West Virginia assistant men’s basketball coach Erik Martin has always been one to chart his own path, with some of his decisions not following conventional wisdom.
Take, for example, his choice to leave a state that many people often target as a dream destination.
Coming out of West Covina High School in Southern California, Martin, a league MVP and all-state performer, was expected to stay close to home and attend one of the many heritage-rich college basketball programs in the Golden State.
Instead, he went to … TCU. How did that happen?
“I just wanted to get away from home,” said Martin, acknowledging a path that is still attractive to some players. “The reality was I probably should have gone to Long Beach State, where Joe Harrington was the coach and Seth Greenberg had recruited me, but I told myself, ‘I’m getting out of California.’ Now that I look back at it, did I make the right decision? I don’t know, but the good Lord worked everything out.
“California is a great place, but it will always be there. I wanted to see a different part of the country. My brothers and sisters all still live there. My mom said, ‘I can’t believe you never came back here,’ but I always knew there was more for me than California. I love California, love the weather, love the food. But I knew that I wanted to do something more than just California.”
Martin stayed at TCU for two seasons, the first of which he redshirted, but it didn’t take long for him to realize that the Horned Frog program of the day didn’t suit his game.
“Our head coach was Moe Iba, the son of the legendary coach Hank Iba. I changed his name to ‘Slow Iba’ because we played so doggone slow,” Martin recalled with a rueful laugh. “Our games would be like 48-46, and I’m an athlete that likes to get up and down the floor. Add in the fact that we weren’t winning, and after my redshirt year and one year playing, I knew I wasn’t going to finish my career there. We weren’t winning, we weren’t running, we were never on TV and we’re not going to be in the NCAA Tournament. I knew I had to go about it a different way.”
Not one to shy away from tough decisions, Martin left TCU, and perhaps a bit oddly, headed back home for the next stage of his career. He played one year at Santa Ana (Calif.) College, earning all-state first-team honors and winning a state junior college title along with Corie Blount. It was there that he first crossed paths with Bob Huggins, then the head coach at the University of Cincinnati, who became one of the most influential people in his life. That mixture, though, or two strong personalities, hasn’t always resulted in smooth waters.
“I can honestly say that if I knew Bob Huggins coached the way he did, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Cincinnati,” Martin said openly. “But I would also say that meeting Bob Huggins was the best thing that ever happened to me. He held me accountable, and he made me tougher mentally. He made me a better defender, and I made some teams professionally because I could play defense.”
Huggins was, of course, involved in Martin’s recruitment, along with that of Blount, at Santa Ana, but it was Cincinnati assistant Steve Moeller who did most of the leg work, shuttling from the Queen City to California to recruit the duo, along with Long Beach City College’s Terry Nelson.
“Corie took a visit to Cincinnati first, but I committed first. Corie ended up being the national junior college player of the year, and I knew he wanted to go to Cincinnati,” Martin recounted. “But I was sold after my visit. The old Cincinnati arena had restaurants up on top, and I’m not sure why I was fascinated with the idea of playing while people ate, but when I saw it, I was done. I knew I was going there. Then Corie committed and another player from Long Beach City named Terry Nelson committed. The three of us and Nick Van Exel made up that recruiting class.”
Along with Herb Jones, that group powered the Bearcats to Final Four and Elite Eight appearances during the 1991-92 and 1992-93 seasons.
“That Cincinnati team was probably the closest team I have ever been a part of. We still stay in touch. We are like brothers. It was just a special group,” said Martin, who was a 6-foot-6, 220-pound forward for the Bearcats. “Playing in the Final Four was special. I don’t think we even got in the Top 25 until halfway through the year. At the beginning of the year, all of the publications didn’t have us finishing in the top six in the Great Midwest, and the Great Midwest only had eight teams. For the city of Cincinnati, which had a history of winning national championships, it was great. Maybe the best two or three weeks of my life.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing to those postseason appearances, though. As one might expect, personalities as strong as those of Huggins and Martin were bound to collide, and Martin, who was used to making decisions that might be deemed outside the norm, almost made one that would have drastically changed the course of his life.
“It sort of defines how our relationship was,” he said of an incident during his time at UC. “It was the first half of a game, and I was upset, and I got up off the bench and thought, ‘I’m out of here. I’m done.’ I took off my jersey and threw it, and headed for the locker room. Someone intercepted me and said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I’m leaving.’ He said, ‘No, this is a nationally televised game and you need to come back out here.’ Then Coach Moeller came to the locker room and said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I told him I was leaving. He said to wait for Huggs and talk to him. I got up and was taking a shower, but I didn’t get out before halftime, and Huggs came in. We went off to another room and talked, and said what needed to be said. I didn’t leave, and it all worked out for the best.”
That Martin remembers so plainly about what was less than a shining moment for him speaks volumes about his openness and his personality. While he clashed with Huggins on occasion, he’s also the first person to boost his Hall of Fame candidacy and what working with him has meant to his career.
“It wasn’t even that he made me play defense. He made me enjoy playing defense,” Martin said of his transformation while playing for the Bearcats. “Getting steals, locking someone up, helping your teammates. We pressed for 40 minutes so we were always running and trapping. I loved that style of play. I don’t know that I would have played a minute of pro ball if it weren’t for Coach Huggins.”
Martin had an extensive nine-year professional career, playing in the CBA as well as internationally in South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, Spain, Japan, China and Argentina. He earned first-team all-defensive honors in the CBA and was runner-up for the league’s defensive player of the year.
“People said I played everywhere, and I said, ‘I played everywhere they were paying,’“ Martin laughed.
Martin played his final pro season in 2002, and with Huggins still at Cincinnati, approached him about an open staff position in the program. Huggins delivered another of his direct messages, which didn’t sit well with Martin at the time.
“He told me I needed to get into coaching, develop a network, know where players are, and then I’d be ready,” Martin recalled. “I left the office and thought, ‘Man, I can’t stand that guy.’ Well, the guy he ends up hiring is Frank Martin.”
Frank Martin, of course, succeeded Huggins at Kansas State and then moved on to South Carolina, where he remains the head coach today. Erik Martin, perhaps still stinging a bit, again took Huggins’ counsel. He worked one year as a high school assistant at Jacobs Center High School in Cincinnati, then took a similar job at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, helping the Surge to conference and regional titles.
That was a good start on the resume build, but apparently it was enough for Huggins, who reached out with an offer to join him at Kansas State in 2006. Martin was initially skeptical.
“When he made that call, at first I didn’t believe it was Bob Huggins. I was like, who is this playing on the phone? He said, ‘It’s me, and I want you to come work for me at Kansas State,” Martin related with a laugh.
Of course, he took the job, and immediately connected with Frank Martin with whom he also developed an excellent relationship.
“He was the guy who mentored me at Kansas State, and he’s what every guy should have as a first year guy. He didn’t have any ego. If I ever go anywhere I would model what Frank Martin did for me. Any questions I had, or just wanting to talk, he was there. Our director of operations that first year was a guy named Brad Underwood.”
Underwood has also carved a path for himself in coaching, first engineering Stephen F. Austin’s upset of WVU in the 2016 NCAA Tournament before moving on to head coaching spots at Oklahoma State and now Illinois.
“I was blessed to have those guys around me,” continued Martin. “I am big on listening. They would answer any questions I had. It was the right time for me. At Cincinnati, I wouldn’t have been ready to be a coach. Huggs was right to do what he did.”
Huggins, looking back on Martin as a player, didn’t see him as a potential coach at the time, but that changed after he showed his willingness to gain experience.
“No, definitely no,” Huggins said of his initial take. “Then he went to a school and became a teacher and a coach. Then he continued to teach school and became an assistant junior college coach. He did it because he loved coaching, because he certainly didn’t make any money at it. I was trying to get one of my previous players on the staff. I think having one of them on the staff (is important), because they can explain to the current players why this happens or that happens. So we brought Erik in. He’s always had a great way with people. He was that way as a player, and he’s that way now as a coach. He’s always been the voice of reason.”
His former and current pupils also attest to the way he has put his experience as a player into practice with them.
“I’ve learned a lot of stuff from Coach Erik. I’m with him all the time. That’s my coach,” West Virginia sophomore-to-be Oscar Tshiebwe said. “He’s shown me a lot of stuff. The good thing about me is that when I don’t understand something, I raise my hand up, ‘I need help.’ Coach Erik is always there to help me. He’s shown me a lot of good post moves. He tells me, you have the body to play basketball, but you have to use your head to be great.”
The only thing left for Martin, seemingly, is a shot at a head coaching job. He’s had some offers in the past, but he isn’t going to jump on something just because it’s available.
“Everything is timing,” he said, looking back on a career that has hinged on several key moments that have worked out very well in the long run. “In a perfect world I’d like to get a job in Ohio, but in reality, I’ve lived and worked in about 20 states. I feel like I am ready to take that next step, but it’s all up to the good Lord as to when that opportunity presents itself. This is a dream job for me, and it’s been great to do it here where the fans are so passionate.”