Two old friends will likely be meeting for a Thanksgiving reunion in Mexico this week, and provided West Virginia University and South Carolina both win or both lose their first games at the Cancun Challenge, that reunion could extend to the basketball court.
Bob Huggins, the WVU head coach, and Frank Martin, the Gamecocks’ head coach, have a relationship that dates back to the 1990s when Huggins was the coach at Cincinnati and Martin was winning high school state championships as a coach in Florida. Over the years, the two men have been colleagues, co-workers and friends — and if the Mountaineers knock off Northern Iowa on Tuesday (8:30 p.m. on CBS College Sports Network) and USC can beat Wichita State earlier in the day, Huggins and Martin will meet again as adversaries in Cancun on Wednesday.
Martin got his start in coaching at the junior varsity level in his hometown of Miami, and in 1993 he got his first varsity job at North Miami High. In 1995, he moved to Miami Senior and quickly had a powerhouse team on his hands. Martin’s Miami Senior teams won state titles in 1996, 1997 and 1998 and had teams with future NBA players Udonis Haslem and Steve Blake. Miami Senior’s success made college coaches take notice, Huggins included.
There was just one problem for Huggins — he couldn’t land any of Martin’s high-profile players.
“Frank and I are really close,” Huggins said. “I used to tell everybody this: they’re like, ‘Why did you hire Frank?’ I said, ‘Because I couldn’t get any of his players from him.’ I tried like crazy to recruit those guys at Miami Senior and we came down to the end with several of them and didn’t get any of them.”
Huggins wasn’t the first college coach to give Martin a job. That was current WVU assistant Ron Everhart when he was the head coach at Northeastern in 2000. Huggins brought Martin on to his staff at Cincinnati in 2004 and then took him along in 2006 to Kansas State. When Huggins left K-State after one season to take the West Virginia job, the veteran coach lobbied the Wildcats to make Martin their next head coach.
“I told the president of Kansas State — he said to me, ‘[Martin] doesn’t have any head coaching experience,’ when I came back here and I was trying to tell them to hire Frank out there,” Huggins said. “I said, ‘No, he has got all kinds of head coaching experience.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but it’s high school,’ and I said, ‘Let me explain something to you. He coached better players in high school than I had at Cincinnati.’ He would have six, seven high-level Division I guys.
“You want to talk about hard? You’ve got to manage those egos and you’ve got everybody in their ear — this guy wants to outscore that guy and all that. All he did was win state championship after state championship and go undefeated. So I knew the guy could coach, knew he could deal with people.”
Kansas State was still slow to act despite Huggins’ endorsement of Martin. With Huggins at WVU, Martin was close to joining him in Morgrantown before the call from the Wildcats finally came.
How close did Martin come to joining Huggins in Morgantown? Very close, Huggins said.
“They were in the car,” Huggins said. “[Martin] and Dalonte [Hill, a former K-State assistant] were both in the car headed to the airport. The president called them, then they called me and said, ‘What do I do?’ I said, ‘Turn around.’ So they turned around and he got the job there. Being the head coach there is better than being an assistant here, in a lot of ways.”
The relationship between Martin and Huggins is about more than basketball, with both men finding a kindred spirit in the other.
“I grew up in a place where I never worried about what I didn’t have,” Martin told The State’s Andrew Ramspacher. “I was taught to understand what I do have. And my high school coach, Shakey Rodriguez, was like that. He had us always thinking that a bunch of short little Cuban guys were good enough to play the Lakers with Magic and Kareem.
“And then I end up friending this guy from Ohio … He’s originally from Morgantown, but he spent all his formative years in Ohio. And I end up befriending this guy who thinks along the same ways. And I’ll sit there a lot and I’ll just hear my high school coach’s voice and his voice on how they’re managing things and how they’re communicating things to help me figure out how I want to communicate and manage things.”
Martin was named the 2010 Big 12 Coach of the Year while at K-State and left the Wildcats after the 2011-2012 season to take the job at South Carolina. He led the Gamecocks to the 2017 Final Four and recently won his 250th career game. This season, USC enters the Cancun Challenge with a 4-1 record. The loss came last week to Boston University in an on-campus Cancun Challenge game. Since then, South Carolina held off Gardner-Webb for a 74-69 win before leaving for Mexico.
Playing against Huggins teams is not the South Carolina coach’s favorite thing to do, but Martin said there is no doubt Huggins has made an enormous contribution to his career as a mentor.
“Having him in my corner has validated some of my personal opinions on how to manage,” Martin said. “[It] allowed me to grow and continues to allow me to grow because I get to pick his mind.
“He was managing some internal stuff with his team about a month ago and we were talking. He doesn’t call me to tell me what he’s managing, but he let me know that he’s trying to deal with some stuff within his team. And I saw his team play, you’d never know he was managing issues within his team. And that comes because he doesn’t hide it.
“He fights that internally and he demands that people do things a certain way. That’s where his greatness comes. He doesn’t give up on people. I’ve said it before, the easy thing in life is to give up on people, to write them off when they make a mistake. The hardest thing to do is to get people to change and grow. And he doesn’t give in, man. He makes you change, he makes you grow. Seeing him do it has given me confidence — because that’s what I believe in — that I can do it, too.”
Martin recalled playing against West Virginia in 2011 when he was at K-State, and it wasn’t a memory he seemed very fond of at first, before turning the story into another example of how he has been able to take lessons from Huggins and use them to improve his teams. This lesson came in the form of an 85-80 win in double-overtime against the Wildcats in Wichita, Kansas. Kevin Jones hit a baseline 3-pointer to send the game to overtime, scored 30 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead the Mountaineers in the that night.
“My team was better because we played his team,” Martin said. “It was a difficult game to be a part of, but at the end of the day I’m into my team growing and getting better. And any time you play a Bob Huggins-coached team, your team’s going to be better.”
Martin said if his team has to play the Mountaineers later this week, he’s glad there is a quick turnaround between games to so there is less time to, “sit around and think about stories and relationships and all that other stuff.”
“We might even break down film together if we’re playing each other, the night before,” Martin said. “I’ll criticize his team, he’ll criticize mine. We’ll both commiserate, be miserable human beings, share some stories that make us both laugh and wake up the next day and go figure out the game.”