On this night, the No. 4 Baylor Bears are in Bramlage Coliseum – the “Octagon of Doom” as some still refer to it, though the moniker now seems to be a broadcaster’s fall-back descriptor more than the warning sign of a few years ago . Kansas State, coming off an impressive win against the Missouri Tigers, is on the verge of history should it win this game. A victory would be a Bramlage-record 15 straight, and it would mean back-to-back wins over Top 10 opponents for the first time in school history. In the short-term, KSU would move to 2-1 in the Big 12 standings and, while early, entrench itself in conversation as a front-runner regionally. It would likely dip its foot in the serious end of the national pool also.
That is what faces K-State this night on the floor. Off it, there is a different sort of challenge as well, a persistent one, that sits, literally, only a few feet away.
Creeping and subtle, the underbelly to Manhattan’s wakened basketball beast is discernible disconnect. More directly, the relationship grew and blossomed in the first seasons between a hungry fan base and its coach who was as unabashed in his approach then as he is now. Now, however, despite 107 wins and four-plus years into Frank Martin’s tenure, that growth has stunted. It has nothing to do with wins and losses; Martin averaged nearly 24 wins in his first four years, and this year’s team is 12-3. It isn’t recruiting or staff loss; despite consistent turnover spread throughout his tenure, some analysts believe this might be Martin’s most complete roster top-to-bottom, and only one coach (Dalonte Hill) has left since Martin took over. The hangup, of course – despite Martin’s on-going, honest, transparent self-evaluation – is what people see when the lights come on.
For a long time, fans looked past it, pausing only when necessary to discuss a particularly intense display – Chris Merriewether will always come to mind – before shrugging it off as the coach just being the coach. But, if that’s all it was, each time, then why haven’t folks grown used to it? Why does the topic cycle, recycle and then cycle some more even in K-State circles? Why? Because what Martin does hits on a much deeper level than fans realized it affected them. What many K-Staters see and hear sears through the core message of their now decades-old religion. There is nothing “family” about the display, not as they’ve come to understand the preached word. And, forget the New Testament Book of Vanier message about calming waters. These rivers and lakes boil, and do it regularly.
That said, Frank Martin is not the anti-Powercat. He’s not even wrong. In fact, most of what he does embodies the K-State way. Rather, the point is that his style is so diametrically opposed to the institution, and so radical in its delivery, that it may be asking too much for a congregation set in its ways to not just support, which it largely does, but embrace fully the program…and the coach who leads it. Making room for new methodology in a religion, especially when both kinds appear to work, takes a long time. Sometimes, it never happens.
And, sometimes, even in a nationally prominent Baylor/K-State game’s biggest moments, the loudest cheer of this night, by far, goes to the football coach seated in the crowd just as it always does. It is a vocal reminder of where this fan base’s deepest allegiances root. It is also a reminder that regardless of how much headway Martin has made into purple waters, his journey is still in its infancy.**
**The football team’s 10-3 success in 2011 may provide some sort of symbiotic benefit to the basketball program, but not as much as the .500 seasons Ron Prince provided as a springboard in Martin’s first years. There’s nothing better than being a new coach who finds some early success and does so in front of a fan base’s wandering eye among its school’s athletics. Landing those folks comes easier than it does for the star player walking into a party around midnight. These days, though, fans are having to choose a little more because of budgets on time and money. And, when it comes down to it, paying homage to Snyder’s program is going to win every time.
He will play just 12 minutes tonight against Baylor, but even in that short of time, freshman Angel Rodriguez manages to find himself in the middle of many of the game’s biggest plays. He hits a couple of threes. His lone steal leads to a Will Spradling three as well. But, he also has four turnovers and throws the lob pass from out of bounds that gets batted away in the final seconds. K-State loses 75-73, and the energy that finally began hitting fever pitch in the second half is punched away in seconds. The crowd of 12,528 is gone within seconds. And, within seconds, I can hear my footsteps as I walk across the court toward postgame.
The thing is, fans were instructed to do this. K-State’s message from the beginning of this season was that Frank Martin was the reason to pay for a ticket. If media guides mean anything (and since they are used these days as marketing and recruiting guides, one should surmise they have legit pull), Frank Martin is K-State basketball. Frank Martin is a brand. It’s just, and here it comes again, the brand isn’t for everyone. So, while folks figure out how close they want to stand, or sit, or get to Martin, they lean back while they assess. They are not emotionally invested. They aren’t angry, sad, happy, reserved or even apathetic. They’re simply watching.
It’s a muted respect for the product on the floor, and the “Doom” factor is missing. There is no true “angried up” stemming from a Denis Clemente rather-die-than-be-disrespected-on-his-home-court mindset. This team even quit doing its routine pregame dances in the tunnel (prior to the Missouri game last Saturday) as it tries to figure out its own identity…even if the coach’s is well-established. (And, it is. Click here for a Google search of “Frank Martin yells.”)
While Manhattan struggles with its ethical compass, Martin’s national exposure keeps increasing, although even what that means isn’t exactly clear. What is it that makes outside folks’ appetite for Frank Martin seemingly insatiable when, at the same time, a sizable portion of K-State seems to be easing back from the table? Is it for want of Martin’s knowledge, charm, wit or charisma, which he shows with regularity on the national scene? Perhaps, since Martin has shown he is quite affable when he wants to be. Or, is the desire for more from the general masses a spawn of continued safe, through-the-TV curiosity, like watching a bear through two rails and thick glass at the zoo? “If the show gets too scary, Johnny, you can always hit the off-switch…” “That’s not scary, Mom! That’s kinda funny!”
Those who are quick to an answer normally state it is the latter, that Martin is easier to digest in small doses, which makes him prime as a source of 30-second highlight and soundbite-driven entertainment. He’s proven adept at balancing, explaining and illustrating the difference between his on-court and off-court demeanor. That ability has won him a lot of fans, some of whom had to cross their own drawn line to get there, but get there they did.
Is it possible, though, that some K-State fans begin to take the same distanced approach? A few responses on my site and in emails suggest some have decided to take that route – staying home to watch the game instead of attending because of Martin. Granted, that’s a very limited few, and it’s not likely large sections of Bramlage will go unfilled. But, for those who do continue to attend, while they sit in their seats and continue to watch, will they eventually decide to fully embrace what they see despite actions that make them uncomfortable? Is that even possible?
That’s hard to say, but chances are good we’ll have every chance to revisit this on the next recycle.