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October 20, 2011

The Frank Martin Brand

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Frank Martin might as well have been lounging poolside with a frozen drink and a personal masseuse.

In his fifth Big 12 Media Day appearance, the Kansas State coach was unmistakably relaxed. The jokes flowed and smiles appeared on the faces of everybody standing within an earshot. So while the fact that center Jordan Henriquez-Roberts has bulked up to 240 pounds is definitely notable, that wasn't the story.

The story also wasn't that Martin said fifth-year senior Jamar Samuels is in the midst his best stretch of practices since joining the program. And it certainly had nothing to do with Rodney McGruder's knee, which ailed him for the majority of last season before healing this summer. Instead, the real buzz surrounded Martin himself.

Something interesting has happened in the Big 12, and it has nothing to do with realignment. Suddenly, Frank Martin -- yes, the guy who was once called a "panic hire" and a "quick fix" by columnists and fans -- is the conference's fourth-most tenured coach. The underdog story at work here isn't lost on the subject.

"I guarantee you that you guys didn't ever think you'd be asking me questions about being the experienced guy in the league," he told reporters, flashing a light-hearted, but still somewhat vindictive grin. The rhetorical question drew laughs -- almost everything Martin said on Thursday did -- but was also an indicator of a larger, more serious issue.

These days, facts are facts. Martin has rebuilt an entire program -- not just a team -- in Manhattan, Kan., and his peers are taking note. Opposing coaches and their players spent the first few years of Martin's tenure attempting to figure out what to make of the first-time head coach's fiery demeanor and rare, matter-of-fact nature. Today, though, he's become a rallying point of sorts for an entire league.

A quick pan of the Sprint Center floor on Thursday reveled players in Baylor polo shirts doing inspired impressions of the Wildcats' coach and yucking it up in the process. There were dozens of questions about the media guide cover that depicts his over-the-top facial expressions. And, despite his team being picked to finish sixth in the league this season, the crowd of reporters that engulfed the table he sat behind was rivaled only by the gang surrounding the one that housed Kansas head coach Bill Self.

"For me to still be sitting here is a credit to our coaches and our players," Martin said from inside a pack of cameras and notepads. Martin has found a home, and not only is he more comfortable than ever living in it, but his neighbors love having him on the block.

"Frank is great for our league," Self said. "In today's day and age, where everybody is so worried about being politically correct, Frank says what's on his mind. You need that these days. He's really just been great for this league."

On Thursday afternoon, as he joked about Self sabotaging a faulty microphone and told reporters to feel free submitting their questions via Twitter if they preferred, what has become the Frank Martin brand was front and center.

And make no mistake, a "brand" is exactly what it's become.

"He has a great national perception," CBS Sports national columnist Dennis Dodd said of Martin. "His whole persona and the way his teams play has been spread by ESPN and the other rights holders. That has allowed him to create a nice little kingdom there at Kansas State."

So "hail to the king" it was in Kansas City, where it became clear that maybe some of the most scathing words written about Martin when he was hired were, in a way, spot on. Maybe he wasn't a good fit to function as the head coach of a Big 12 basketball team. Instead, he may have been just wrong enough to break a tired mold and grab some success in the process.

"The job Frank has done has been remarkable," Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger said. "He's always been a basketball junkie. I could tell that from the time we met. He really throws himself into it. That's for sure."

In year five of his era, nothing about Frank Martin the basketball coach will change. He'll still scream and stomp his foot. He'll still be embraced by purple-clad fans and instigated by hostile crowds. It's everything surrounding him that's undergoing a dramatic shift.

"The faces of our league since the day I got here have been Bill (Self) and Rick (Barnes)," Martin said, seemingly oblivious to the fact that while he's yet to win conference title, construction of a third head on the Big 12's Mount Rushmore of hoops coaches has already begun.



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