When a coach leaves a program, it's natural for fans to feel resentment. Marquette fans should be thrilled with the state of their program under coach Buzz Williams, and they are, but they aren't shy about expressing their distaste for former coach Tom Crean and the circumstances under which he left the Golden Eagles for Indiana three years ago.
A similar dynamic exists at Kansas State. When former coach Bob Huggins took over the program in 2006, it was seen as K-State's chance to become nationally relevant in basketball for the first time in years. Then, after just one season, Huggins left to take his dream job at West Virginia (in his hometown of Morgantown, W. Va., no less). Kansas State fans were not pleased, and understandably so.
Since then, though, Huggins's former assistant and current head coach Frank Martin has had more than his fair share of success -- he's 100-43 in four years, and the Wildcats have been to the NCAA tournament in three of those years, culminating in the 2010 Elite Eight squad led by star guards Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente. Martin's hard-charging, menacing demeanor has infected Kansas State's program in the best ways; he's the main reason we all call Bramlage Coliseum the "Octagon of Doom." Huggins is a very successful coach, sure, but all in all, Kansas State fans did pretty well in the transfer.
On Thursday night, Huggins will take on his former team when West Virginia faces Kansas State (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Huggins told the Kansas City Star he isn't sure what kind of reception he's going to get -- but he doesn't know why K-State fans would be upset with him, anyway:
“They ought to be happy I left,” Huggins said in a phone interview. “Frank has done an unbelievable job. From coaching to recruiting, he’s done a phenomenal job. [...] Some people were upset. That was the initial reaction.”
As far as Huggins is concerned, Kansas State could be far worse off than it is now. After all, he says, he could have brought his former assistants, including Martin, to West Virginia with him:
“Let’s be honest. I left behind Frank, Dalonte, Brad [Underwood] and Andy [Assaley]. I could have taken them,” Huggins said. “I could have probably taken the players, too. It was the right thing to do. Kansas State was great to me. I loved the people there.
“I would never have left Kansas State for any place other than here. This was my last opportunity to come home and be around my family. I didn’t do it when I had the opportunity the first time. You know how hindsight is 20-20. I should have."
K-State fans may not like the image Huggins is presenting here, casting himself as the oh-so-benevolent former coach who graciously allowed his assistants to stay at Kansas State and not leave with him. That's maybe just a tiny bit insulting.
But that's Huggy Bear. The underlying sentiment is dead on: Huggins had a rare chance to take the job he'd always wanted. He'd missed on it before. He didn't want to do that again. And he probably knew, given the way his tenure at Cincinnati ended (after a no-contest plea to a charge of driving under the influence), that he had to seize such an opportunity as quickly as possible.
In a way, maybe, everyone won. Huggins got to go home. K-State got to redefine its program under a famously intense and thus-far-successful coach in his own right. If the Wildcats had faded into Bolivian (courtesy of Mike Tyson, never forget) after Huggins' departure, that would be one thing. But in fact the exact opposite has happened.
Of course, that won't keep the local boo-birds at bay tonight. (Nor should it. That wouldn't be very much fun!) But Huggins's point is well taken.