Jellison: Huggins got K-State on track

By Joel Jellison

Kansas State fans might remember Bob Huggins more for wheeling his suitcase to an airplane, departing after one season as the school’s coach for his alma mater West Virginia.

It’s almost hard to believe its been six years since Huggins was the Wildcats’ coach. But in just one season, he set the Wildcats in a direction that has revitalized the program and made K-State men’s basketball a mainstay on the national scene.

Tonight, Huggins will return to Manhattan for the first time since 2007 when West Virginia plays K-State at Bramlage Coliseum.

To realize how far the Wildcats have come, you have to remember how bad things got. The Lon Kruger coached Wildcats advanced to the Elite Eight in the 1988 NCAA tournament, losing to Kansas. The Jayhawks went on to win the national title that year, and have remained an elite program since then.

K-State, meanwhile, began a slow slide out of the tournament that eventually saw it making the field just twice in the 16 years between Kruger and Huggins.

Before Huggins arrived, Dana Altman, Tom Asbury and Jim Woolridge had combined for a record of 236-232. In that time period, Huggins recorded a 379-113 record at Cincinnati.

K-State hired Huggins after he spent a year out of coaching, and he ignited a somewhat-stale rivalry with KU immediately. In his introductory press conference, he said, “why settle for second when first is available?” And fans responded to the excitement early. Ticket sales rose from 6,500 to 12,580 and the Huggieville era began.

Things were good on the court too. Huggins brought in top recruits like Bill Walker and Jason Bennett, and landed a 4-star guard in Blake Young. Even big names like O.J. Mayo were believed to be considering the program.

But before the end of the first season, he had the Wildcats set up for even more excitement. He landed the nation’s top recruit in Michael Beasley, added athletic forward Dominique Sutton, guard Fred Brown and eventual all-time career points leader at K-State, Jacob Pullen. The class was ranked the top in the country by many recruiting publications, and the foundation appeared to be set for the future.

The Wildcats finished the 2006-07 season with a 23-12 record, their most wins since the 1987-88 season. K-State missed the NCAA tournament that season, and a month later Huggins was gone — the school left to pick up the pieces.

Huggins has always said some of the best people you’ll come around are in Manhattan, but the allure to go home was strong.

K-State turned to longtime Huggins assistant Frank Martin, giving him his first college head-coaching job. Martin kept the recruiting class together and took the team to the tournament in his first season. A few years later, Martin took the team back to the Elite Eight in 2010.

And had it not been for Huggins, the man whose “Huggieville,” themed t-shirts were famously burned around Manhattan on the day he left in April of 2007, none it might have ever happened.

The Wildcats haven’t missed a beat since Huggins arrived in 2006, making the tournament four of the last six seasons, and going to the NIT in the other two.

Huggins was just the second coach to win 20 games in his first season as K-State coach — since Kruger — and he’s since been joined by Martin, and current coach Bruce Weber.

Weber himself has been quick to make sure credit is not only given to Martin, but to Huggins as well

If it had not been for Huggins’ larger than life persona, his ability to coach and surround himself with some of basketball’s best recruiters, K-State might have never recovered from his one-and-done experience with the Wildcats.

Huggins built the foundation for K-State. Martin took the program to the next level. Now, it’s Weber’s job to keep it headed in the right direction.

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