John Currie knows he faces the biggest task of his professional career in replacing Frank Martin, the now-former basketball coach of Kansas State whose bigger-than-life aura and on-court success made the Wildcats relevant again.
It’s a task the third-year athletic director plans to tackle quietly.
“The opportunity that exists here is tremendous. We have the resources to enable our next coach to build a sustainable, winning basketball program,” Currie said earlier this week. “We have everything a coach needs to win.”
Much of that is thanks to Martin, who stepped in after Bob Huggins hastily departed for West Virginia after just one season. Martin managed to hold together a highly touted recruiting class that included Michael Beasley, and eventually reeled off five consecutive 20-win seasons.
The Wildcats finished 22-11 this season, falling to Syracuse in the third round of the NCAA tournament, before Martin left this week to take over the rebuilding job at South Carolina.
“Coach Martin is a recognizable person, and he’s brought tremendous recognition to Kansas State,” Currie said. “And what a personality and person and coach does is they open the door and the window of the world to the institution, and that’s really one of the reasons you have this intercollegiate scene. It’s one of the reasons you have athletics.”
Currie said that he’s not necessarily out to find the next Martin, who was a nondescript assistant coach before getting his shot to be the head coach at Kansas State.
Instead, Currie said he was looking for a man of “integrity” — and that was about it.
The intensely guarded athletic director declined to discuss specific candidates, whether he has established his own wish list or even put a timetable on hiring the new coach.
“In terms of who is going to be considered, I don’t have any predetermined parameters,” Currie said. “This task will have my sole attention until it is completed.”
Currie may be silent about his wish list, but the rumor mill is already churning out names.
Among the potential front-runners for the job is Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich, who played for the Wildcats under Jack Hartman from 1979-82 and has strong ties to the state.
Jankovich has gone 104-64 in five seasons with the Redbirds, taking his team to the Missouri Valley Conference championship game three times but failing to reach the NCAA tournament. His team lost to Creighton in overtime earlier this month.
He would also be familiar with rival Kansas, where he served as an assistant to Bill Self.
“My policy has always been that I will only ever talk about the job I have and that is Illinois State,” Jankovich told The Pantagraph of Bloomington, Ill.
Another potential candidate is Colorado coach Tad Boyle, who was an assistant at Tennessee while Currie worked in the athletic department. Boyle has ties to Kansas through a previous job as an assistant at Wichita State, though he appears firmly ensconced as the coach of Colorado.
Many fans have already offered their support for Oklahoma assistant Steve Henson, who grew up in McPherson, Kan., and starred for the Wildcats in the late 1980s.
Henson has called Kansas State his “dream job,” and although he has no experience as a head coach, he still has quite the pedigree. He bounced around the NBA before becoming an assistant coach under Lon Kruger at Illinois. He later worked for the Atlanta Hawks and South Florida before joining Kruger at UNLV, and ultimately followed him to the Sooners last year.
Other names that have been mentioned include Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, Xavier coach Chris Mack and former Arkansas coach John Pelphrey, now an assistant at Florida.
Associate head coach Brad Underwood could also be interviewed, even though Martin has invited his former staff to follow him to South Carolina. While he has no experience as a major college head coach, Underwood grew up in Kansas and played for the Wildcats in the mid-1980s.
“I hope that he gets serious consideration for that job,” Martin said. “I don’t try to help people do their jobs — it’s not what I do — but he’s incredible. Brad is so ready to be a head coach it’s not even funny.”
Ultimately, the decision will come down to Currie, even though he acknowledged that there is a group of people close to the program he plans to consult with during the search.
Will he go with a high-profile splash such as Huggins? A relative unknown such as Martin?
Only Currie seems to know, and he’s keeping quiet for now.