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Wednesday, December 16, 2009
KSU's Martin more than just a recruiter

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

Michael Beasley was coming.

Bill Walker was already there.

And Bob Huggins was leaving after only one season at the helm.

Hanging in the balance sat Kansas State, a once-proud basketball program that was about to be reignited or returned to a hoops wasteland.

Frank Martin
Martin persuaded Michael Beasley to sign with KSU, where he fashioned a memorable freshman season.

To Tim Weiser, the decision wasn't complicated.

He hired Frank Martin, Huggins' assistant.

"If it was just about one player, it would have been a shortsighted position on our part," said Weiser, then the KSU athletic director and now the deputy commissioner of the Big 12. "At the time, most of us weren't thinking Mike would be part of our program for the long term anyway. We had just had the turnover with Bob and so the decision was, Do we want to start yet again with a new philosophy and a new approach? And we balanced that out with the option of Frank, someone who was of the same philosophy, same coaching style.

"To us, it was a logical decision to maintain stability, not for one player but for the program."

But logic got run over by a freight train.

Critics chastised Weiser and Kansas State for the decision to hire a man who had never been a head coach above the high school level -- and feasted on Martin, labeling him nothing shy of a Beasley baby-sitter who would quickly be exposed as overmatched by the job he'd been handed.

"We knew what people were saying," associate head coach Dalonte Hill said. "And we knew there was only one thing we could do: prove them wrong."

Beasley and Walker are long gone, yet Kansas State is better than it's ever been. Martin didn't cobble together a flash-in-the-pan team; he has built a program.

The Wildcats are 52-25 under his watch, with an NCAA tournament and an NIT berth to their credit. This season, they sit ready to strike as the ultimate sleeper in a loaded Big 12. Kansas State is 9-1 and, after humbling previously undefeated UNLV in Las Vegas, pulls into the Associated Press Top 25 at No. 17, its highest ranking since 1988 (KSU is No. 22 in the ESPN/USA Today poll).

In just the past three games, the Wildcats have beaten Washington State, Xavier and UNLV, all by at least 15 points. The season also includes a win over Atlantic 10 favorite Dayton.

So no one would blame Martin if he wanted to take a minute and gloat, to thumb his nose at the detractors and enjoy his moment in the sun.

It is not in his DNA, though. As the son of Cuban immigrants, he's used to doubters and overcoming odds. And as a Huggins protégé, he's schooled in the art of growing thick skin.

What Martin will admit to, however, is that he was stung by the vitriol.

"I'm human," he said. "Most guys that get an opportunity, whether people agree with the hire or not, they're given a grace period. I was never given a grace period. One person called my hiring a disgrace to college basketball. That was really disheartening. I don't think I've ever seen so many members of the media put down somebody getting an opportunity like I got put down."

Weiser thinks the ire directed at Martin was in part misplaced anger directed at Huggins -- that the combination of Huggins' departure and Martin's hiring put the latter on the hottest seat in the country.

Just a year before, Weiser had made another controversial hire, giving the penitent Huggins a second chance after things unraveled at Cincinnati. Huggins, with Martin's and Hill's help, promptly persuaded Beasley and Walker to come to Manhattan, igniting a program that long had lain dormant on the college basketball landscape.

One person called my hiring a disgrace to college basketball. That was really disheartening. I don't think I've ever seen so many members of the media put down somebody getting an opportunity like I got put down.

-- Kansas State coach Frank Martin

Weiser knew how much that meant. A native of Kansas, he remembered when K-State mattered in college basketball and knew what it could be again.

So when Huggins about-faced and went to his alma mater, accepting the head-coaching job at West Virginia before Beasley and friends could even relocate, Kansas State fans were stung, Huggins was back in the crossfire and K-State was at a critical crossroads.

"K-State had been known for its basketball, but when I got here, it had been down for quite a while," Weiser said. "The hope at the time was to get the program back to where it once was."

Walker, who enrolled a semester early, made his position clear in no uncertain terms.

"I told them that in order for me to stay, they have to hire someone's who's been here. I'm pretty sure they heard me and they took that into account when they were talking to Frank," Walker said at the time.

Meanwhile, Beasley's mother, Fatima, affirmed her son's decision to become a Wildcat but the player himself was noticeably silent.

The dirty little secret college purists don't want to talk about is that college basketball is a business, a multimillion-dollar business in which people are fired for not winning. Often, the reason they don't win is simple: They don't have the players.

And the thing about those players? They generally don't come for the pretty architecture or the impressive student center. They come for the coach, for the comfort and trust they feel with him or the faith that his style and philosophy will best suit their needs.

"The reality of the deal is, if those guys didn't stay in place, the program was never going to ascend the way it has ascended," Huggins said. "With somebody new, the recruiting class falls apart. You've got your third coach in three years. Keeping Frank, keeping that staff was the right thing to do."

In retrospect, Weiser's decision has been borne out time and again. Tom Crean is still rebuilding the Hoosiers rubble left after Kelvin Sampson's recruits abandoned Indiana and scattered across the country; Josh Pastner is down to eight players after Memphis' incoming class opted to follow John Calipari to Kentucky; Sean Miller spent most of his first few days in Arizona trying to persuade people to stay after Lute Olson left.

Frank Martin
Aided by Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen, the Cats are off to a 9-1 start in Martin's third season.

What makes Martin's hire legitimate now is not what he did when he had Beasley and Walker but what he has done since.

The former AAU coach has capitalized on his ties and long-standing relationships to bring a steady stream of talent to the middle of the Kansas plains. Calling on his home base of Miami, Martin got University of Miami transfer Denis Clemente to come to K-State. And with Hill, a former AAU coach in D.C., leading the charge, McDonald's All-American Wally Judge is following Beasley's path. Mix in Jamar Samuels (another D.C. recruit), UConn transfer Curtis Kelly and explosive scorer Jacob Pullen, and you have the makings of a dangerous team.

"We've been talking to these kids for years, and we've known their coaches even longer," Hill said. "It's not like we picked up the phone one day and started recruiting. People feel comfortable with us because they know us. We were one of them."

As K-State rounds the corner for what promises to be a brutal Big 12 season, Martin is taking stock of his team. Are his players ready for what awaits them? He's not sure. Last season, the Wildcats were counted out after dropping their first four league games. They rode the lack of respect to a 22-12 finish and an NIT berth.

This season, they're the new darling, and Martin is curious to see how they handle it.

This much he does know: The Wildcats have gotten better every season. The graduation rate, once the worst in the Big 12, is now best in the league. His players are an extension of him, playing with the same fierce intensity he hurls at them every day in practice.

And no one is vilifying him anymore.

"I know the opinion was I was hired because I could recruit Mike Beasley," Martin said. "Well, if you can't go recruit Mike Beasley and Jacob Pullen and Bill Walker, you don't deserve to be a head coach at this level.

"With all that said, we were trying to build a culture here from the day I got here. We weren't taking chances on kids who didn't want to be part of our long-term plans. We weren't going to take shortcuts. This was never about winning for one or two years."

The man many thought was hired to salvage a season has instead built a program.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.