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December 6, 2011

Return visit

Huggins set to play old team in K-State

MORGANTOWN — Bob Huggins will be hanging a sign out this week that simply reads: GONE FISHING.

And the man is looking for one big fish as he returns to Kansas to play the school he coached between Cincinnati and West Virginia — Kansas State — and the man he turned the job over to — Frank Martin — at 9 p.m. Thursday.

The game is being played in Wichita, not in Manhattan, which is home to Kansas State and was home to Huggins for the year he was there, but if you think it’s anything but a home court advantage to K-State, you don’t know your geography.

Now Huggins has been back to Manhattan since returning to Morgantown, where he was born and where he played the last three years of his college career.

As Huggins tells the story, this is not his first trip back.

“My wife and I went back to Manhattan for four or five days,” Huggins revealed in a teleconference Monday. “We went fishing and had a good time. Then I was back maybe three or four time for junior college games and I was able to get together with Frank.”

The fact that he went fishing interested the Kansas writers who used to cover him.

“Catch any?” one asked.

“I always catch fish,” Huggins said.

Hooking Kansas State might not be as easy as pulling a catfish out of some Kansas river. As Huggins said, “This is a good team.”

And he’s part of the reason, for when he came to Kansas State they were, like the catfish, a bottom feeder in the Big 12 in basketball.

“I remember going to a Catbacker deal and talking about getting it turned around, being competitive in the Big 12,” Huggins recalled. “He put his hand up, and the guy said, ‘I really would like to believe you, but we’ve heard that before. I’m not sure I want to buy season tickets.’ I told him, ‘OK, but there’s a chance you won’t get tickets you want.’”

And Huggins was right. He turned the K-State program around in one year and probably would still be there if his alma mater hadn’t come calling.

“I had a great year,” he said. “I would never have left for anywhere but here. The fan base there is similar to ours; the passion they have is similar to ours. I enjoyed living in Manhattan. It was a great experience.”

But the lure of home was too much, and so he left and he pushed Martin, his assistant, for the job.

There was some resistance.

“People would say he hadn’t coached college, only high school,” Huggins said, referring to Martin’s background as a top high school coach but never a college head coach. “Well, he coached really good players. He’d have five and six stars on his team. People don’t

know how hard that is to take players like that and get them to fill roles. That’s what we (college coaches) have to do.”

Huggins was sure in his own mind that Martin would succeed and he has only gotten better each year, driving the Wildcats into national prominence.

“I met him when I went to recruit his high school players,” Huggins said, adding, “I never got any of them. But I watched him practice, watched him coach games and saw how he dealt with the players. When he was an assistant at Northeastern I talked Ron Everhart into keeping him and when I got a chance to hire him, I did.”

Now Martin has 100 victories at Kansas State and talks with Huggins often, not as an assistant to a head coach, but as one major head coach to another.

“We talked about three times a day when the conference realignment was going on,” Huggins said. “I was trying to get what Frank thought was happening. It was an unsettling time for both of us. We started talking when it looked like more teams were leaving the Big 12, then right through this until we wound up going to the Big 12.”

And that’s fine with Huggins, who will be playing Kansas State twice a year.

“I’m excited about going to the Big 12 but I’m kind of limited about what I can say,” Huggins said, perhaps the most shocking statement he has ever made, considering very little limits what he can say.

And does he worry about being booed by the fans when he returns to Kansas?

“I’ve never been booed before,” he said sarcastically. “I couldn’t relate with that.”

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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