Thursday, July 30, 2015



Weber gets second shot at KSU



A picture of Michael Beasley still hangs behind the desk inside of the office. The pictures of the Bramlage Coliseum court being swarmed by the students when Kansas State defeated Kansas in 2008 remains. And a framed K-State jersey with the name “Elite” and the number “8” hangs on the south wall — a symbol representing the Wildcats’ run to the Elite 8 in 2010.

These represent some of the best moments captured in time during the Frank Martin era.

But inside this office, a gym bag now sits with a pile of purple workout clothes resting on top of it.

This is Bruce Weber’s new attire — this is his new office. And this is his chance to further cement himself as one of basketball’s finest coaches.

Martin, who brought the program back to national relevance, is gone now. But the soul and spirit of K-State basketball remains.

The book doesn’t come to a conclusion with Martin’s departure. Rather, it’s simply the beginning of a new chapter — it’s the start of the Bruce Weber era at K-State.

•••

It was the morning of Feb. 11 when things took an ugly turn for Weber and the Illinois men’s basketball team. Mike Thomas, in his first year as the Illini athletics director, went on radio to answer questions from Illinois fans, and when Weber’s job security came into question, Thomas didn’t give his coach a vote of confidence.

“As I’ve always said, I will assess the situation at the end of the season,” Thomas said at the time. “I need to look at the total body of work and all of the things that come into play as far as making those decisions. Because those are important decisions and they affect a lot of people.”

The perception from coaches and college basketball analysts around the country was that Thomas made a critical mistake.

“Thomas is a new athletic director and everyone knew Bruce wasn’t his guy,” said ESPN college basketball analyst Doug Gottlieb. “Most people thought Bruce was on the hot seat, and even though we think that, it’s not really how you should handle it when you’re an AD.

“The moment he didn’t lend his support was the moment Illinois’ season torpedoed. It’s in direct correlation there. Somebody has to have your back even if they mean it or not. That sure as heck didn’t help.”

Illinois, at the time, had lost five of its past six games and was 16-8 and 5-6 in the Big Ten. The Illini, a young team featuring six freshmen and just one returning starter, began to feel the pressure mount, and proceeded to lose seven of their final eight games. In doing so, the program failed to make the NCAA tournament, and thus, Weber, the head coach of the Illini for nine seasons, was fired.

“I think it’s so important to have support,” Weber said in an interview on Wednesday evening. “When you don’t have support I think you coach defensive, you coach not with the confidence you need to. It was hard. It was really hard on our kids more than anything.

“When the situation occurred I think we lost our spirit — the heart of our team. We kept battling. We battled every game. But it hurt the team — especially a young team that was very fragile. It just created a tough situation.”

Weber is 55 and has been involved in coaching since 1979. He’s been through the ropes, so he could take the heat and criticism that was aimed in his direction. But the instability Thomas caused with his statement created a distraction for a young squad that began to doubt whether or not its coach would be back the next season.

“The season was going along fine,” Kevin Stallings, the head coach of Vanderbilt, said in a phone interview with The Mercury. “When the lack of support became apparent in a very public way, then it affected his team and it affected him.

“From that point forward it became a very, very difficult proposition because he knew he didn’t have any support. Everything became more difficult and then it became very, very difficult for him. You can see the writing on the wall when you’re doing well and you don’t get public support.”

Stallings played at Purdue when Weber was an assistant there under Gene Keady, and the two coached together for six seasons at Purdue following Stallings’ playing career. The Vanderbilt coach, who is a close friend of Weber’s, said he knew Weber needed to move on once Thomas made his statement.

“As soon as the comment came out that basically showed there was no support for Bruce from their athletic director — I told him he’d be better off somewhere else anyway,” Stallings said.

“And he will be. He will be much better off in Manhattan. Those people will grow to appreciate he and his wife and what they will do for that university.”

 

•••

It seems crazy how something could spiral downward so quickly — how a situation that seemed like such a good fit for years turned so ugly in the end.

Weber was arguably the hottest name in college basketball circles six years ago. He was responsible for turning around the Southern Illinois program, which prompted Illinois to hire him as its head coach in 2003. And the Illini reaped the benefits of the hire more than anyone could have likely ever imagined.

Weber went 89-16 in his first three seasons at Illinois. He led the Illini to back-to-back outright Big Ten championships (prior to Weber, the school hadn’t won an outright league title since 1952). And he led them to a 37-win season in his second year, which ended with a five-point loss to North Carolina in the national championship.

But in his final six seasons, Weber won just 58 percent of his games, a drop-off from the 85-percent winning percentage he recorded in his first three seasons at Illinois.

Because of that, there has always been the argument that Weber won early on with Bill Self’s players, who was the head coach at Illinois prior to Weber’s arrival.

That’s a subject that’s up to debate.

“In a sense those are Bill’s players and he won with them, yes,” said Brian Barnhart, who is in his tenth year as the play-by-play radio voice for the Illini. “But who knows what Bill would have done with that same group. That’s an argument that goes back and forth up here.

“I think it’s silly. Because when you look at Bill Self he was only here three years and he won with Lon Kruger’s players before him. I don’t know why people say that about Bruce and don’t say the same thing about Bill. Bill would say the same thing. He had great players in place that Lon Kruger landed. He won with them and did a really good job too.”

Gottlieb said there are two sides to the argument.

“It’s not a completely unfair assessment because the winning clearly slowed down once he lost Self’s kids,” he said. “On the other hand, if you’re going to be totally fair, he won at SIU with nobody else’s kids. And they won after he left SIU.”

 

•••

There were several issues that led to Weber’s demise at Illinois, and while it may sound like an excuse, others agree with him: Weber had tons of success early on, and as a result, he may have elevated the level of expectations to a point that couldn’t be consistently sustained at Illinois.

“I spoke at a journalism professor’s class every year in the spring and the fall,” Weber said. “He wrote me a letter when we were going through the turmoil. He said ‘Coach, you screwed up. You did too well too early and you raised the expectations.’”

People close to Weber say those expectations, from the administration on down to the fans, simply became too difficult to replicate over his tenure at Illinois.

“I really think that this business is very, very difficult nowadays for a coach to be in one place for very long,” said Stallings, who just completed his 13th season as the head coach at Vanderbilt. “If you don’t have Tom Izzo-type success — it’s very difficult with the Internet and talk radio — eventually they’re going to focus on your warts, focus on the things that are negative.

“I think in Bruce’s case, he went there and set the bar at a level that Illinois had never known in their entire history of their program. And then he became a victim of his own success. He created his own monster with that success. I think that is more common these days than people would think and it’s really a shame.”

 

•••

The pressure to win basketball games at Illinois is high, but there’s even more pressure to win on the recruiting trail.

“In the state of Illinois it’s expected that you have to get the kids out of Chicago,” Barnhart said. “The perception at Illinois is you’re supposed to keep those kids in the state.

“A lot of times Bruce felt pressure to take kids that maybe he wouldn’t necessarily take, but he might have felt pressure because they were a top player in the state of Illinois. Well, you have to take them. If you don’t you get heavily criticized. I think he got caught in between having to take them.”

As a result, the culture Weber had built at Illinois began to break down.

“I think at Illinois, sometimes you had to win June and July with fans and stuff,” Weber said. “They just thought that was going to help you win March and April.”

Weber’s teams had always been notorious for being tough. And he admitted on Wednesday that in his later years at Illinois, he might have recruited some players that weren’t necessarily the right fit for his system.

“Whether it’s Purdue, Southern Illinois or my beginning at Illinois, we had toughness,” he said. “That’s how you won. You won the close games with mental toughness, physical toughness and a big heart.

“I think we maybe took a little higher level of a player. Maybe we didn’t search out the toughness that you needed and that’s why we probably didn’t win the close games that we needed to (this past season).”

 

•••

The difficulty of luring high school players from the state of Indiana to Illinois has never been an easy task. But in the fall of 2005, Weber received a commitment from a guard out of Indianapolis.

And this was no ordinary recruit. It was Eric Gordon, ranked by most scouting services as the second-best high school recruit in the country in the 2007 recruiting class. Gordon’s commitment marked one of the biggest recruiting coups in Illinois basketball history.

But Gordon would never put on an Illinois jersey.

Less than a month before signing day, Gordon made a switch, announcing he would sign a Letter Of Intent to play for Indiana, who had recently hired Kelvin Sampson as its head coach.

“People have always talked that it hurt Indiana — the whole thing,” Weber said. “But it really hurt our program. Eric Gordon — we had him on campus before he entered the ninth grade. Had an unbelievable relationship with him. He committed to us for way over a year.

“So now you don’t recruit other kids and it cost us other kids too. When he finally decommitted and committed to them, you couldn’t fix it. It was definitely a tough situation for us, there’s no doubt.”

The loss of Gordon was tough to swallow for the Illini nation. Sports Illustrated put together a list of the top-10 most painful decommitments in college basketball over the past five seasons, and Gordon’s ranked No. 1 as the most painful, just ahead of Michael Beasley’s decision to change his commitment from UNC-Charlotte to K-State.

“The recruiting of Eric Gordon really hurt them,” Gottlieb said. “Gordon kept telling them he’s coming. So they turned down several other players because they told Gordon you’re going to be the guy. They didn’t recruit people and when Gordon doesn’t come they miss out on other guys they felt like they could have gotten. They ended up having a void there. To get Eric Gordon would have changed things completely.”

One of the guys who got away from Weber because of Gordon’s original commitment was E’Twaun Moore, who went on to become a star guard for Purdue. Moore, a shooting guard from Chicago, was ranked as the No. 35 player in the country that year.

“Recruiting in basketball — it’s not football,” Gottlieb said. “You can’t sign five guys at a position. In basketball, guys want to come in and play right away. I think Gordon told people he might play two or three years. He was telling everybody everything they wanted to hear, so they were like ‘all right, this team is set.’

“So E’Twaun Moore gets away. He goes to Purdue, which is an inferior school at that time. He wouldn’t have gone to Purdue if Illinois wanted him, who are we kidding?”

Gordon, who now plays in the NBA, led the Big Ten in scoring during his one and only season at Indiana, averaging nearly 21 points per game before declaring for the NBA draft.

Making matters worse, the Illini also lost two of their best players that same season in Jamar Smith and Brian Carlwell, when Smith, under the influence of alcohol, crashed his car into a tree with Carlwell in the passenger seat — an accident that ended their Illinois careers.

“Jamar was one of the best pure shooters that we’d ever seen,” Barnhart said. “He was just getting his career started, they had the accident on a snowy night. I remember we did a coaches show on that very night with a group of our supporters and Bruce had told me and told them don’t go out tonight, it’s going to be snowy, stay inside. But they didn’t listen and then the accident happened. That was a big blow.”

Including the decommitment of Gordon, Illinois had essentially lost three players that season, which led to a 16-19 finish — the worst record during Weber’s time in Champaign, Ill.

 

•••

That’s the past, so now it’s time to look toward the future.

John Currie, in his third year as the K-State athletics director, was criticized by fans and the media for Martin’s departure. But in fairness to him, he has replaced Martin with a man who is widely regarded as one of the best basketball coaches in the business — someone who has won 67 percent of his games during his coaching career.

“I think K-State fans will grow to feel that they’re lucky and very fortunate to have him,” Stallings said. “He worked for Gene Keady for 18 years. Gene Keady is a Kansas State guy. That’s just kind of who Bruce Weber became. He became a guy who is a lot like Coach Keady and has those same values and those same principles and all of that.

“He’s just going to be one of those guys that fan base at K-State is going to love and embrace because he does things the right way. He’s loyal, honest and humble. To me, those are all things that the people of Kansas State really appreciate.”

The reality is, K-State may have been in a fortunate position last week. Because last year, Weber turned down job offers from both Missouri and Oklahoma. So had Weber not been fired from Illinois this past season, K-State may not have been able to lure him away.

“If you polled Big Ten coaches,” Gottlieb said, “and you asked them if Kansas State made a good hire — I would guess out of the 11 coaches —and probably even (new Illinois head coach) John Groce — at least nine, if not 10 would say that’s a hell of a hire.

“If there’s ever a time you want to take over at K-State I think this is a really good time. I think this will work for K-State. Bruce is an outstanding coach with an outstanding resume.”

There may still be some frustration boiling over regarding Martin’s decision to leave K-State, and that’s understandable. But most people who know college basketball inside and out say K-State made a great hire — a hire they say the fans should embrace.

“He’s one of the best human beings I’ve ever been around,” Barnhart said. “He’s the complete package. I just think Kansas State got a real gem. And I think other coaches would tell you the same thing.”

Stallings is one of them.

“I’m telling you this guy is one of the best basketball coaches in the college game,” Stallings said. “He is an outstanding coach. He’s a tireless, tireless recruiter.

“He’ll be a guy people will see at the dry cleaners picking up the cleaning. He’s very approachable. He’s a normal guy who just happens to be a very good college basketball coach.”

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