Campus Corner

K-State’s Weber has taken heat and thrived

This is a story about Bruce Weber, so we might as well get this first part out of the way.

Weber knows what is said about him. Knows what is thought of him. Understands it, even. Knows he cannot change it. Not yet, anyway.

He has so much to be proud of. He produced a conference champion at Kansas State, something Frank Martin, the beloved coach whom Weber replaced, never came particularly close to doing. Lon Kruger never won a league title here either, for that matter. Weber is the coach of the year in a conference with some giants in the business, accomplished men such as Bill Self and Bob Huggins and even Kruger. Yes, he has plenty to be proud of.

This is the 56-year-old son of an Austrian immigrant going on four decades of grinding and sweating in the business. He doesn’t need to explain himself. But he does have more to prove. Even to his own fan base. This is the life he’s chosen.

In some ways, it was the life chosen for him.

“It goes back as long as I can remember, seems like,” he says.

Even now, Bruce Weber gets letters from strangers. They are men and women from Milwaukee, Weber’s hometown, and they tend to write in when he really gets going at a referee. His arms come out of that fold, he slides toward the official, and soon enough his cheeks go red. That raspy voice is picked up on TV.

When Bruce was a child, he had surgery to remove polyps from his throat. The doctor told him not to choose a profession where he’d have to do a lot of talking or yelling. That doctor didn’t know Lou Weber’s son. You’ll see this is a theme with Weber, a passionate determination inherited straight from his dad.

But Bruce is trying to work on the screaming. Friends have told him his worst blowups come after he swallows his emotions too much. He’s getting better at this. Says he’s really screamed maybe 10 times all season. Works hard to see his own weaknesses, then harder to correct them. Weber knows he’s really unleashed when someone back home writes that he reminded them of Lou Weber.

“I remember Dad coaching me in about eighth grade,” says David Weber, Bruce’s younger brother. “He’s standing on top of the bench screaming and yelling at me. That’s just how he coached, and everyone accepted it. I don’t think you could get away with it these days.”

Lou Weber was a good man who looked a bit like Al McGuire, heady stuff around Milwaukee in the 1960s and ’70s. Lou came from Austria, on a boat, working two jobs at a time so that he and his wife could raise five kids. He never got a college degree and worked a blue-collar job for a company that made dump trucks and other large machines.

He wanted a different life for his children, and if you knew Lou, you knew he did not leave much to chance. He made it very clear to all five kids that he expected them to be teachers and coaches. It’s a good life, he told them, with steady pay and the chance to make a difference in kids’ lives.

“Plus,” he told them back then, “you get the summers off.”

Now, in some families, there would be rebellion. Maybe three or four kids become teachers, but someone would join the circus. Deal blackjack in Vegas or something. But Lou had a way about him, and all the Weber children went into education. Both of Bruce’s brothers are high school coaches. One of his sisters is a retired English teacher. The other died in a car accident. At the time, she was an education major.

Lou gave his children passion, fearlessness and an unease with idle time. Bruce was not a particularly gifted athlete — he was a fine high school point guard who didn’t play in college — but what he lacked in raw talent, he made up for in stubbornness.

Often, this stubbornness led to injury. As a kid, Bruce once jumped off some steps in the basement and gashed his head open on a wooden beam. He slipped a disk in his back on the playground and spent an entire summer in a body cast. Pickup games often ended in bruises or fights. Kids in Milwaukee soon understood that Lou Weber’s middle son would not back down from a challenge.

Sometimes, Bruce wonders if this is middle-child syndrome. Good naturedly, he says his older brother and sister picked on him, and the younger ones were babied, and this is why he’s emotional. He’s like Lou in that way. Coaching fit him well. He’d take his chances with the throat.

Bruce started coaching when he was in college at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, volunteering at a local high school. On a whim, he decided he’d try college coaching. He applied at Western Kentucky. The coach there, Gene Keady, wanted two things out of his entry-level assistants: loyalty and the desire to be a head coach.

“Loyalty means he’ll do anything for the head coach, and the desire means he’ll always work to get better,” says Keady, who went on to coach 25 years at Purdue, most of them with Weber on the bench. “Didn’t take me long to see those things in Bruce.”

K-State fans are starting to see those things, too.

Bruce Weber ate chicken spiedini the night things changed for him in his new job. On Dec. 22, K-State beat then-No. 8 Florida in front of 16,303 fans at the Sprint Center. Wasn’t a fluke, either. K-State was tougher, more efficient. Simply better.

The Wildcats entered the polls that week and have been steadily climbing since. Twenty games and 81 days later, Weber still sees that victory as the turning point of the season and, by extension, of his time so far in Manhattan. He remembers walking around downtown Kansas City that night, purple everywhere, smiles on faces. They celebrated at Garozzo’s.

“The trust factor after that,” Weber says, “it was just different. Believing in the system, the coaches, everything. It changed.”

There would be bumps, of course. A week later, the Wildcats struggled to beat UMKC at home. K-State lost twice to Kansas, including a blowout in Lawrence. But after the Florida game, the season’s trajectory has been toward the sky.

Weber says he saw “blank stares” before the season when he and his staff first mentioned winning a conference title. He saw a lack of confidence in those stares, or perhaps contentment in being good instead of very good. But the looks on his players’ faces are different now.

K-State needed a few breaks — Weber didn’t know that KU had lost and created a shared league title until

taking a phone call while walking his dog

after the Wildcats’ loss to Oklahoma State — and is the No. 2 seed in the Big 12 Tournament. But this season is a wild success regardless.

The Wildcats are vastly improved running Weber’s motion offense and have retained enough of Frank Martin’s toughness to win their first regular-season conference title in men’s basketball since 1977. Weber won more conference games (higher winning percentage, too) than any of Martin’s teams, and needs just four more victories to match the school record for wins in a season. Barring a major surprise, K-State should begin the NCAA Tournament with opening-round games at the Sprint Center.

The rest of Weber’s time at K-State will be framed in part by what happens these next few weeks. The Wildcats haven’t played in a Final Four since 1964. Before Martin, they hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1988.

Weber can earn more goodwill now — you think that Florida game was something? — but here is where we get back to the beginning of this story. Weber proved he could coach by winning at Southern Illinois, and has already achieved wild success with players he inherited by going 37-2 and making it all the way to the 2005 NCAA championship game at Illinois.

What he hasn’t proven — and he’ll wear this like a scarlet letter until he does — is that he can sustain success.

To do that, he’ll need to call upon every lesson he learned from Keady, and find a few answers within himself.

In Bruce Weber, Kansas State athletic director John Currie saw more than a coaching candidate who’d recently been fired at Illinois. Currie saw a man whose coaching and life experiences made him a perfect fit for K-State.

At Purdue, Weber helped Keady built a consistent winner and six-time conference champion at an agricultural school in a state with a national basketball power. Competing with Kansas is a difficult task, but Weber faced a similar situation at Purdue coaching in the shadow of Indiana. And at every new job Weber has taken, he’s replaced a well-liked coach. There is nothing here to take Weber by surprise.

“He came to us prepared and accomplished,” Currie says.

You cannot talk about Weber at K-State without talking about Weber at Illinois. The list of college basketball coaches who’ve been fired only to immediately find success in a new job is limited to Dana Altman and a few others.

But with Weber, there is reason to be optimistic. The man can clearly coach. The problems at Illinois have been essentially distilled by the public into “he couldn’t win with his own players.” The reality is a bit more complicated.

Illinois probably isn’t as good a job as Self made it look — three Big Ten titles in the previous 47 years — and Weber struggled with the comparisons. In-state talent outside of Chicago dipped, and after Jon Scheyer played for Weber’s brother in high school but left the state for Duke, some fans never forgave Bruce.

Weber and his staff also missed on second-tier recruits. They took Bill Cole instead of Robbie Hummel. Offered a scholarship to Evan Turner too late. Lewis Jackson got away and his teams won 104 games at Purdue.

This is hindsight, but Weber was a rotten fit at Illinois. He was expected to recruit a certain kind of player there, and usually from Chicago. Weber — openly self-analytical — says he got away from his own coaching beliefs. He means that both in things like discipline and substitution patterns, and with bigger-picture stuff like putting together recruiting classes.

There is a thought from people who know Bruce well that he was a square peg in Illinois’ round hole. Kansas State is a very different place.

“He’s going to get kids he wants to coach,” says David Weber, Bruce’s brother. “At Illinois, if the kid wasn’t ranked in the top 50, this state went crazy if he tried to recruit him. K-State is a better fit for him. I hate to say that, but it is. It really is.”

There can be no guarantees, except perhaps that Weber will not make the same mistakes that he made at Illinois. This is that openly self-analytical side, and Lou Weber’s son still hasn’t backed down from a fight.

Weber is vowing to run the program his own way. He is on the road recruiting every off-day, making phone calls and trying to take advantage of this season’s success. If a recruit sees Weber on TV, if only on one of the highlight shows, the coach wants to see that player in person the next day.

Weber doesn’t like to make changes to his staff — he learned loyalty from Keady — so he was meticulous about the group he assembled in Manhattan. Chris Lowery, in particular, has the chops to call Weber out on mistakes. He was only with Weber for his first season at Illinois before taking the head job at Southern Illinois.

Nobody can know how Weber’s time at K-State will turn out. Not even Weber. But no matter what, you won’t be able to say he was unprepared for what he understands may be a career-defining chance to prove the stock criticisms of his time at Illinois don’t apply.

“I guess I’m human, and it hurts, or it bothers you a little bit,” he says of such critique. “This is my team now, and these are our players. Nobody else is doing anything with them, and you’re doing something with them, so it hurts. So you do what you can do.

Can’t sustain? Can’t build? Can’t win without someone else’s players? We’ll see. Weber knows he can’t hide from results.

He also knows that if he does it right, those criticisms can’t either.