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January 30, 2010

ESPN puts K-State hoops at center court

Nearly two hours after Digger Phelps announced to the rabid student section that "this day is about you," Kansas State coach Frank Martin found himself in the director's chair on the floor at Bramlage Coliseum. All along, he said he didn't want this day to be about him. He wanted it to be about "our" team. However, at 10:23 a.m., the ESPN's camera light turned red. And all eyes of the college basketball nation focused on Martin.

Among the estimated 100 signs held among the ESPN College GameDay record crowd of 8,159 that filled the west side of Bramlage from basket to basket, one sign beamed, "FEAR THE STARE." But at the moment, the eyes stared into space as a thousand thoughts ran through Martin's head amid the deafening chant of "FRANNNK MARRRTIN!" that rang out from the purple-clad mob behind him.

Martin's hands shook as he wiped sweat from his brow. He pointed to the 250 uniformed soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 7th Artillery Field Division standing in the corner -- "our guys," as he has adoringly called them -- smiled, pointed and gave them a thumbs up. He looked at the chair backs on the east side that were filled with friends and family. And suddenly, the eyes that people joke could burn a hole through a steel wall, weren't fiery. They weren't fiery at all.

In fact, sitting in that directors chair in the waning seconds before the camera's light flipped on to telecast this massive family reunion, this meeting between the K-State faithful, his family and "our guys," the edges of Martin's eyes grew wet, overcome with mist.

He thought he had seen it all on Feb. 19, 2007. Remember? That was the first time he witnessed first hand the love, or "EMAW" of this loyal Wildcat Nation. An associate head coach under Bob Huggins, Martin walked onto the court in place of the flu-bitten Huggins and felt the energy of the K-State student section a couple hours before the Wildcats faced No. 2 Kansas.

Turned out, he had seen nothing yet.

Why, even on Saturday, there was so much that the eyes didn't see.

Martin tried to pedal away his energy while working out in the gym. He watched GameDay on the flat screen, saw all of the fans in the Octagon of Doom. Then associate head coach Dalonte Hill, who stood near the lip of the tunnel toward the locker room, walked through the gym door.

"Man," Hill said, "you can't hear anything."

That statement caused Martin's eyes to grow wide.

But the eyes didn't see so much. They didn't see how the Octagon slept under a full moon like a hibernating beast long before daybreak, when K-State freshmen Charlie Hutchison, Phil Wahl and Jacob Pfeifer waited outside in an adjacent parking lot at 2:30 a.m., then relented and began the line outside Bramlage amid 10-degree temperatures.

"Hey, we were ready for College GameDay," Wahl explained. "We figured there was no sense in going to bed. Let's go wait outside in the cold. And here we are.

"This is Christmas morning and New Years Eve combined. To be front row on College GameDay is going to be nuts!"

The eyes didn't see Chris, an attendant at the Shop Quik on the corner of Aggieville, point down the street shortly before 5:15 a.m., and inform a visitor, "You just missed the students. They were here and said they were headed to IHOP before they headed over (to Bramlage)."

The eyes didn't see the stack of newspapers underneath a cashier's station. They didn't see the image on the front page of Denis Clemente, Dominique Sutton, Jamar Samuels and a clapping Curtis Kelly celebrating in front of a bold, purple headline that read, "THE OCTAGON'S LEGION OF DOOM."

They didn't see Phelps enter the arena at 8:35 a.m. displaying his purple tie to the student section, then moments later Phelps' hands grab a microphone on the ESPN set at center court.

"Understand this, there is some school in the state that thinks blue is the color," Phelps beamed. "You made it happen against Texas. Tonight, Kansas goes down!"

But on Saturday morning, as he sat in that director's chair, wiping sweat from his forehead with shaky hands, man, did those eyes feel the love.

"His team is ranked 13th. He never lets up and accepts less," ESPN's Rece Davis said into the camera. "You watch him on the outside and think, 'He's a bubbling volcano' all of the time. So, who is Kansas State's third-year head coach?"

Martin grinned.

"Now, you've seen him on the sideline, you've seen his excitable nature," Davis continued. "Wait until you see how his players flattered their head coach."

The ensuing clips of Jacob Pullen, Kelly and Samuels impersonating Martin on national TV came as a surprise -- "We went to great lengths to make sure (Martin) didn't know that was coming," Davis said later -- as did a specially-prepared plate of calamari from Della Voce, the fine-dining establishment that had run out of Martin's favorite dish when he went to dine after the Wildcats' win over top-ranked Texas last Monday night.

That antic sent Martin rolling in laughter.

Martin talked about team unity. He talked about the passionate fans.

Then Davis asked Martin to address the main event -- the Wildcats' meeting against No. 2 Kansas at 6 p.m., some eight hours from now.

"For our basketball team, it's just a game on January 30th," Martin said. "It's a great opportunity."

When Martin stood following the interview segment and the camera's red light flipped off, he turned and waved again and the largest crowd in GameDay history cheered even louder. He made his way to his 2-year-old son, Christian, swept him into his arms, kissed him twice and said, "How are you?"

Then Martin stood near the lip of the tunnel along his family, his coaching staff, and former players Darren Kent and James Franklin and watched the rest of the GameDay telecast on the arena Jumbotron in silence.

When it was over, Phelps turned around to the student section once more.

Mission accomplished.

"Congratulate yourselves!" Phelps shouted into his mic. "You're the best crowd and largest crowd in GameDay history!"

Cue the chills.

An inquirer asked Martin where this moment ranked. The eyes looked at the ground during a long pause.

"Outside of my family life, it's the day I got hired at Miami Senior, the day I got hired here and today," he said. "The games, you win a loss and all of that, but as far as just the feel of where you're at, those moments are definitely things. I'm not sure how'd I rank them."

He recalled the moment he paused just on the edge of the court, which drew the loudest cheers during the entire three hours that fans stood in their seats, and shook his head.

"That was unbelievable," he said.

But with eight hours until tipoff, no, the eyes still hadn't seen it all.



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