Kansas State President Kirk Schulz and athletic director John Currie spent the past two days in New Orleans — home of the Final Four — to find a new men’s basketball coach.
Now the two K-State leaders are hoping Bruce Weber can deliver the Wildcats to another Final Four, only next time as a participant, like Big 12 rival Kansas just down the road.
Weber, who spent the last nine years as head coach of Illinois before being fired this month, was introduced as the Wildcats’ newest coach on Saturday afternoon at Bramlage Coliseum.
“Why K-State?” Weber asked. “To me, it’s first tradition, some of the greatest coaching names in the game — from Jack Hartman, Jack Gardner, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Tex Winter, Lon Kruger and Bob Huggins. Some of the greatest player names — (Bob) Boozer, (Steve) Henson, (Rolando) Blackman, (Mitch) Richmond and (Michael) Beasley.”
Weber took Illinois to the NCAA tournament six times in nine seasons, posting 201-101 record there — including a Final Four in 2004-05 when Illinois lost to North Carolina in the national championship game.
Overall, Weber is 313-155 in 14 years as a head coach, including a stop at Southern Illinois from 1998-03 when he twice took the Salukis to the NCAA tournament. Weber, who agreed to a five-year contract starting at $1.5 million in 2012-13 and increasing by $100,000 each year thereafter, served as an assistant at Purdue for 18 years under K-State graduate Gene Keady
It was just four days ago that Currie announced the divorce from former K-State coach Frank Martin, who left for South Carolina after guiding the Wildcats to five of the most successful seasons in school history.
And in those four days, Currie embarked on a whirlwind search to find Martin’s replacement. It started Tuesday when Weber first was first officially approached about the opening in what he referred to as “feelers” from the firm Collegiate Sports Associates hired to assist in the coaching search.
But in fact, K-State was on Weber’s radar as soon as last Sunday when his former boss at Purdue, Keady, reached out to him about the possible opening here.
“He called me last Sunday when some things came out about Frank maybe leaving and he said what do you think,” Weber said. “He said it’s a great place to be and I would be proud to have you as the coach there.”
Currie, who said he spoke with other candidates, finalized the deal with Weber late Friday night in New Orleans — making him the fourth K-State head coach in eight seasons.
Weber takes over a K-State program coming off three straight NCAA tournament appearances, including an Elite Eight run two years ago. The Milwaukee native, who was hired at Illinois after Bill Self left for Kansas, said K-State was an attractive job, starting with the number of returning players — losing only one starter in Jamar Samuels.
“You have a basis of tradition, the basis of a team that has a chance to be successful, you have the fan support, facilities and you have a great league,” he said.
“You add up all those things, it’s a no-brainer for me to come and be the coach at K-State.
“Frank left a good team. He created a culture where the kids play hard and play the game the right way. There hearts and minds were in the right spot, so that gives me a chance to take it to another step and that’s what our goal is.”
Weber, who has produced three Sweet 16 teams, said he knows his first priority is with those returning K-State players, including seniors-to-be Rodney McGruder, Jordan Henriquez and Martavious Irving.
“I think the big thing is we have a great foundation, players that are in place,” he said. “The three seniors when I met with them earlier, it’s their team, it’s their season coming up. They’re the ones that have to take the role of the leaders and make sure the young guys are bought in, that K-State is important and having success is important. And if you have those things, the individual achievements and accomplishments will come.”
Doing that, Weber said, will also help galvanize the fan support that has shown a rollercoaster of emotions leading up to his hiring, some in favor of the new coach and many who are not — including a small group that gathered outside Bramlage Saturday to protest their concern over Currie’s choice to replace Martin.
“The first thing I need to do is win over the players,” Weber said. “If I win over the players and win, the fans are coming, so that’s got to be my number one priority. I figured that out a number of years ago.”
Weber’s message to those upset fans, many of which have turned to social media to express their disapproval of his hiring, was simple.
“Give me a chance,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you go or which coach they hired, there’s always going to be a question mark. That’s part of college sports today.
“But I think my track record shows what I’ve done as a coach - we’ve had success, won championships, our APR has been one of the best in the country, our players have been successful off the court in the future and in the NBA. We’ve done it all.”
Weber also addressed his potential staff and his desire to have someone on board with ties to K-State.
“I think its important that we have somebody with a K-State tie on staff and I’m going to make every effort to do that,” he said. “Each time I’ve taken over a program, whether it was Southern Illinois or Illinois, we’ve kept one of the coaches on — mainly because I want to have somebody in there that knows the lay of the land, that knows the players, that knows the league because it makes it so much easier.
“We’ll look at some of our former coaches, coaches who have been with me in the past, and hopefully it will all be based on recruiting, which is the lifeblood of your program.”
The obvious choice would be Brad Underwood, who served under Martin for five years and played at K-State under Hartman. However, it was believed that Underwood would be a candidate for the head-coaching job himself.
But when asked specifically about retaining Underwood, Weber sidestepped the question some and said, whether it’s Underwood or anyone else with ties to K-State, he would do due diligence in finding the right fit for his staff.
“Either keep somebody on staff that’s been here or somebody that is a former athlete here,” Weber clarified, “somebody that has K-State ties. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to sit down with Brad or former players in the future.”