MORGANTOWN — 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. Through the years, the two 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 South Carolina can beat Wichita State earlier in the day, Huggins and Martin will meet again as adversaries Wednesday in Cancun.
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, a former sports writer with The Herald-Dispatch. “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.”