Previewing the Final Four teams of the NCAA Tournament
A strange mixture of emotions hit Jon Wefald when Oregon and South Carolina reached the Final Four.
Pride and joy arrived first. Wefald helped hire Dana Altman and Frank Martin during his long run as Kansas State president, and he remains friends with both, calling them “gentlemen of the highest order.”
Then came hints of regret and jealousy. That’s what happens when you wonder what might have been.
“I am euphoric for Dana and Frank, truly couldn’t be happier for them,” Wefald said. “They deserve their success, every bit of it. At the same time, I also wish they could have done it here at K-State.”
Those words reflect the feelings of many K-State basketball fans this week. Two coaches that once guided the Wildcats to winning records and NCAA Tournaments will join Gonzaga’s Mark Few and North Carolina’s Roy Williams on college basketball’s biggest stage.
Most seem happy for the former K-State coaches, particularly Martin, who left for South Carolina in 2012. Former players and fans have showered him with congratulatory messages on social media. The Gamecocks are currently the adopted team of choice in Manhattan.
“I am predicting them to win the whole thing,” former K-State forward Jamar Samuels said. “They remind me of the Elite Eight team we had. Those guys are Dobermans. They get after it. This is one of the toughest teams I have seen Frank coach. No team left can match their intensity.”
Fans still have a soft spot for Altman, too. He left for Creighton in 1994 and then Oregon in 2010, but he turned back the clock while beating Kansas in the Elite Eight and dropping a “Chickenhawks” reference beforehand.
Both coaches are part of an odd trend. Five of K-State’s last seven coaches have reached the Final Four, but none have done it with the Wildcats. Lon Kruger got there with Florida and Oklahoma, Bob Huggins with Cincinnati and West Virginia, Bruce Weber with Illinois. Now Altman and Martin have joined the club.
Perhaps it is time for Tom Asbury and Jim Wooldridge to make comebacks. The road to the Final Four includes a stop at K-State.
Right coach, wrong fit
How did this happen? Wefald is a good a person to ask. While serving as K-State president from 1986 to 2009, he oversaw the hiring of dozens of K-State coaches, including Bill Snyder in football and everyone between Kruger and Weber in basketball.
In Altman, he saw a coach that recruited well on Kruger’s staff, landing Mitch Richmond and Charles Bledsoe. Altman left to become the head coach at Marshall in 1989, but when Kruger left for Florida a year later, Wefald wanted him back as head coach.
Altman went 68-54 over the next four seasons, reaching one NCAA Tournament and twice making the NIT. Not bad, but not as good as Kruger. When Creighton showed interest, K-State administrators advised him to take the job.
“Our AD at the time wanted more and so did the fans,” Wefald said. “When Creighton came calling, that was that. But Dana was getting better each year and showing his coaching abilities. Looking back, you could say, ‘Well, we should have kept him.’ ”
It turned out to be a great move for Altman. He went 327-176 over the next 16 seasons before leaving for Oregon.
Still, he speaks fondly of K-State.
“I enjoyed my time, my seven years there very early in my career,” Altman said this week at a news conference. “A lot of good times, real good time for my family. Two of our children were born in Manhattan. I have a lot of strong feelings towards Kansas State.”
Had the timing been different, maybe he could have blossomed here.
“It’s too bad he didn’t start at Creighton and then come to K-State,” Wefald said. “This was his first major coaching job, and he wasn’t ready for it. At a place like K-State, you have to go to all the summer events and win over the fans. They want to reach out and touch you. He wasn’t too keen on that.
“At a place like Creighton, you just have to win. It goes back to the idea of right coach, right fit. He was a good coach, but he wasn’t the right fit for us at that time.”
K-State struggled to find a coach that checked both boxes after Altman’s departure. Tom Asbury went 85-88 over the next six seasons. Jim Wooldridge went 83-90 the following six. During that time, the Wildcats reached two NCAA Tournaments and never finished better than fourth in the conference.
After a dozen forgettable seasons, Bob Huggins finally got things rolling for K-State in 2006. But he abruptly left after one season for his alma mater, West Virginia.
Wefald and then athletic director Tim Weiser decided the program had a good thing going and elevated Martin from assistant to head coach. Armed with stellar recruits (Michael Beasley, Bill Walker, Jacob Pullen) and a staff that included current Illinois coach Brad Underwood, K-State was poised to win.
“When Huggs got the West Virginia job, he could have done what every other coach in America would have done,” Martin said last week. “He could have taken the other assistants with him. That means Bill Walker, Jacob Pullen, Michael Beasley, all those guys would have gone to West Virginia, too. Instead, he huddled all the coaches up and said, ‘It’s Frank’s turn.’ ”
Wefald was excited for the new era, even though Martin’s hire was panned initially.
“We took a calculated risk on Frank, but it didn’t feel like much of a risk,” Wefald said. “He had not been a head coach before, but having known him for a year we had a great amount of confidence he would not only be a good coach, but a great coach.”
Martin went 117-54 over the next five seasons, guiding K-State to four NCAA Tournaments, including a run to the Elite Eight in 2010. No coach in program history has won more in their first five years.
He had his flaws, such as player retention, sideline language and publicly campaigning for the Miami job when it opened in 2011. Still, he could do no wrong with many fans and players.
“When he was intense, we were intense,” Samuels said. “He would call timeout and just scream at us. We loved that. It got us going. He was a father figure for me. He taught me how to be a man. I thank him to this day for that.”
Martin’s relationship with former athletic director John Currie, now at Tennessee, wasn’t so rosy.
Though Currie gave Martin a big extension in 2010, they clashed on many topics over the next two years. Ultimately, Martin made a lateral move to South Carolina in 2012, taking over a program coming off a 10-win season. He switched jobs for many reasons, but Currie, who chose not to comment for this story, was blamed for the departure.
“Frank should still be at K-State,” Wefald said. “John Currie wanted to hire his own coach, and they didn’t get along. It’s too bad. Frank told me many times that he wanted to coach here until he retired. Indeed, he told me that for a year or two after he left here.
“Now, of course, Frank is a Gamecock and he loves his job completely. But if someone like Tim Weiser, for example, had been the athletic director at K-State or someone like him in 2012 and in the years to come, Frank Martin would still be K-State’s head basketball coach.”
The Wildcats have won at a respectable level under current coach Bruce Weber, going 100-68 with three NCAAs and one Big 12 championship. He ranks fifth among K-State coaches in victories, but some still long for the Martin era.
“What Frank is doing is amazing,” Samuels said. “I just wish he was doing it with us, not South Carolina.”
Altman vs. Martin?
Oregon last reached the Final Four in 1939. South Carolina is making its first trip. Altman and Martin have created basketball hysteria at both campuses.
South Carolina will play Gonzaga at 5:09 p.m. Saturday. Oregon and North Carolina will follow. K-State fans will watch with mixed emotions. If Oregon and South Carolina both win, two of their former coaches will go head-to-head for a national championship.
“You almost have to pinch yourself thinking about it,” Wefald said. “Who could have possibly expected this?”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett