Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger: The inside story of how Bruce Weber probably saved his job

Coach Bruce Weber on K-State's win over Texas Tech

K-State's Bruce Weber on their win over Texas Tech on Saturday. (March 4, 2017)
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K-State's Bruce Weber on their win over Texas Tech on Saturday. (March 4, 2017)

Bruce Weber is away from the TV cameras now and standing in front of two large black garbage bins in a concrete hallway just off the court at Bramlage Coliseum.

He is here after telling the reporters in the other room he wanted to see his family, and for his five seniors to absorb the shine after a 61-48 win over Texas Tech on Saturday that may have locked his team into the NCAA Tournament and his own future as Kansas State’s basketball coach.

But he had agreed to make this stop before the game, for one more conversation as part of a project documenting his fifth year here, the one that included a 12-1 start and 2-8 nosedive, a win at then-No. 2 Baylor and a 30-point loss to the Big 12’s then last-place team.

So, here he is, talking about what it’s like to coach for your job with some of your own fans rooting against you.

Early in the senior day win over Tech, a security guard confiscated and destroyed a FIRE BRUCE sign from the front row of the student section. Soon, assuming K-State does indeed make the NCAA Tournament and an administration in transition doesn’t fire him, he’ll be in line for a contract extension that will aggravate what is at least a vocal minority of fans.

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But for now, Weber is standing in this hallway, a defense of his coaching record growing louder and louder and louder, to the point that he is nearly screaming, the voice a doctor told him as a kid would mean no jobs where he had to scream bouncing off the walls.

“Every year you’re coaching for your job,” he says. “I’ve been part of the greatest run in Purdue history. I’ve been part of the greatest run in Southern Illinois history.

“I’ve been at Illinois, the best nine-year run. When was the last team to win an outright Big Ten championship at Illinois? I’m the only one (since 1952). And not one, two times. Who’s the only coach to take them to the national championship game? Me. So it is what it is.”

He pauses, but only for a moment.

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“Who’s the only coach in the league who has a Big 12 championship ring, besides Bill Self? Me. Who’s the only coach (to win at least a share of a league title) in 40 years at K-State? Me. It is what it is.”

This is the best and worst of Weber — passionate, proud, too defensive and more sensitive than he will admit.

You’d pardon him for being on edge. In the last week, he lost for the eighth time in 10 games, going the entire month of February without a home win, marking rock bottom with a strange rant in which he claimed the only negativity came from two specific beat reporters. Then a third local writer called for Weber’s firing, then athletic director John Currie — who hired Weber, and remained supportive — left for Tennessee.

Yes, it’s been a wild week. And season. This feels better now, though. Two wins in a row. Better energy. Boosted morale. Weber won’t let himself say K-State is a tournament lock, or that he’ll be back next season. But, yes, this feels better. Finally. For now.

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“I don’t know,” he says. “I talked with Laird (Veatch, acting AD) yesterday. We get along. I know him. President (Richard) Myers is a good man. I feel bad for both of them because of the transition. You have coach (Bill) Snyder with cancer, and you have me trying to fight and win games, but they’re good people. They’ll do what’s right for K-State. I know that.”

Bruce Weber is sitting in his office in October, surrounded by trophies, big trophies, including one for being named Big Tencoach of the year at Illinois and sometimes that success can feel like a long time ago.

Weber won that share of the Big 12 title in 2013, but it’s always pointed out the Wildcats lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They’ve slipped in the league standings each year since, though last season was to be expected after Weber booted star Marcus Foster and others from the program.

That was classic Weber, too. In coaching circles, Weber is often talked as one of the few who will never cheat and never bend a rule, even when perhaps he should. So, Foster had to go.

A different administration might’ve fired him then — even after a league title and consecutive NCAA appearances — on grounds that he was repeating mistakes from Illinois. But Weber was given the chance to build back up, again, on his terms, with his players.

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“Why do we have traffic lights?” he said. “If we didn’t have traffic lights, everybody would run into each other. If you have rules, you have rules. You can have strike one, strike two. You try, maybe there’s a foul ball or two, but eventually you have to have rules.”

So this will be a particularly important season. Weber knows that. He likes this team, too. They’re versatile. They pass well. They can score, finally. They seem to have bought into Weber and work well together.

Weber worries. Of course he worries. He’s a coach. There’s not much depth, they have to take care of the ball and have worked so hard on offense that he wonders if the defense will slip.

He knows what’s being said, too. A bad start, or a rough week, and he’ll be fighting more than strategy.

“We’ll see when the games start,” he says. “What happens if we lose a few?”

Practice No. 35 is two days before a home game against Hampton on Nov. 20 and the point of the day is not the next opponent.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” Weber tells his team. “They’re not great. If you do what you’re supposed to do, you’ll win. But we’re not doing this to beat Hampton. We’re playing this game to win in New York (against Boston College and Maryland), and to beat Texas, and to beat Kansas.”

Here, inside the program, they believe Dean Wade is the key to a successful season, which means Wade is the key to beating Kansas. He’s 6-foot-9, with the feet and shooting touch of a professional. He’s the one NBA folks ask Weber about the most.

He has moments, too. As a freshman, he went for 17 points on 11 shots with seven rebounds in a win over No. 2 Oklahoma. But as a sophomore, he has scored a total of seven points on nine shots in the season’s first two games against inferior competition. Weber has yelled at Wade, he’s hugged, he’s soothed, he’s tried everything.

“I told him the other day, ‘This is between you and the guy in the mirror,’” Weber said. “I said, ‘I can’t do it anymore. You’ve got to figure this out yourself.’”

Well, not entirely by himself. Brad Korn is in his first year as an assistant. He played for Weber at SIU and sees himself in Wade — a shy, small-town kid who needs some confidence. They’ve started to call Korn “the Dean Wade whisperer,” and of the thousand factors that decide every college basketball season, this will be a big one.

Weber wants his players humble off the court, and cocky on it. Wade has the humility part of this nailed, but his talent is the key to opening space for D.J. Johnson near the basket and Wesley Iwundu on the perimeter.

“I love this team, in so many ways,” Johnson said. “What I don’t see is, we’ve got a little growing up to do.”

To get to the celebration you go up a ramp, take a left, a right, another left, another right, one more left and one more right. You’re in the right place when you hear the joking and laughing and see the sign in the locker room: “NEVER BROKEN BY HARDSHIP OR BATTLE.”

K-State has just beaten Gardner-Webb on Dec. 21, which was expected, which is not the point. Wins are precious, even in what will grow to be this team’s 12-1 start and deserve to be celebrated.

“No blocks for D.J.,” someone says.

“Man, I blocked three shots!” Johnson says, smiling.

“Goal-tending doesn’t count, D.J.,” the voice comes back, and now everyone’s laughing.

This locker room, at this moment, is something like a graduation party. They’ve done what’s expected, deserve to celebrate, but they know that after coming back from Christmas break the real world awaits — the grind of a Big 12 season in which K-State was picked to finish ninth. First Texas, then at Kansas.

“If we’re going to be successful in the league, we need everyone to play well,” Weber tells them. “This is a time to go home, relax, enjoy your family, get your body and mind right, and then come back ready. Texas got us last last year, guys, both times. We could’ve easily won those games. We can’t let that happen again.”

Weber brings in a plate of homemade cookies and a handful of checks to hand out to assistants and support staff.

He tells a story about Christmas as a kid, when his family “didn’t have a bunch” but always made the holiday special. He urges them to give, not receive, to use their per diem, if they can, to treat someone special.

“I promise you it will go a long way in your life if you are more of a giver than a taker,” he says. “That’s life. All right? Merry Christmas, guys, enjoy your time home.”

As he walks out the locker room, leaving the players to themselves, he hears them wishing each other Merry Christmas and talking about their favorite meals.

The first practice after the Jan. 3 loss at Kansas is still 15 minutes or so from starting, which means enough time for the managers to recreate Svi Mykhailiuk’s — ahem — walk-off game-winner, each reproduction a little more exaggerated than the last, until a manager picks up his dribble 60 feet from the basket, cradles it like a football, and stiff-arms his way to the basket. It is, objectively, hilarious.

Each practice starts with a quote on the whiteboard, and Weber has chosen this one from Rockefeller specifically: I do not think that there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything.

“We did some good (stuff), guys,” Weber says, and for a basketball coach he rarely curses, so this gets their attention.

That could be a crushing loss, and Weber knows it. A year ago, Wade hit a game-winner against Georgia and missed one against Texas. He had an open look in Lawrence that might’ve sealed K-State’s first win there in 11 years, but it bounced off the rim, and he wasn’t the only one crying in the locker room.

Coaches have texted Weber, making fun of the call and the widely held belief that KU gets every break at Allen Fieldhouse. The day before, Weber was on a recruiting trip, and strangers approached him cursing the call.

“The first thing you look for is practice,” Iwundu says. “How you respond. I want to see if the guys put it past them.”

There is no time for sulking, in other words, and you can see Weber pushing even harder than usual. He has to be in the minority of major college basketball coaches who use a whistle in practice, and he’s doing everything a 60-year-old man can do to generate energy.

“Fight him!” Weber screams at redshirt Isaiah Maurice. “Beat his ass! Get in a stance!”

The next game is against Oklahoma, and an assistant is going over how one of their players likes to back down with the ball. Iwundu says out loud that he thought a rule was changed to disallow this particular move, and Weber can’t help himself.

“Yeah, well, rules are meant to be broken,” he says. “They also have traveling in the rulebook.”

The practice is intense, and fun. At one point, assistant Chester Frazier — 30 years old, and close enough to his time as a pro overseas to look the part — decides to run sprints.

His new group owes four sprints, back and forth, the length of the court, but as the players finish with the normal knee grabbing and deep breathing, Frazier falls clean over a table at the end, feet over head, everyone in the gym breaking up.

“Aww, he ain’t got no draws on!” Carlbe Ervin yells, and the practice ends a few minutes later, synchronized claps turning into arms around the shoulders.

February is only nine days old but already K-State has suffered a brutal loss (TCU at home, in overtime) its greatest win (at Baylor) and one more loss to Kansas (in which Weber aggravated some of his own fans by saying K-State won on “the play hard chart”).

One more blockout, and maybe the TCU game goes the other way. That one stung, too, because Weber thought they had their best back-to-back practices of the year going into it.

“I thought we could’ve won a couple more games somewhere in there,” Weber says. “Well, obviously we could’ve, easily.”

He emphasizes could’ve in that sentence, and when he says things like this, it always comes across like he’s asking for credit for a moral victory, but there are moments it feels like a coach slapping himself in the face. This is one of those times.

The team is beginning to wear down, and Weber can feel it. The loss to Kansas was the fourth in five games, and there is no way to know it, but four of the next five will be losses, too.

“We have to have a chip on our shoulder,” Weber says. “We have to prove it to people.”

But by the end of the month, the program will have crashed. Those eight losses in ten games will push doubt and worse into the minds of many. After the Oklahoma game, Weber rants about negativity, making that incredulous claim that the only criticism he knows of is from two (fair) beat writers.

At that point, there are serious questions about Weber’s continued employment, and a segment of the fan base rooting for him to be replaced.

Kansas State basketball coach Bruce Weber spoke to reporters after the Wildcats' 81-51 loss to Oklahoma on Saturday in Norman, Okla.

Yes, of course Weber knows that wasn’t true about those two beat writers, and not just because Weber is a functioning adult. You knew that anyway because after that practice in February he referenced #WeStillSuck making its way around social media after the Baylor win.

But as March has finally arrived and K-State has completed its regular season, Weber is standing in that hallway with his voice rising and this may be the first time he’s admitting he knew that rant was made from the air.

“You asked about the noise, well, the noise hit us at Oklahoma,” he said. “It just hit us. You just got emotionally whipped. No matter what I did, I couldn’t help them. It gets to everyone. The parents, everyone. But now they’ve blocked it out, and we move forward, and I’m proud of them.”

Weber, like many coaches, tells his players all the time not to look at social media. He’s also realistic, and the temptation to see the compliments and even the criticism is just too much.

But as he stands here, presumably in good shape for the NCAA Tournament but likely needing at least one win in the conference tournament to avoid a “first four” game in Ohio, he is proud.

This was a good week. A one-point win at TCU — precisely the kind of close game K-State has failed to win too many times before — followed by the most aggressive and physical showing in quite some time.

K-State forward D.J. Johnson (4) forward Wesley Iwundu (25) and forward Austin Budke (35) circle Bramlage Coliseum Saturday afternoon after their 61-48 win over Texas Tech. Johnson, Budke and Iwundu were celebrating senior day and their last appea

Iwundu is playing as well as he ever has. Johnson looks healthy again, and was the best player on the floor against Tech.

The loss to Oklahoma State at home may’ve been worst. OSU coach Brad Underwood is from McPherson, played at K-State and worked as an assistant here under Bob Huggins and Frank Martin. The Wildcats won in Stillwater, thought they could sweep and after the game at Bramlage went bad you didn’t have to look to find criticism of Weber. Then, the OU game happened.

But Weber asked that question back in October — what happens if we lose a few? — and maybe he’s starting to find his answer. He’s proud of this week. After OU, it felt to many that the team might be caving, but Weber has liked the unity of this group all along.

Those synchronized claps and arms around the shoulders at the end of practice are, hopefully, more than just show.

For now, the last week of resilience it represents could very well be what saved a man’s job.

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