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December 8, 2011WICHITA, Kan. -- Splenda packets fill small ceramic bins on every tattered tabletop. The marquee outside is dilapidated and the paint on the interior walls has long since faded, save for a pristine map of Kansas' highway system next to the counter. Simple menus sit on a wooden shelf by an unattended hostess stand.
Bob's Diner is another 24-hour joint that slings grease in another Midwestern college town. Students show up early in the a.m., for post-party grub, and the truckers and other blue-collar workers file in a few hours later looking for coffee or a morning plate of hash browns. It's the kind of place that features plenty of sugar in every booth and waitresses that call even the surliest of customers "sweetheart".
It also happens to be where Bob Huggins broke the news to his right-hand man. It was in this diner roughly five years ago where the then-K-State head coach sat across from Frank Martin, an assistant at the time, and told him he'd accepted the job at West Virginia.
The decision was one he'd wrestled with. That much was obvious to Martin immediately upon his arrival. At 6:45 in the morning, Huggins' presentation was on par with the most hung over student or the most exhausted trucker in the small, polygonal, semi-tucked-away building.
"He looked awful," Martin remembers. "He was beat up, which I know he was because he was forced into making a tough decision. It was a decision he had no interest in making because he was so happy here in Manhattan."
Happy as he may have been, this was a calling from his alma mater. This was a calling from his home.
Speculation about his departure had already begun on campus. Rumors swirled and anger built. Huggins couldn't leave the Wildcats' after just one season. He couldn't take the top-20 recruiting class he'd assembled and go elsewhere. So when official word got out, very few tipped their caps and wished the coach who had begun to resurrect the Wildcats' reputation good luck.
Contrarily, the ensuing scene wasn't pretty. T-shirts bearing his name were burned and fans and columnist alike took their shots. For a few months in 2007, Huggins was public enemy No. 1 in Manhattan. Sir Parker, Troy Polamalu and Baby Jay had nothing on the Wildcats' former head coach. The pantheon of villains in K-State history temporarily had a new ruler.
"It was a difficult three days to say the least," said assistant coach Brad Underwood, who worked as Huggins' Director of Basketball operations in Manhattan. "That's the fans' natural reaction, though. They kind of had that jilted feeling."
Huggins didn't choose Bob's Diner for the ambiance, after all.
"It was a place we knew people wouldn't look for us," Martin said.
The bitterness faded and the rest of the story is well known. Huggins left Manhattan on a private jet to take over the Mountaineer program and Martin, his top assistant, was hired as the Wildcats' new head coach. A recruiting class headlined by the name "Michael Beasley" was left untouched. And just three years later, K-State, led by Martin, the program's fourth coach with 100 wins to his name, found itself in the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight.
"He could have done what every other coach in this business would have done," Martin said. "He could have taken the West Virginia job and taken us assistants and all the kids with him. That's what everyone else in the business would have done, but that is not what he is about."
No harm no foul? Well, Huggins hopes so. But just days before he's set to return to the Sunflower State for a game against the school he briefly coached, doubts about the reaction he'll receive remain. On Thursday night in Wichita, where his 4-2 Mountaineers are set to meet Martin's 5-0 Wildcats, there will be introductions. His name will be announced. And what happens after that will be interesting, to say the least.
"I've never been booed before," Huggins said. "That would be a first. I couldn't relate to that."
Turns out, neither could his former assistants, a group of men who partially credit Huggins for the successes they've experienced over the last four years. Booing? Underwood and Martin can't fathom it. According to them, the sound pouring down from the Intrust Arena stands should be quite the opposite.
"I'll be very disappointed if he doesn't get a standing ovation," Underwood said. "I feel that very strongly. Time heals, and Huggs is one of us. He's as true a K-Stater as anyone."
Huggins has been back to Manhattan since he left his post as coach. He spent four or five days in the city and got some fishing done in the process. He met with friends and talked to his former staff, all without incident.
This next meeting will be different, though. This time around, a victory will hang in the balance and nobody is going to hook a Wiper or snag a bass. When asked about Thursday's game, Martin and Huggins both spout the usual clich? "Even though we all take losing very hard, at least you feel better going down and shaking a guy's hand," Huggins said. "You're happy for him."
From K-State's end, though, there seems to be more to the story. Jamar Samuels declines to say whether or not winning this game means more to Martin and his staff. "You'll have to ask the coaches that," he says, but the grin plastered to his face as he speaks gives him away.
"You can scratch Kansas off," he eventually concedes. "K-State and West Virginia will be the rivalry now."
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