Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger: The Bruce Weber conundrum at Kansas State

Kansas State basketball coach Bruce Weber.
Kansas State basketball coach Bruce Weber.

College basketball coaches who make the NCAA Tournament do not often require votes of confidence from the boss, but for lots of reasons, Bruce Weber is in an awkward situation at Kansas State so that’s exactly what happened.

Weber knew it was coming, too, but shortly after the story appeared in the Manhattan Mercury he said he got something else from interim athletic director Laird Veatch:

An apology.

“He didn’t really want it to be a vote of confidence,” Weber said. “It was just supposed to come out that I’m the coach and all that stuff. He called me right after, and said, ‘I’m sorry that’s the wording.’ 

Locally, most of the college basketball attention has been on Kansas and Missouri, and deservedly so. But K-State is at what amounts to a crossroads. Weber will be back for a sixth season, with a core of rising juniors who should expect to be back in the NCAA Tournament.

But there is a strong distaste for Weber within the fan base. It’s possible that social media distorts his approval rating, but the situation is precarious enough that people close to Weber — people who want him to succeed — have urged him to present himself better publicly. At least one said recently he was worried that the relationship between Bruce and the fans was broken, “and I don’t know how you fix it.”

Well, there is one obvious way to fix it.

Bruce Weber on making NCAA Tournament

“You gotta win, that’s what it comes down to,” Weber said. “We won 21. To some people, that was a good year, you made the tournament. Other people, that’s not as good. So it’s just the perspective you look at it.”

That juxtaposition, as much as anything else, has defined Weber’s first five years at K-State.

Always good enough for continued employment — school’s first share of a conference title in 36 years, and three NCAA Tournaments.

Never good enough for full-throated support — best season was with the players he inherited, a third-year roster mutiny of his own players, and he’s yet to make the NCAA round of 32.

His fifth season encapsulates that as well as anything. K-State was picked to finish second-to-last in the Big 12, but started 12-1, then took a February nosedive that had administrators preparing for a coaching search, before steadying enough to finish sixth in the league and win a First Four game against Wake Forest.

“Did we do some good things? Yeah,” Weber said. “Could we have done better? Yeah, there’s no doubt. Do I want to do better? Yeah, and that’s part of my job.”

This is the kind of thing that those who root for Weber wish he’d say more often. He is a good coach, with a reputation for idealism and keeping a clean program. But he gets in his own way too often.

Some of that would be squashed if he won more, sure. But he’d make it easier on himself to get there with more accountability and fewer lines that sound like excuses. He knows that, or at least he’s heard that from some with his best interests in mind.

But even here, there is complicating context. Because it’s hard to think of many coaches with his accomplishments who are more consistently criticized or dismissed, particularly by fans of his own program.

This is the Weber conundrum — he is at times unfairly criticized, but he far too often brings that upon himself.

He will soon be working for a new athletic director, one who didn’t hire him. He will get at least a season with the new boss, in what is now the familiar conditions of likely needing to make the NCAA Tournament to be assured of continued employment.

K-State has been good to Weber. Fans show up when they should, and the administration gave him the chance to start over again two years ago. He’s taken some criticism, but knows that’s part of the job, anywhere.

Now, then, he is working the airlines and roads to finish next season’s roster. He thinks all his eligible players will be back, no transfers, which in today’s world is no small thing.

Dean Wade, Kamau Stokes, and Barry Brown — the recruiting class he brought in for the program reset — will be juniors. Cartier Diarra should be fully recovered from knee surgery, a combo guard with athleticism and the ability to create shots. Isaiah Maurice improved, and Xavier Sneed showed enough glimpses to believe. Weber wants to add a veteran big guy, either from a junior college or a fifth-year transfer.

However it shakes out, the success or failure of K-State’s next basketball team will depend almost entirely on the men already there. That’s the players, but that’s especially Weber.

Because the current climate is untenable long-term. He needs to win enough that votes of confidence are unnecessary.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger