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Frank Martin shapes Kansas State program

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010, at 12:06 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010, at 10:12 a.m.

MANHATTAN — He walks onto the court and they cheer. He stomps and screams on the sideline and they hold up giant cutouts of his face. He goes out for food and they gather.

No matter what Frank Martin does these days, Kansas State fans treat him like royalty.

So it came as no surprise last week that while dining at the Little Apple Brewing Company, Martin was the center of attention.

Before the door could close behind him, a man waiting for a table reached out his hand and said he had never seen a better K-State basketball team than Martin's guys, who are 19-4 and ranked ninth.

"Thank you," Martin replied. "That means so much to me."

After all he's been through, compliments like that always do.

"The people at this school," Martin said, "when everyone else around the country and the surrounding community was thinking and wondering out loud, 'Why would they hire this guy?' K-Staters circled the wagons and protected me.

"I remember those things. They are very dear to me. They are very dear to my family."

* *

Nearly three years ago, when K-State gave Martin the big break he had waited for, he was not royalty.

Locals showed their support, but few others did.

Sure, he could convince star forwards Michael Beasley and Bill Walker to play at K-State the following season before their final destination — the NBA — but beyond that his credentials were questioned.

Martin had no experience as a college head coach, his brightest seasons at the high school level were plagued by rules violations and his intense coaching style is rarely matched in the game today.

Tim Weiser saw something special in Martin, though. Yes, his hiring would be questioned. But the former K-State athletic director viewed that as an acceptable price to pay for promoting the ideal candidate.

"We did our homework," said Weiser, who now serves as deputy commissioner of the Big 12 Conference. "We knew all the facts. We knew what we were getting."

In Martin, K-State got a worker — a man who would not accept losing, and could both win immediately and plan for the long haul.

Even in the face of doubters, Martin refused to think in any other terms. That's why he surrounded Beasley and Walker with mostly other freshmen and transfers during his first season.

At times it appeared Beasley and Walker were given little help, but they led K-State to the NCAA Tournament and upset Southern California while there. The Wildcats hadn't been to the Big Dance since 1996, and the season was viewed as a resounding success.

But with Beasley and Walker headed for the NBA Draft that offseason, and the roster suddenly looking depleted, the critics came back.

"People never gave Frank credit for being young," assistant coach Dalonte Hill said. "Because we had Mike and Bill, they just thought automatically we should go win a national championship."

What wasn't seen at the time was the way Martin spent much of that first year pushing then-freshman guard Jacob Pullen, working with promising freshman Jamar Samuels while he took a redshirt, and tutoring then-sophomore guard Denis Clemente, who could not play after transferring from Miami (Fla.).

But the following season, with Pullen and Clemente leading the way, K-State made a strong push to return to the tournament, falling just short and landing in the NIT.

It was then — the NIT being viewed as a disappointment — that Weiser knew Martin was taking the program to new heights.

"For me, it was more about planting trees than flowers," Weiser said. "With Frank was there a benefit in the short term? Yes, but it would have shown a tremendous amount of short-sightednessfor us to hire Frank only to keep two recruits in the program. I saw Frank being able to plant a tree and return K-State basketball to its rightful place as a very strong program."

Beasley and Walker are gone, but the restoration is underway. Pullen has become a floor general and is on pace to become one of the Wildcats' career scoring leaders. Clemente was just chosen Big 12 player of the week. And Samuels might be the best bench player in the conference.

Mix in top defender Dominique Sutton, former McDonald's All-American Wally Judge and starting forward Curtis Kelly, who all return with Pullen next year, and Martin's program appears to have staying power.

* *

How has Martin achieved so much so quickly?

For him, the answer always goes back to his beginnings, long before he got into coaching.

Growing up poor in Miami, he used to work at restaurants. To help support his family, he began working the age of 12 and spent time as a bus boy, bartender and cook, on top of a dozen other jobs.

He enjoyed the experiences. They taught him how to work hard and never accept failure.

But it wasn't until he first got into high school coaching and spent his days teaching math that he learned how to help youngsters.

Because of his personality and build, the worst students in school — many of whom other teachers refused to educate — were consistently assigned to his classroom.

Al McCray, an assistant football coach at Fort Hays State, was one of those students at North Miami Senior High.

"You couldn't do anything in his classroom," McCray said. "He was a big dude. You had no choice but to listen. He came in and demanded respect. He said, 'I'm not going to allow any of you to fail.' You had to be there and you couldn't sleep. It was different, but it worked."

McCray also played basketball for Martin and still regularly talks with him on the phone.

When he hears others complain about Martin's on-court demeanor — throwing water bottles, arguing with officials and screaming at his players — he doesn't know what all the fuss is about.

Not only is that Martin's way of showing that he cares, he insists Martin was more intense in front of a blackboard than he is today on the sideline.

"I hear that stuff and I'm just like, 'Man, please,' " McCray said. "You don't know what Coach Martin can really be like. Those players of his today, they're getting off easy. We had it way worse. He would lift with us. He would get on the court in the low post and play with us. He was all over us all the time."

McCray is thankful he was.

"I am where I am today because of him," McCray said. "He was the closest thing to a father for me. He was hard on me and made sure I did things the right way. He helped me become a man."

Fast forward to the present, and his current players sound the same as McCray.

"He demands a lot of you and is always going to be tough on you," Kelly said. "But he's a great guy off the court and he treats us like family. I look to him as a father figure."

That's where Martin builds relationships. His methods are old school, but consistent. From the classroom to the basketball court. From high school to college. He never wavers.

He informs potential recruits of that, and shows it to them during their visits. If a player can accept his demanding ways, he befriends him for life. If a player asks for special treatment, he respects that — but they'll seek it at another school.

"That's the way we do it," Martin said. "We don't ask that you give your all just one day or during weeks of hard games. It's 365 days a year. If you can't do that, what are you going to do in the real world when that is demanded of you? It's an everyday concern for their well being, their improvement and their preparation for life."

* *

When Martin arrived in Manhattan, he lived in a Fairfield Inn.

Eventually, he moved his family into a medium-sized house outside of town. Now that he makes $760,000 a year, he lives in a dream home.

He has gone from assistant to head coach, from doubted hire to king.

He is now royalty — even nationally with several ESPN interviews this season — but fame hasn't changed Martin.

"He's still the same guy he was when we first got here," Hill said.

His focus is still on basketball, and until the season ends that won't change. Not even the opportunity to extend his current contract, which athletic director John Currie is working to do, can distract him.

"If there is anyone to blame with the whole contract thing right now it's me," Martin said. "I get so entrenched with my team and the next game that I don't put in the time I need to into my contract."

But he's confident a deal will be made.

Martin is happy where he is. He grew up thinking he wanted his children to experience life the same way he did, but Manhattan has helped him realize there are other, easier ways to grow up.

That's why before devouring his lunch last week — a Greek salad, pita bread and a side of hummus — he took time to greet every well-wisher that approached him.

The delay was worth it. In the town where he built his program, it always will be.

Check Kellis Robinett's K-State blog at blogs.kansas.com/kstated. Reach him at krobinett@wichitaeagle.com.

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