Those four days are still a blur to Frank Martin.
An assistant under Bob Huggins at Kansas State back then, Martin remembers hearing on a Monday that West Virginia coach John Beilein was leaving for Michigan. By that Thursday, Huggins was on his way home to coach the Mountaineers, and not long after that Martin was picked to succeed him.
It’s been nearly five years since all that transpired. Both coaches have become entrenched at their current schools, resulting in a bunch of NCAA tournament bids for each of them.
On Thursday night, Huggins and Martin will lead their teams against each other in Wichita, Kan., a non-conference game that could evolve into a Big 12 rivalry when the Mountaineers join the league.
“There was only one school that would be appealing to him and that was West Virginia,” Martin recalled. “It’s home for him. He was beat up, but he knew that he would have to make that decision.”
Still, Huggins’ departure rankled many Kansas State fans.
They thought that their program, once proud but fallen on hard times, had taken a considerable risk by giving Huggins a second chance following much-publicized problems during his stint at Cincinnati. They viewed him as their savior, a coach whose pedigree and postseason success might just allow Kansas State to start dreaming about March Madness for the first time in years.
Even today, Huggins still feels genuine appreciation for the people of Kansas. He mentions it any time the subject of his year in charge of the Wildcats is brought up.
There was a genuine affinity, and that’s why the decision to leave was so hard.
“That Thursday morning, he called me up and said, ‘I really need to see you,’ and we met up at Bob’s Diner at about 6:45 in the morning,” Martin said. “That is where he told me that he could not say no. He said, ‘I have to do it.’ He looked awful. He was beat up, which I know he was because he was forced into making a tough decision, a decision he had no interest in making.”
After meeting with Martin, one of his closest confidantes, Huggins met with school officials to let them know of his decision. Then he called Martin right back.
“He said, ‘Be ready because you have a really good chance at this,”’ Martin said. “Once they decided to offer me the job, he made sure that we all stayed here as a staff. He went out of his way to call those kids and he told them to believe in me and they would be okay.”
That year that Huggins spent at Kansas State helped to lay the groundwork for an NCAA tournament bid in Martin’s first season in charge. Two years later, the Wildcats reached the round of eight, and they made their third trip in four years to the NCAA tournament last March.
Huggins makes clear that the program’s success these days is a testament to Martin’s ability, not something he did during his brief time in the Flint Hills. He sees flashes of what he likes to do in the way the Wildcats play, particularly in their ferocious defense, but Huggins believes they’ve taken on their own personality, one that reflects their intense head coach.
“I didn’t have to teach Frank very much. Frank’s a pretty good coach,” Huggins said. “Their principles are the same. They’re doing a better job of it than we are right now.”
Kansas State (5-0) is coming off a victory at Virginia Tech, while the Mountaineers (4-2) have lost to Kent State and Mississippi State, with a brutal schedule still awaiting them.
The game tonight is being played in Wichita, about 150 miles south of the Wildcats’ campus in Manhattan. Huggins admitted that playing a neutral floor — at least neutral in theory — will take a little bit of the uncomfortable feeling away, as opposed to having to play at Bramlage Coliseum, where he endeared himself to so many before making so many so angry.
He’ll get that opportunity soon enough anyway.
The Mountaineers are set to join the Big 12, leaving their home in the Big East for what is perceived as more stability. While league schedules won’t be released for quite some time, it won’t be long before West Virginia plays its first game under Huggins in Manhattan.
“Knowing that he left, I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to go with him, but I had already committed to K-State, so that is where I knew I would be playing basketball,” said Kansas State senior Jamar Samuels, who was recruited by Huggins before he left for the Mountaineers.
“I have so much respect for Coach Huggins,” Samuels said. “They play the same style of basketball that we play, so it is going to be a very exciting game on Thursday. I think it’s going to turn into a rivalry game.”
It’s a rivalry that Martin said he could do without.
“I don’t like to lose, and I do not like to see friends lose,” he said. “When they’re playing a game on TV, I sit at home and watch and when they lose, I hurt for them. This is kind of bittersweet for me because we need the win and I don’t want to see him lose.
“He’s got his own team and his own program, but he still lives in ours through us,” Martin added. “I can tell you that we would not have had the success we have had if it was not for him.”
West Virginia faces Huggins’ former team Kansas State tonight
Those four days are still a blur to Frank Martin.
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