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March 13, 2012
Cats continue streak of going places in March
The formality swooped down from the sky, as a white twin-propeller King Air with navy-blue and yellow pinstripes landed at the Manhattan Regional Airport shortly before noon on April 5.
Two white-haired gentlemen wearing cream pullovers and blue jeans exited the plane and rented and pulled out of the airport parking lot in a red Pontiac Sunfire.
Two hours passed before the men returned to the airport. Another hour and a half passed, then a black Toyota Tundra pulled up. He climbed out of the truck wearing a black leather jacket and black dress pants and held a cell phone close to his cheek and unloaded a suitcase and carry-on.
Bob Huggins trudged toward the terminal, never slowing his brisk pace, and supplying few answers. But there was really only one answer anybody sought: Would he really board that plane?
After one season at Kansas State and his first season back in college basketball in 2006-07, after a 13-month tenure marked by the Huggieville craze and a 23-12 record, a fourth-place finish in the Big 12 Conference, and a berth in the NIT -- the first postseason berth by K-State in nine seasons -- Huggins was headed home to serve as head coach at his alma mater. And he indicated that it wasn't an easy decision.
"It's right up there," he said, carrying his luggage to the terminal. "One of the hardest ones."
Shortly before 3 p.m., the twin-prop lifted into the air amid slight snowfall. And suddenly, the 34-degree April afternoon seemed even colder.
"There he goes," one onlooker said solemnly, looking up to the sky, watching K-State's potential hopes and dreams sail away on the plane that continued to climb into the air.
There's little worry today.
K-State has been on its way up ever since.
Nearly five years has passed. Amid 75-degree, cloudless skies in Manhattan shortly after 2 p.m. on Tuesday, K-State head coach Frank Martin parked in the same airport parking lot and boarded a Southwest flight along with his family, assistant coaches and their families, players, administrators, and staff.
The recollection of that cold April afternoon in 2007 prompted Martin to pause momentarily inside the terminal.
"You know, when you think things are getting ready to unravel, as long as people keep their faith and stay focused on what's in place, usually that means that great days are ahead," Martin said.
"I thought, just like you, I didn't know what was going on that day," he said. "I mean, I knew what was going on, but I didn't know where I stood that day. All I could think of was, 'Here we go, I've got to relocate my family for the third time in three years.' But President (Jon) Wefald, Bob Krause, Tim Weiser…they believed in me, gave me a chance."
A slight grin crept upon Martin's face.
"And here we are five years later," he said, "living the dream."
On Monday, Martin during a teleconference praised Huggins and spoke about the foundation established under Huggins during that fateful season.
Martin concluded, "All we've done is we've continued to build."
Yes, the Wildcats have tallied mileage in March. Whereas K-State once struggled through wintry mediocrity to see the light of this month, the Wildcats hit Omaha, Neb., in Martin's first season, San Diego in his second, then Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City during an Elite Eight run, and last March they traveled to Tucson.
Now K-State embarks on its third consecutive NCAA Tournament, a feat last achieved when Lon Kruger led the Wildcats to four straight NCAA Tournaments between 1986-87 and 1989-90. Martin has had K-State in the postseason for five straight seasons -- an unprecedented string of consecutive postseason berths by a K-State coach.
Additionally, none of Martin's teams have ever lost in their first game of the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats went one-and-done in their four previous NCAA Tournaments dating to the 1988-89 season.
On Tuesday, the Wildcats headed to Pittsburgh, the NCAA Tournament site where K-State would continue its preparations as the eight-seeded Wildcats, 21-10, face ninth-seed Southern Miss, 25-8, at 11:40 a.m. Thursday at CONSOL Energy Center.
And, by chance, K-State will be joined by 10th-seed West Virginia, 19-13, which will face seventh-seed Gonzaga, 25-6, at around 6:20 p.m. Thursday at CONSOL Energy Arena. Martin will be reunited with the man he served as an assistant under at Cincinnati and for one season at K-State before this thing started.
"I might do (Huggins') scout and he might do mine Tuesday night, and then he'll coach his team with my thoughts, and I'll coach his team with my thoughts," Martin joked immediately after the tournament selection on Sunday.
Martin and Huggins saw each other briefly earlier this season in Wichita. The Wildcats, on the cusp of their first national ranking of the season, suffered an 85-80 double-overtime loss to the Mountaineers on Dec. 8 at Intrust Bank Arena.
"At least our wives will be able to spend time together," Martin said, looking to the tournament. "They like each other a lot more than they like us."
Ernie Barrett, "Mr. K-State," ambled into the airport Tuesday wearing a white and purple striped shirt and purple sweater vest. Once upon a time, the former All-American led K-State to the 1951 Final Four, played professionally, and spent nearly the next 60 years at the school as an assistant coach, athletics director, administrator and top fundraiser before his retirement in June 2007.
"I'm blessed that they keep me around," he half-joked. "K-State has been my entire life."
Hardened by the atrocity of postseason droughts, including just two NCAA Tournaments in a 17-year span from 1990-91 until Martin's first season, Barrett continues to marvel at it all.
"I tell you one thing, it's been a real blessing," he said. "I went through 20 years of non-success with our basketball program. The new generation we're witnessing now has been a blessing for Kansas State University. Frank Martin is doing an excellent job of bringing our program back to the success that we used to have."
And one by one, the faces on the current team sauntered through the doors into the terminal. Jordan Henriquez cradled a pair of purple size-18 Nikes like loaves of bread under each arm and Martavious Irving smiled when asked if he had a few more pregame tunnel dances left in him for the trip.
"You know it," he nodded. "Always."
Senior forward Jamar Samuels, a native of Washington, D.C., soaked it all in before heading to board the flight.
"These guys are playing their hearts out on every possession and every possession counts in the NCAA Tournament," he said. "We're looking forward to it."
Samuels wasn't yet on campus when Huggins settled in the same airport parking lot and made his way to the awaiting jet that whisked him away to West Virginia that day in April 2007.
But Samuels did join K-State midway through Martin's first season. And has been here ever since.
"It's just been an unbelievable ride," Samuels said.
Samuels could also understand the biting uncertainty just five years ago, when Huggins left. Martin was officially hired as the head coach on Apr. 6.
"(Martin) being who he is, you're not supposed to know who he is," Samuels said. "He was a high school coach for a long time."
"Now he's made this climb to where he is now."
The Southwest jet screamed down the runway shortly before 3 p.m. and began its climb into the sky.
Shortly before 3 p.m. nearly five years ago, things seemed cold and overcast in Manhattan.
But behind Martin, K-State overcame the clouds.
The Wildcats have seen many sunny times in March ever since.