So you’ve probably noticed Frank Martin is not your typical college basketball coach. As big as he might be on strategies and recruiting, he’s even more concerned about the players themselves – what they are thinking, how they are learning and what kind of decisions they are making.
“I think a lot of times, because of the Internet and the constant news cycle, we all lose sight of my job,” Martin said recently. “In reality, we put too much emphasis on the winning or losing of games and the fans don’t understand what really, really happens behind the scenes.
“We’re all so – myself included because I’m also a fan – we all get so focused in on winning the game.”
Martin offered up this story about how he, too, has had to grow up in order to teach his players the right way to play and live life. It takes place during his first year at Kansas State, when he was an assistant to Bob Huggins. The Wildcats won 22 games during that regular season, but were not invited to the NCAA tournament. For a once-proud program that had fallen on hard times before Huggins’ arrival, the snub was a slap in the face to an experience-laden team:
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“We finished our first season at K-State, I’m an assistant coach, and our guys were disappointed because we had won more games than we had in 20 years and we got left out of the NCAA tournament.
“We had seven seniors who had sacrificed. As coaches, when kids lay it on the line for you and they don’t get rewarded they gave you everything they had and you have to find a way to keep them motivated. We got left out and those seven seniors were heartbroken.
“We get invited to the NIT tournament and we go practice on Sunday night because we’re playing at home on Tuesday and our practice is awful. Uninspired.
“The guys’ spirits were down. We tried to chase them around and encourage them and nothing works. Monday rolls around and we’re once again not practicing well so we start chasing them around with some tough love because they’re so disappointed that they don’t understand what an unbelievable opportunity they have to continue playing. Out of 347 teams only 90 teams are left to play. But we still aren’t any good at practice.
“So then the game starts and now we’re playing Vermont University at home. Sold-out arena, first-round of the NIT, live on ESPN and we absolutely stink.
“We’re down, we’re losing and then all of the sudden, one of our players, our senior leader, really starts to pick it up. Guys start to follow and I was acting immature just like the others. I was sitting there just staring into space and not trying to help. And then coach Huggins in his own way – and for those of you who have followed Coach Huggins’ career, he’s like a father figure to me – he turns around to me with about two minutes to go in the game and says ‘ARE YOU EVER GOING TO HELP ME TONIGHT?’ Not exactly in those words but that was the gist of it.
“I’m just kind of staring into space and now we score with about a minute to go and give us our first lead of the game and the guy, David Hoskins, gets fouled and Coach is down at the end of the coaches box down by the scorer’s table. I finally gathered my senses and said you know what? I’m acting just like the kids. It’s my job to help them so I jump up and run over to Huggs and I’m standing in front of him and I make my suggestion and he grabs me by the side of the head and kisses me on my forehead.
“Soon as the game is over my wife says, ‘Did Huggs kiss you?’ I said, ‘He sure did.’ She said, ’Why did he do that?’
“I said it’s because I told him to put Cartier Martin, who was our best player, back in the game. And she said, ‘But why did he kiss you?’
“It was because he said, ‘Frank, I love you, but Cartier fouled out two minutes ago.’ ”
Martin tells that story to tell this next one. If you are concerned with how Martin is going to meld this eclectic group of Gamecocks into a cohesive unit, this example should put your mind at ease.
Huggins unexpectedly left K-State for West Virginia following that first season, leaving Martin with a team that boasted a whopping nine freshmen. True, two of them happened to be one-and-done NBA talents – Michael Beasley and Bill Walker – but nonetheless, there was a fierce learning curve.
“I thought teaching ninth-grade math was difficult and now I’m taking nine freshmen and teaching them to play against major college teams,” Martin said.
“Two years later we’re playing at Texas A&M. We’re up by one with about 15 seconds left on the shot clock with the ball sideline out-of-bounds and 30 seconds left in the game.
“We have to shoot the ball and we know Texas A&M is going to get the ball. Jacob Pullen, who I battled with for two years to get him to grow and achieve, I want the ball in his hands. We’re out of time outs, take the ball out of bounds, we run a screen for (Pullen) and they switched. He’s got a big guy guarding him and he’s a 6-foot guard. A 6-9 guy is on him now. I’m thinking, space the floor, drive it to the rim, force the defense to make the play. Get fouled, whatever, and I see him start messing with the basketball.
“Now, you’ve got to understand as coaches you know your players’ tendencies and I know when he starts that little deal, he’s going to shoot the ball. He is three feet behind the top of the key. I turn around and I just go sit down and I put my head down and he jumped up and made the 3.
“And now the game’s over and we’re in the pressroom sitting at the table and we’re waiting for them to ask a question and I say to him ‘I can’t believe ’
“You’ve got to understand if he missed the 3, there’s a long rebound they get a run out, you’re only up by one and anything can happen but instead, he makes it and makes it a four-point game.
“He said, ‘Frank, I told you: I got you.’
“And then the media asked him about the last play and he said, ‘That’s the way Coach designed it.’ ”
Moral of the story:
“At the end of the day, we don’t make the greatest decisions during the course of the game but it works out,” Martin said. “And the reason it works out is because we instill faith and instill confidence in these kids so they believe they can make the play.”
It says something about Martin’s track record with instilling those beliefs that the teams that followed K-State’s Beasley-Walker juggernaut were increasingly better despite what pundits considered lesser recruiting classes.
The Beasley-Walker team went 23-12. The team with nine freshmen went 21-12. That second-year team that beat Texas A&M went 22-12.
The payoff came during that junior year for those nine freshmen. Kansas State went 29-8 and reached the Elite Eight. It was the most victories in a season in the long and decorated history of Kansas State basketball.
Moral of that story?
If Martin can achieve that kind of success in Manhattan, Kan., the sky truly is the limit in Columbia.