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April 6, 2012
The phone call from Bob Huggins that would ultimately alter the course of Frank Martin's coaching career - and his life - came in the spring of 2004.
At the time, Martin was a lowly paid assistant coach for Northeastern, a small Division I program located in Boston, transitioning from the high school ranks in Miami to the college ranks in 2000.
Huggins had a problem. He was looking for an assistant coach and contacted Martin to offer him the job. Martin quickly accepted, his first venture into the sometimes unforgiving world of major college basketball.
Three years later, Martin was named coach at Kansas State upon the recommendation of Huggins, who left Manhattan, Kan., after just one season (2006-07) to take over at West Virginia.
The life-changing phone call didn't occur by accident.
Instead, it was the product of more than a decade of friendship between the two men, a relationship that started when Huggins mined South Florida for talent, first as coach at Akron (1985-89) and later at Cincinnati (1989-2005).
Early in his tenure at Cincinnati, Huggins was recruiting a junior-college player at Palm Beach Community College that played for Martin at Miami Senior High School.
Huggins didn't sign the player, but the friendship between Martin and Huggins blossomed over the next few years.
"I liked what he appeared like and what he said," Martin said. "So I started following his career. Anytime he spoke at a clinic, I went. Then we actually went out and had some adult beverages a couple of times and kind of got to know each other."
In 1996, Huggins hired current Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin as his video coordinator. Martin and Cronin were already good friends by that time from the time they spent together working camps.
Today, Martin makes no effort to minimize the importance of Huggins, one of college basketball's most divisive, love him-or-hate-him characters, for the last 20 years,
Martin definitely falls into the "love him" category, his faith in Huggins unshaken by two well-publicized incidents in the last seven years.
"When he hired Mick, Huggs and I started to get to know each other even better," Martin said. "He never signed any of my guys, yet no one has fought harder to help me in this business than him. In a day and age when people talk about cheating and taking advantage of recruits and players for personal benefit, the guy that has helped me the most is someone who recruited my guys and never signed one of them.
"Yet, he's the one who continues to stick his neck out to help because he believes in who I am. I'm lucky my life has been touched by him."
A year after joining the Cincinnati program as an assistant coach, Martin and the rest of the college basketball world were stunned on August 23, 2005, when then-Cincinnati president Nancy Zimpher forced Huggins to resign and accept a $3 million buyout amidst a controversy over his DUI arrest in 2004.The alleged substandard academic performance of Cincinnati's basketball players during his tenure was mentioned during the ouster.
As a result, Martin and current Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy headed the Bearcats' program in 2005-06, leading them into the NIT. Martin's final game as a coach with Cincinnati was a 65-62 loss to South Carolina in the quarterfinals of the NIT.
Huggins was fired about a week after Martin's wife and children had finally completed the year-long process of moving from Boston.
"When we sign up to get into this business, we understand you're going to go through those difficult moments," Martin said. "But the family difficulty is the part people don't pay attention to. The sudden change of negative things with job status.
"My wife gave up her career to help me chase mine. The week after she moves, the Hall-of-Fame guy that I put my hands in gets fired. So, she's at home trying to figure out what the next step is. We knew that in March we were dead men walking. The uncertainty was difficult."
In the days leading up to his last game at Cincinnati, Martin learned Kennedy would be named coach at Ole Miss and Huggins had accepted the coaching job at Kansas State.
In fact, Huggins was introduced as KSU's new coach just a few hours before the USC-Cincinnati game tipped off, for the right to go to New York City.
Martin knew he would land a job somewhere. He had a choice - Manhattan, Kan., or Oxford, Miss.? He chose to stick with Huggins out of loyalty.
"I knew I had a job with either one," Martin said. "The only reason I went with Huggs is because of the fact he fought for me when I was unemployed. When I didn't have a job after my first year at Northeastern, he went to (the new coach) and said, 'You'd be making a huge mistake if you don't keep this guy.' I don't forget people that go out on a limb to help me and help people that are dear to me."
The decision to join Huggins' staff at Kansas State led to a moment which Martin and his wife, Anya, can laugh about now.
"I was sitting at Huggs' house around 11 o'clock the night before the South Carolina game (in the NIT) and he told me, 'I'm not taking the Kansas State job if you don't come,' Martin said. "'I need to know. If you're not coming, I'm not taking the job.' I said, 'Huggs, I'm in. You're my guy. Wherever we go. We'll get it done.' He asked me if I was sure and I said yes. He called (KSU) and accepted the job.
"I was ecstatic, so I called my wife and said, 'Anya, we're moving to Manhattan.' She's from New York City, so she said she couldn't wait to tell her mom and sister. Then it hit me. I said 'Oh, boy. Honey, it's Manhattan, Kansas.' There was silence on the phone. She says, 'We'll talk about it when you get home.' Then I said something like 'Honey, I'm glad you're happy' just to make sure Huggs thought everything was good. She was a trooper. By the time I got home, she said, 'Let's go do this.'"
One year after being trumpeted as a hero in the Little Apple, Huggins left Kansas State to take over the program at West Virginia, his alma mater. Martin was set to make his third move in four years when Huggins surprised him with this piece of information -- he had recommended Martin's hiring as coach to the Kansas State administration.
Martin met with KSU officials and was hired shortly thereafter, culminating his sometimes arduous and twisting 20-year journey to becoming a Division I coach.
"Those 48 hours (between Huggins leaving KSU and his hiring) were difficult," Martin said. "I thought I was going to have to move my family again. I'm in a car with a navy blue sports jacket and a gold tie (West Virginia's colors), headed to the airport to get on a plane with (Huggins). I got a call from (the athletic director) saying, 'I have to sit down with you.' Huggs told me that I needed to go talk with him because he had told the president that he needed to hire me.
"He said, 'You need to go back, don't get on the plane.' I made a U-turn, got rid of the sportcoat and tie and put purple back on. Then I sat down with (the athletic director). The next day, the president, vice president and (athletic director) met with me again. Later that afternoon, they offered me the job."
His foray into the SEC means Martin will face Kennedy, who is feeling some heat at Ole Miss, as opposing coaches at least one time. Martin has nine months to prepare for the meeting, but already realizes that it will be an emotional contest for both coaches.
"I'm not a big fan of playing friends," Martin said. "Andy says he likes playing friends because he knows a good guy wins. I have a tough time because I know how much I hate to lose and I know how much he hates to lose. If we win, I'm miserable for him and if we lose, I'm miserable for our guys. It's kind of a no-win situation. We'll enjoy it because there won't be a better team. I know how he prepares his kids."
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