Frank Martin: 'It's about the people who believed in us'

01/19/2010 12:00 AM

03/25/2010 5:29 AM

MANHATTAN — As Monday night started to fade away into Tuesday morning, there sat Frank Martin, one year removed from a time when many still believed the Kansas State basketball coach was in over his head.

He'd been regarded as nothing more than a former high school coach with too little skill and too much anger. He'd been labeled a place-holder for another man's team. He'd been called a hothead. He'd been viewed as a lackluster replacement for a school desperate to turn itself around. Few thought him capable.

Now that same man was the toast not just of Manhattan, but of much of college basketball as well. The team he'd carved in his own image — tough, irascible, full of passion even if at times a bit much (-) had just jumped to a No. 10 ranking before knocking off No. 1 Texas 71-62.

Kansas State and Frank Martin were officially for real, and the purple-clad Wildcats fans had waited for Martin to finish his after-game radio interview. Now over, they began to shower him with applause.

"Thank you," Martin said, and they only cheered harder. He leaned into the crowd and grasped as many hands as he could, shaking them and smiling. He walked the length of the court, waving and shaking more hands, whispered to his beaming wife, Anya, and then headed alone up the incline of a back tunnel that led to his press conference.

He hadn't slept in two days. That's what happens when you feel you haven't adequately prepared, not yet, for the most important game of your life. Having just won it, Martin rubbed his eyes. He looked about to fall asleep.

He didn't see Bobby Knight waiting for him.

Martin started to tell Knight, whose hand he was shaking for the first time, how much he'd always respected him. Knight, the longtime coach and now an ESPN announcer, cut him off.

"To hell with that," he said. "We need to get you to run a better offense."

Fifty yards from Martin's news conference, not an hour removed from his biggest win, two things had shown themselves more clearly than ever: Frank Martin knows how to coach great basketball. And that won't keep him from the odd ups and downs of life as one of the most underrated — and underpaid — coaches in the Big 12.

In Martin's world — the man has worked since he was 12 years old, didn't start his college career until his mid-30s, and has found controversy and seen disrespect at many of the coaching jobs he's had — even the hours after victory will be complicated.

Knight was still talking. He was telling Martin how his offense wasn't run smoothly enough, how his guys weren't using the right angles, how that very well could have cost Martin this win.

"I'd be glad to help if you call me tomorrow," Knight said.

"I'll call you in the morning," Martin said.

"This almost cost you the game," Knight went on. He lowered his voice:"... He makes bad offensive decisions," he growled.

By now, Martin had been backed against a wall. When Knight finally left, Martin continued his exhausted journey toward his news conference.

When he finished, he, his wife and some friends decided to head to Della Voce, an upscale restaurant that had agreed to stay open especially for them. Martin walked outside and looked for his car.

It was gone.

"My car has either been stolen or towed," he said.

That's right. Frank Martin, who'd had to earn college basketball's respect the hard way, apparently still had some work to do with whoever had taken his car.

"I can't believe this," he said. "It's just... Wait. There it is. They towed it. They towed it across the parking lot to another spot."

Martin climbed into his car with an old friend from Miami and drove through the deserted parking lot and an empty Manhattan. At the restaurant, he walked through the front door, where the owner, Noah Regan, was waiting to greet him.

"Congrats, coach!" Regan said, and he shook Martin's hand vigorously.

"Thank you," Martin said.

He paused. He couldn't help himself. He was still angry that one of his guys had fouled a Texas player hard at the end of the game, retaliation for a foul he'd just received.

"I am so pissed about his bull.. ," Martin said. "He didn't think about his team. It's selfish!"

The Martin mantra is this: We may not have everyone, or anyone, in the world believing in us, but if we have each other we can prove them all wrong. So a selfish act in such a huge game is simply unacceptable. We don't do that to each other.

Grimacing, Martin walked past the bar, where other wait staff shook his hand in warm welcome.

"Congratulations, Frank!"

"Thank you."

"Great job, coach."

"Thank you so much."

Martin took off his coat and sat in a corner booth. He eventually ordered the calamari, but it was gone. He looked happy, but not once did he exude the kind of satisfaction and excitement that most coaches would feel having just beaten No. 1 Texas at home.

"I'm not even thinking about it," he said.

Ah, to be Frank Martin: Bobby Knight had stopped to tell him how they'd almost lost the game they'd just won. His car had vanished. The food he wanted at 1 a.m. was sold out. And deep down — which is where much of Martin comes from, because he is, above all, a person who feels deeply and reacts strongly to those feelings — he could still feel the sting of disbelief that accompanied his hiring as Kansas State's head coach three years ago.

Even after this win, the feeling of disrespect remained.

"I'm still hurting," he said. "I worked my ass off when I was young to get where I am. And what I got on my first opportunity, I got destroyed."

So he had taken that and made it a mission: He would show people. He and his guys would do what they do and let history judge them. And it worked: In practice, in games, in the private moments of each other's lives, they had become a team.

Now that team was one of the best in the land.

Still, Martin leaned back and declined to elaborate on how good this felt. Nearby, every time the Kansas State highlights came on ESPN, his wife and a group of friends broke into applause. When the TV aired Martin on the sideline, sometimes coaching, sometimes looking really, really angry, the group laughed. Martin ignored it.

Instead, he talked about growing up so poor it hurt. He talked about the importance of high school education and how politics was making that more difficult. He talked about how too many people today want to make things easy for kids, ill- preparing them for a difficult world. He talked about times in the past when others hadn't believed in him. He talked about how desperately he wanted his players to succeed in life, to savor these moments and avoid the pain he'd experienced in his own life.

"It stings," he said, "but it's what gives me my strength. I don't want these kids to fail."

ESPN showed the highlights again, and his friends began clinking glasses. The restaurant was empty, a waiter hovered, and Martin looked exhausted.

The adulation was nice. Bobby Knight offering advice, Martin said, was nice, too, something they needed. Winning that game sure was a relief. But to say he was overwhelmed by the victory, or that he felt the vindication (-) Martin wouldn't go that far.

"It's really not about me," he said. "It's all about my players. It's about my kids. It's about the people who believed in us."

Starting today, that just might be most of the country.

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