This one could have been a feature. This might have been the best “Five” yet. Have to give thanks to Mr. Figger, the first-year Kansas State assistant coach who was a treat to talk to. Great access, great information — it’s a nice combination, the perfect mix for an epic “Five.”
1. How did K-State come about? Did you have a pre-existing relationship with Frank?
Frank and my relationship goes back to when we both used to work the University of Florida camp together. When Billy Donovan got the job there, I got in because I went to school with one of his assistant coaches at the time, Donnie Jones (now at Marshall). Frank and I started working camps and built a relationship. He was a high school coach in Miami, and I was coaching junior college basketball in Vincennes. I moved to Odessa. Frank was coaching an AAU team, and he had a kid that was available late. I signed the kid at Odessa, and that’s how we started working together. I got six of his kids at Miami High. Frank moved to Northeastern, and three of those kids ended up playing at Northeastern. We were two guys who depended on each other… It happens throughout the country. That’s how recruiting is. With every kid in your program, there is a tie with someone who is influential. You can’t find a player in a program where a coach doesn’t have a tie. It’s six degrees of separation… You can check any program in the country and there is some kind of tie. Happens at Florida, at Kentucky, at Duke… When Dalonte was in D.C., he coached the Assault, and he ended up mentoring Mike in the eighth grade. He happened to get a college job, and that’s how this all came about. There’s always a tie with someone.
2. How does a college baseball player end up coaching college basketball?
It’s funny. Growing up in a small town in Kentucky, everyone dreams of playing basketball at Kentucky. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the talent to play college basketball. A childhood friend of mine, who was 24 at the time, ended up playing junior college ball at Wabash Valley in Illinois. I went to all of the games. The head coach, Pat Smith, who later became the head coach at Barton County, noticed I was always around. He asked me what I wanted to do when I got out of college. I said I wanted to be a coach in some capacity, and he said why don’t you come up and join me next year… It wasn’t an easy road. There were so many things to overcome.
My first year at Wabash Valley, I lived in the dorm with the players and drove international students around the campus, six or seven times a say. I started at 6 a.m. and finished at 5 p.m. The pay was about $5,000. The No. 2 value meal at McDonald’s was all I ate. I was 24 hours short of my degree when I went up there. I figured this was my only chance. I had gotten things set up for independent study… And I started finishing up when I was coaching there. Then Coach Smith left. He was going to Barton, and he said, “I can’t take you with me — you don’t have a college degree.” So I went to Olney Central, which was about 30 minutes away, doing the same thing. I was painting during the day and I coached basketball in the evening. After about three months, Dan Sparks at Vincennes, told me to come over. I was a tutor — that’s how I got paid — of all things. I got everything done from my first year at Wabash done. But I was still three hours short. There was a three-hour class that never made numbers, kept being dropped. I was a physical education major and the last class was teaching and instructing dance — I didn’t know a thing about it. But it was my third year, in three different places, and I still didn’t have a degree… It was the last semester, and I had to get my degree. From Vincennes, Ind., to Richmond, Ky., is about a 250-mile drive one way. Three times a week, I’d make the drive.
Here’s where the story gets crazy. I was a janitor at Vincennes. I was on campus from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. I’d get in my car — a 1988 Ford Festiva I paid $1,000 for — and drive four hours to Richmond, Ky., which is in a different time zone, for a 10 a.m. class. I’d get back at 7 a.m. The 1988 Ford Festiva, every 100 miles, it burnt a quart of oil. I’d have to put in a quart every 100 miles. So, I paid my dues, to say the least. I ended up going to Odessa. I was there for three years, and then John (Pelphrey) offered me a job at South Alabama for five years. I told him the story I just told you and he said, “Anyone willing to work that hard can work for me.” And when Frank got the job, I’ve always said I wanted to coach with someone I’m friends with… Here, when the business part ends (at the end of a day), the friendship begins. That’s the most important thing. Nothing is ever personal.
3. How is recruiting junior college kids different than high school kids? Or is it?
Recruiting junior college kids is not as much of a hassle, more to to the point. When you recruit a junior college kid, it’s the coach and the kid. In high school, it’s the AAU coach, and whoever else is giving them advice. In JUCO, the players are swept to the side. They’re the type that doesn’t get the publicity, so they’re humbled. They have to ride in vans, drive to games on gameday… Those kids, to have the opportunity to be recruited by the Big 12.. It’s easier. But when a kid has Big 12 talent, and he’s available late, everyone gets in. So, it’s the cycle all over again.
The thing is, there are probably only 10-12 kids that can truly play and be impact players in the Big 12. Now, way more than that will be signed, but only 10 will have a major impact. They have to be able to adjust to play in the Big 12. Their talent level has to be so good to overcome the adjustment period… I think guards have the easiest transition. It’s not as physical on them. But a 6-foot-8 kid in junior college, he doesn’t get the proper nutrition and conditioning… Physically, a kid at K-State for two years is going to be stronger than a kid who does not have that, especially as a junior coming out of junior college.
4. Who is the best player you coached? What made him the best?
Shawn Marion is obviously the best. What was so great about Shawn, who we got out of Clarksville, Tenn., was that his energy and work ethic was tremendous. But what made Shawn special was that he was a better human being — he was just a good old country kid from Clarksville, Tenn., that grew three inches over the summer. I realized he was a great junior college player. He basically did the same things Mike (Beasley) is doing at the junior college level. The first time I saw he had a chance to be special was when we were working Michael Jordan’s camp. He was playing pick-up with the counselors and against Jordan. This was 1996, 1997, when Jordan was still winning championships. Shawn was lacing them up with him, he was guarding Mike, and he belonged on the court. His sophomore year, every NBA scout wandered into Vincennes. It was all about he and Steve (Francis, who played at Allegheny). There were three junior college kids taken in the top 12 of the NBA Draft that year, Francis was second and Shawn was No. 9. It has never happened since. Since then, prep schools have taken over, and the landscape has changed dramatically… Shawn was probably the best player I ever coached, and Mike has some of those same attributes. I think Mike is a tremendous kid. He’s a happy-go-lucky kid, a great teammate, and there is no selfish bone in his body. He’s not a finger-pointer, and he can handle coaching.
5. Where is Matt Figger in five years? Ten years? What are your career goals?
Obviously, I’d like the opportunity to be a head coach. But it’s not something I sit and dwell on. I’ve been fortunate to get to this spot. I don’t think about ever taking a step back. If there is an opportunity (to be a head coach), it would be a career goal of mine. if someone told me five years from now I’d still be at Kansas State, I’d be fine with that. Because if I’m still here, that means we’re doing something right.
(BONUS) 6. In your estimation, can Kansas State basketball be a power once again?
It starts with the administration. With (K-State president Jon) Wefald. I’ve not been all over the world, but there is no president in this country more committed to having great athletics than Jon Wefald… 17,500 in the Sprint Center? That rivals programs like Kentucky or North Carolina. Only Kentucky can play in some other venue and sell the place out… The fan support, commitment, everything is here. It’s our job to continue to grow, and we have to hit on the things that are positive. I know every kid that we have brought in for a visit has been impressed by all of the passion and purple… Our fans are some of the most passionate in the country. They’re as big of a part of the game as the players are. In my opinion, if you’re a true basketball person, why wouldn’t you want to come to Kansas State?