Sam Mellinger

The wild ride of title chasing and coupon clipping for K-State’s Bruce Weber

Bruce Weber impressed by Wildcats bench players against Oklahoma State

Kansas State Wildcats head coach Bruce Weber was impressed by the play of his bench players in a 85-46 win over the Oklahoma State Cowboys on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019.
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Kansas State Wildcats head coach Bruce Weber was impressed by the play of his bench players in a 85-46 win over the Oklahoma State Cowboys on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019.

The multimillionaire basketball coach is talking about clipping coupons. The key, you see, is persistence. You have to check the ads. You have to know prices. And when the right deal comes you hit it hard. Volume shop.

Like, holidays. Bruce Weber waits until they’re over. That’s when the candy prices are slashed. Half off. Seventy percent off. The value skyrockets, so right now, a week after Valentine’s Day, they have heart-shaped M&Ms in the Kansas State basketball office.

“Remember when they had the triple and double coupons?” Weber said. “My goal was to get money back from them. I got close sometimes.”

This kind of thing fills Weber with pride. The search for a deal is a thrill. Some of this is simply the hunt — we all have our quirks, right? — and some the residue of a 40-year coaching career that began with a $2,000 salary.

“I always tell our guys: ‘Never buy anything full price,’” he said. “You’re stupid if you do.”

We came to this topic by accident, with Weber talking about the warmth he feels from K-State fans. These are high times for the Wildcats — ranked 23rd nationally, 21-6 overall and most importantly 11-3 in the Big 12 after a win over Oklahoma State on Saturday.

K-State is now a full game ahead of Texas Tech, and two ahead of rival Kansas and Baylor. K-State will play KU at Allen Fieldhouse on Monday, and here are some facts so tantalizing it feels like a jinx — a win would be the Wildcats’ first sweep of KU since 1983, and even with a loss they would be in position to end KU’s 14-year run of league championships.

When K-State played its final home game in pursuit of a shared Big 12 championship in 2013, some seats at Bramlage Coliseum remained empty. Now, Weber is buying tickets for friends and family (he gets an allotment, but, well, no coupons if he goes over).

But you know when he feels the love the most? At the grocery store, when he’s deal hunting.

“At Illinois I had to go late at night, so nobody would be there,” Weber said. “Here, now, I go whenever. It’s great.”

Weber has always had a complicated relationship with K-State fans. Frank Martin, the man he replaced, was wildly popular with fans and in consistent conflict with the administration. Weber is basically the opposite, on both ends.

That shared title in 2013 was the program’s first since 1977, and Weber is the only current Big 12 coach other than Kansas’ Bill Self to have a league trophy. But fans largely credited Martin, because the title was won with players he recruited, which had echoes of Weber’s best years at Illinois being dismissed — he followed Self.

The Kansas Jayhawks have won 14 consecutive Big 12 regular season titles, but they stand 1 1/2 games back of rival Kansas State. Can they pull off a 15th title? Bill Self says on Feb. 14, 2019 that "K- State is in the driver's seat."

It was all nearly enough for Weber not to have this opportunity. He dismissed star Marcus Foster after the 2015 season, a program reboot that could have included a new coach.

That’s what many fans wanted, too, but the administration gave Weber another chance. This is where the story shifts. Barry Brown, Dean Wade, and Kamau Stokes made up the first recruiting class in Weber’s new world. They were talented, diligent, hard-working — a coach’s dream.

Brown worked himself into one of the best players in program history. Wade, at his best and most aggressive, is a problem without a solution for defenses. Stokes is an effective leader, shooter, and defender.

They are now among the best senior classes in program history, which means this is the team Weber has been coaching toward since he arrived at K-State. This is the group that saved his career.

We mean that literally.

“I’ve told them that,” Weber said. “I’ve told Barry many times: ‘You saved all our jobs.’ They believed in us, they bought in, they’ve worked at it.”

None of it has been smooth. None of it easy. They went 5-13 in the league as freshmen, and as sophomores a 30-point loss at Oklahoma made eight defeats in 10 games. Most figured that was a wrap for Weber, but they won three in a row and made the NCAA Tournament.

Last year, they again played into the tournament, beat Foster with his new team, then the ultimate Cinderella in Maryland-Baltimore County, then the ultimate blueblood in Kentucky to make the Elite Eight. Wade, their injured leading scorer, played just 8 minutes in the tournament.

This is more than another season, then. This is the last go with one of major college basketball’s rarest entities — a talented trio of seniors. Again, there has been no smooth. There is no easy.

Wade missed six games because of a foot injury, and is now mostly watching practice, saving himself for one last push. Stokes is doing the same because of a toe injury, and Cartier Diarra has missed the last three games because of an unexplained broken finger.

“Their perseverance,” Weber said when asked what he’s most proud of with this group. “Their resilience. It hasn’t been easy, hasn’t been perfect. But they’ve really hung with it. They’ve stuck together.”

Their time together is now measured in days. Their last game in Lawrence, then their last three regular season games and their last Big 12 Tournament — all in the next 19 days.

College basketball is among the most cyclical of American sports. Programs are built on players, and players don’t stay long. Brown, Wade, and Stokes have stayed as long as they can. Everyone in and around the program knows it hasn’t been this good in years, and isn’t likely to be this good for years.

Weber’s reputation at K-State will be disproportionately tilted by what happens now, in these next few weeks, because the memories of this group will stick one way or the other.

This is something every Big 12 coach dreams about. Weber is better positioned to help knock Kansas down than any coach in recent memory. He has a lead in the final weeks, a group of seniors he loves in the huddle, and finally a little more love around the arena and town.

Who needs coupons with a life like this?

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.