferson Pilot (Network). Our junior high tournament was postponed because of the '84 Final Four game. I remember all the guys that played. I worked camp at UK as well. I got to work camp at UK during the '96 team. It was the best group of college players I have ever seen."
As a youngster, he had that unusual desire to be a coach. He even read books about famous coaches.
"I always knew I wanted to be a coach," said Figger. "I spent most of my time drawing up ball plays while I was in school instead of paying attention in class. Early it was football. I always wanted a piece of rolled up paper in my hand instructing players.
"It was just always a dream. UK basketball was my release from real life. I also admired a man named Charles Dixon, (who was) the track coach at Jenkins High School. (He's the) best teacher I ever had and very influential on my life whether he knew it or not.
"I used to read about Vince Lombardi, Bear Bryant, Tom Landry and Adolph Rupp. I would read everything I could about those coaches. I got interested when I read a book about Vince Lombardi and learned there was a man that played for him, Carroll Dale from (nearby) Wise, Virginia." (Dale of the Green Bay Packers was a three-time All-Pro selection.)
But Figger first had to work extremely hard and very long hours to get his feet wet to become a productive assistant coach when he worked for Coach Smith at Wabash Valley College during the early 1990s.
"Coach Smith had the biggest influence in my life as a coach," he said. "He taught me about outworking people! He wasn't easy on me because he told me, 'Nobody will give me chance if I didn't challenge the 24-hour day. My mornings started at 6 a.m. and didn't end till midnight. He had a list of things each day for me that was about 100 things to do today.
"We lost a game once and it snowed about 10 inches (that day). We practiced three times a day and watched film on that loss after every practice for eight straight days. We won our next 15 games."
A longtime fixture in junior college basketball, Smith is now the head coach at Moberly Area Community College in Missouri.
Ironically, Figger never played basketball in college. But he played baseball at Pikeville College before completing his education at Eastern Kentucky University.
"Playing baseball at Pikeville College was the only option I had to stay involved in sports," he said. "It also allowed me to watch Pikeville College practice a lot when Mark Coomes was the coach.
"Closest I got to play for Pikeville College was playing pickup (basketball) with the team in the summers and playing in independent leagues. I became really good friends with Donnie Jones there and he has been a tremendous help with my career. He helped me get the assistant job at South Alabama in 2002 for (ex-UK standout) John Pelphrey. Although I didn't play, God kept me around people to help me in the future."
From 2002 to 2007, Figger served as assistant coach under Pelphrey at South Alabama. The former Arkansas head coach and ex-Florida assistant, Pelphrey is currently working as a television analyst for the SEC Network this winter.
"John has been another strong influence in my life," said Figger, who is married to Katrina and they have one child. "He was the first person to really introduce me to Christ, and the best memory I have about him besides being the best player in the gym my first three years was the fact he loved his family above all else."
And Figger is now very thankful for his coaching career.
"I became a coach to help young men," he said. "To help them learn from the mistakes and failures that I had to learn from as a teenager. If I have impacted the lives of young men in a positive way, then my gift that I was giving can now become their gift to pass on to someone else."
It is certainly very nice to see someone from the eastern Kentucky mountains who is finding success in SEC basketball.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
Photo by South Carolina Athletics