Frank Martin is surrounded by a cult of personality.
The news media fetes him, his subordinates do not dare contradict him, and any player who dares stand up against his bully-boy tactics is belittled in terms that would make Mark Mangino blush. As his tenure as basketball coach at Kansas State wound down, the rumors swirled: mass player defections, a rift with the athletic director, the aforementioned Mangino-like treatment of the players. Martin is on the record, claiming that he “didn’t run” from his problems at K-State. That is not true. He did run. And he “got while the getting was good”, as the saying goes. This is a look at the last days of Frank Martin as K-State’s head men’s basketball coach. They were not the best of times.
Shortly after that final loss to Syracuse–and a power struggle lost to John Currie–Frank Martin finally snapped. Word had reached him that Will Spradling was not alone in his wish to transfer. Through “back channels” (read: snitches) Martin began to realize that this off-season was going to be different, difficult in ways that he had yet to experience in his five years as head coach of Kansas State. Sure, there had been yearly transfers–sometimes happening before the season even ended.
Wally Judge, Nick Russell, Ron Anderson… the list could go on much further. But this? Nothing he had experienced had prepared him for it. He traced it back to when he “lit up” Will Spradling during the latter stages of the game against Oklahoma State in Stillwater. Even his loyal assistants–and they were nothing, if not loyal–had been shocked at the things he screamed at Spradling, after the sophomore guard had missed a free throw.
“You mother f***ing c**k sucker, what the f*** are you f***ing thinking out there?!? You’re a f***ing embarrassment…” and on it went, sucking the life of the huddle. Brad Underwood (Martin’s top assistant, and loyal K-State man) tried to soothe things over with Spradling afterward, but it was clear a threshold had been crossed. It was then that Spradling decided to join the exodus that several of his teammates were planning for the end of the season.
Shane Southwell was another who had grown weary of Martin’s “act.” Two of his close friends were already gone, and–though he had grown close to several other members of the squad–the accumulation of “schizo playing time” combined with Martin’s vile outburts, both in games and in practice, had led him to decide that continuing his basketball career elsewhere was in his best interests. Southwell had approached Martin’s assistants about his concerns, but left feeling like the “We’ll talk to him about it, Shane” response was nothing more than a platitude. And nothing changed.
To these two, others were prepared to join. Nino Williams, Thomas Gipson, and one other “big name” (rumored to be Angel Rodriguez, but unable to be confirmed) were all gone. Even seniors, though they were not going to transfer, had grown weary of Martin’s behavior. One was even actively working to try to keep at least a semblance of what looked to be a powerful returning squad together, but felt as if the rift between Martin and the group planning the mass transfer had grown too large for even him to bridge.
Martin’s assistants had to have seen this unfolding. Players approached them with their concerns, and the coaches themselves talked to Martin directly, but were rebuffed. The pull of the Cult of Frank was too great. Martin had convinced himself (and, apparently, Underwood) that in the end, the only transfer would be Spradling. But that day, after the loss to Syracuse, as he sat with his assistants, it dawned on him that he might actually have gone too far.
He asked whether they really believed it would only be Spradling. No one spoke at first, until he encouraged them to be honest. It was when he heard Gipson’s name that he seemed to deflate a bit, and when it finally seemed to sink in that he was probably going to lose close to half of his scholarship players. He knew that he had burned many bridges in both Missouri and Kansas recruiting territory, and that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to adequately replace so many players.
South Carolina called his agent the next day.
The phone call was basically a Hail Mary by South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman. Martin has since claimed that Hyman “put his arms around” him and that “it was hard for me not to feel the passion that he had for building the men’s basketball program.” In reality, Hyman’s phone call to Martin’s agent was a lifeboat in the midst of a private ocean that was becoming very choppy. Martin knew immediately that unless a phone call from Illinois came (and a source within that athletic department told me that Martin’s name came up once, but was dismissed out of hand), he would take the job at South Carolina.
Over the course of the next few days, Martin refused to return several phone calls from K-State athletic director John Currie. While many have pointed to his relationship with Currie as the “tipping point” in his decision to leave K-State, that is not the case. While that relationship was certainly strained, the gathering storm of player transfers was the actual reason. Currie actually tried at least a dozen times over five days to reach Martin, but none of those calls were either taken or returned.
Once the players themselves realized that Martin was threatening to leave, they met off-campus, and decided to ask for a meeting with Currie. In those meetings (there was more than one), their issues with Martin were laid bare, along with their concerns regarding the lack of action by his assistants, and the wedges Martin had driven between they and some of their former coaches. (With regard to the last point, that is a subject for an entirely separate column, which I may or may not get around to writing at some point. Suffice to say, Martin had burnt a lot of recruiting bridges in the Midwest by the time he left.)
In addition to those players considering transfer, one of the rising seniors attended the meeting, and spoke on behalf of all of the seniors. The picture he painted was no better than that of the underclassmen. He had grown weary of Martin’s volatility, and said that if he was not heading into his final year, he would transfer as well.
When the meeting with the players ended, Currie had come to a decision: he would not counter whatever Martin was being offered by South Carolina. The players had made it clear that not only were they not upset by the prospect of Martin leaving, they were pleased by it. In addition, four of the players considering transfers committed to staying if Martin left.
The rest, as they say, is history. Martin was not playing some ill-conceived game of “Chicken” with Currie, as some have claimed. Currie was not ignoring his phone calls, hoping he would leave–at least until after he had met with the players. Martin, nor anyone representing him, reached out to Currie until very late in the process. Even then, it was only with a token, “Yeah, if you match what they’re offering, we’ll consider it.” Martin never considered staying once he saw the writing on the wall, and Currie offering to match what South Carolina gave him would not have changed that at all.
In the end, it came down to the fact that K-State’s players wanted out of Martin’s “cult”, and were willing to transfer to make that happen. As word spreads–as it always does–about Martin’s true nature, less and less high-level talent will be willing to subject themselves to such treatment. We had begun to see that happening at KSU, particularly with his regional recruiting struggles. High school coaches generally care about their athletes, and word was spreading around the Midwest that sending your boys to Martin was not a good idea.
The death knell of Martin’s tenure came when he finally began to understand that the Cult of Frank was preparing to shrink–exponentially so. Once that happened, as all good cult leaders must do, he found a new place to pitch his tent, and hawk his snake oil. Good luck, Gamecocks. You’re going to need it.