Exclusive: South Carolina's Frank Martin defends taking a chance on Brian Bowen

Of all the schools for former Louisville recruit Brian Bowen to pick, South Carolina was an unexpected outcome. 

The head-scratching headline from Wednesday sparked plenty of conversation in college basketball circles. Bowen's once-mysterious, now notorious recruitment was so radioactive that it cost Hall of Famer Rick Pitino his job as Louisville coach. The FBI's widespread investigation into corruption in college basketball recruiting uncovered money deals from Cardinals coaches, shady middlemen and Bowen's father. 

South Carolina coach Frank Martin told CBS Sports in an exclusive first interview about Bowen that his motivations were about helping a kid who a lot of people had given up on, whose reputation was unfairly smeared. Martin said Bowen is need of the right kind of coach to build his confidence back up. He also tried to put the former five-star recruit's situation in perspective.

"When I started doing my legwork, every single person I talked to that has had any dealing with that young man or that family speaks about what a great, great kid he is," Martin said. "He didn't beat a girl up, he hasn't raped anybody, hasn't flunked 10 different drug tests. He's a good kid. He isn't a flunkie." 

Context is important here: South Carolina's coming off a Cinderella-like Final Four run, but is only 10-6 this season and the roster is a shell of what it was last year. Martin said point guard Rakym Felder, who would have otherwise been starting, is suspended for the entire season due to a "dumb decision" that led to Felder's arrest last September. Then there's the possibility that landing Bowen could help Martin's chances at landing in-state five-star phenom Zion Williamson.

South Carolina got involved in courting Bowen because first-year South Carolina assistant Chuck Martin had previously recruited Bowen before joining Frank's staff. 

"First off, I trust my assistant, Chuck Martin," he said. "Chuck recruited 'Tugs' (Bowen's nickname) when he was at Indiana. I hired Chuck because I trust who Chuck is as a human being."  

Before the recruitment could begin, Martin had to go to his athletic director, Ray Tanner, who then had to go to university's most powerful people to sign off on it. After the compliance office did its diligence on Bowen's case, Martin was given the OK. The clinching fact that got South Carolina to this point was Bowen's exoneration from the FBI. 

"If the FBI still had an open investigation on him, do you think my superiors would have cleared this?" Martin said. 

He also said he trusts Bowen and trusts the family after meeting with them.  

"Chuck said the mom is great, and the dad is a good dude who got caught up with the wrong people," Martin said.

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Brian Bowen's road to South Carolina has been bumpy.  USATSI

Bowen has maintained his innocence, even telling ESPN in a sit-down interview in December he was "shocked" when the story came out and that he had no role in the process. On Nov. 22, Louisville announced Bowen would never play for the university. The only question then was whether Bowen would try to pursue a college career, or if he would declare pro and aim for overseas options. 

"I chose to be in education; that's who I am. That's why that kid is in school right now. I'm not into the phoniness of this business. You give him a chance. That's what education is about."   South Carolina coach Frank Martin on Brian Bowen

Bowen was well-liked by those at Louisville, a person with knowledge of the program told CBS Sports. The person declined to speak on the record out of respect to Bowen and his family.

Because the FBI had cleared Bowen's name by that point, Bowen opted to open his recruitment and take a chance on his NCAA future. Other big-conference programs came calling for the former five-star prospect, but South Carolina won out.

For some, Bowen's choice comes off as tone-deaf to the circumstances college basketball still finds itself tangled in. Bowen opting to join the Gamecocks doesn't exactly help the sport's image issue. While South Carolina has not been a primary target of the FBI's investigation, one of the four indicted assistant coaches, Lamont Evans, worked for Martin at Kansas State and South Carolina before going to Oklahoma State, which fired him this offseason.

Martin does not run from any of it. He knows negative press and negative recruiting can come from this. Ultimately, he believes Bowen has the right to a second chance. Martin, known as one of the most direct and fiery coaches in the profession, has long said he feels his calling is not as a coach, but instead as an educator. That philosophy dates back to his time as a high school teacher in Florida. In Bowen, Martin sees someone in need of teaching.

"I chose to be in education; that's who I am," Martin said. "That's why that kid is in school right now. I'm not into the phoniness of this business. You give him a chance. That's what education is about." 

Martin said he did not reach out to Pitino at any point during the process. Martin also wanted to clarify the misconception that South Carolina was ever subpoenaed by the FBI. He pointed out that the FBI contacted the university and requested to search his computer, which it eventually did. 

So is Bowen actually going to be cleared by the NCAA? There is confidence from South Carolina that Bowen will ultimately be deemed eligible. Martin said he wouldn't have taken Bowen if his compliance office deduced his eligibility as a long shot. 

Next in this process will be South Carolina filing for reinstatement -- something that Louisville never felt the need to pursue. Because the FBI's findings are a matter of public record and involved NCAA infractions, Bowen's already defaulted to being ineligible. After the Gamecocks file for reinstatement the NCAA will consider his status based only on the evidence that's on the record, which is to say the evidence provided in the FBI's file. 

"There's gonna be a penalty," Martin said. 

As the NCAA evaluates Bowen's status after Louisville's reinstatement request is made, Bowen's eligibility will be scrutinized both academically and from an amateurism standpoint. The latter is what's in question here. Regardless of what the NCAA rules with Bowen's eligibility status in the short-term, a full-fledged investigation could be born out of the reinstatement process. That probe will cover the entirety of Bowen's recruitment from the very beginning, well before Louisville became a possible landing spot. From there, the NCAA will determine what punishments should apply while taking into account Bowen's previous missed time at Louisville.

What type of punishment are we looking at here, and when will we get a ruling? It's complicated. The severity of the penalty could hinge on whether or not Bowen's father opts to talk to the NCAA. If he doesn't, it could lead to a harsher ruling. Bowen's father is under no mandate to cooperate with the NCAA, though. 

The important thing to keep in mind: There is evidence that Bowen's father received money. In order for Bowen to get on the floor as soon as possible for South Carolina, Bowen's representatives will need to prove to the NCAA that Bowen was oblivious to all the illegal activity that was happening with his recruitment. 

Bowen is expected to miss games, but it is anyone's guess as to how few or many -- or if he never sees the floor in college at all. Since Bowen is enrolled at South Carolina, he is able to practice effective immediately, according to Martin, who added that he did not anticipate putting Bowen on the floor with the team right away. 

"He's like a kid in a candy store right now," Martin said. "Given what he's been through, he's got a very uplifting spirit. Quiet, very humble. Very engaging. The part that grabbed me: he's just dying for someone to believe in him and give him a chance."

In terms of when we'll hear directly from Bowen next, it won't be until the end of April or early May at the earliest. Martin has long held a rule for his program: freshmen in their first semester are not allowed to talk to the media. Martin has the rule in place for myriad reasons. With Bowen on campus now, this winter-to-spring semester counts as his first. With the NCAA review process sure to come, the more likely possibility is that Bowen won't wind up speaking on this matter until it is entirely resolved. 

And nobody knows when that day will be. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his eighth season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics,... Full Bio

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