If Kansas State’s 61-58 victory over Kentucky on Thursday at Philips Arena was partly about reconciling Ernie Barrett’s 67-year itch to avenge defeat in the 1951 national title game, it also was about purging six years of skepticism and even ridicule of coach Bruce Weber from a segment of the K-State fan base.
Maybe nothing amplified the validation and vindication better than the Twitter endorsements from men many Wildcat fans wish either had stayed or taken Weber’s place and still hold great sway: former K-State coach Frank Martin, now at South Carolina, and former player and assistant Brad Underwood, now at Illinois.
Posted Martin: “Thx @KStateMBB for posting the video of Ernie Barrett in the locker room. It made me emotional I know what beating Kentucky meant to him. Great stuff by Coach Bruce (Weber) and all of his guys. Really happy for K Staters everywhere. U guys got this.”
Wrote Underwood: “EMAW! So proud last night of @KStateMBB. Let’s keep this thing rolling to Final Four!@coachbruceweber, u guys have made all us old players and Coaches very proud. Let’s Win it all!”
The same coach who was oft-mocked and whose job seemed at stake with the arrival of a new athletic director is on the verge of guiding ninth-seeded K-State to its first Final Four in 54 years as it faces 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago on Saturday night.
The same coach with the same admirable traits and values — from work ethic to sincerity to compassion to resourcefulness.
While Weber’s adaptability has been the trademark of a team that has won three NCAA Tournament games without its best player (Dean Wade) and fended off Kentucky with five guards on the floor after three players had fouled out, he’s also the coach few wanted to extend the benefit of the doubt.
Even when things were on an upward trajectory for a program that was decades removed from its glory days, without a Final Four since 1964 and just one Elite Eight since 1988.
Remember when K-State beat then-No. 1 Oklahoma in 2016? Before its next game at Bramlage Coliseum, you could find posted on the Internet a profanity attached to Weber’s name.
Another was simply called, “Fire Bruce.”
He couldn’t win even when he won, it seemed.
Until he reversed the prevailing wave in the last week or so with a team that assistant coach Chris Lowery says “embodies him about as much as any team that he’s ever coached.”
“Now, the proof’s in the pudding,” said Lowery, who was an assistant to Weber when Weber took Southern Illinois-Carbondale to the Sweet 16 in 2002 and was on Weber’s Illinois staff just before Weber guided the Illini to the 2005 national title game. “Four (NCAA) appearances in six years and one win from the Final Four, why would you not like him now?”
Surely, there are some out there who still resist Weber simply for not being Martin or for being hired by John Currie or not landing the nation’s marquee recruits or even for his scratchy voice — never mind that it’s the result of having polyps removes from his throat as a pre-teen.
If you’re Weber, you might be tempted to feel the contempt shown by Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) at the end of “High Noon,” when the town that abandoned him in its hour of need came back around after he saved the day.
But that’s not how Weber thinks — and this is a great thing for K-State at a time an FBI probe into college basketball recruiting threatens to unhinge the game.
Criticism over not being able to land five-star recruits?
Weber learned how to compartmentalize that stuff a long time ago.
“Obviously I'm human, and I really try to stay away from social media, from papers,” he said. “I used to listen to talk radio and then I became a head coach, and I had to go to country music … just to have something to listen to and not hear people talk about me.”
Meanwhile, a man whose reputation for integrity is impeccable doesn’t believe he has to traffic in the underworld bartering system to win.
“You know, at Purdue, years and years as an assistant, we got a lot of kids that weren't top 100 that ended up in the NBA,” he said. “We did the same at Southern Illinois, took it to the Sweet 16 with guys that weren't even recruited by other Division I schools.
“You know, I just tried to do it right, the way I feel it should be done. I don't like what is going on in our business, to be honest. ... But all I can worry about is myself and making sure that I do things the right way and help (players) develop.
“And I know when the paper comes to your door or the news comes on, my kids don't have to worry that I did something I'm not supposed to.”
Even avoiding sports radio and social media, Weber couldn’t help but know he was unpopular in some circles, particularly on the Internet.
Or as he described it, “faceless opinions that can go negative, and then that influences other people, even though they might have no knowledge.”
More generously, the flip side of that is what one K-State fan emailed me on Saturday:
"I’ve had a tough time buying into Weber because of (his) constant barking and jitterbugging on the sideline ... and his excuse making ... Now I am in. Of course. My second analogy is this ... Coaches need players to earn playing time. They see something. Opportunity arises from injury, etc.
"Well, fans need coaches to earn their allegiance. Especially at K-State where a legacy was broken largely due to poor coaching."
It's a well-stated point, but one that Weber couldn't let affect him one way or another.
Paralleling his ability to get his teams to focus on what it can control in the tournament, he neither let that stuff distract him along the way nor gloats about what might be termed a reckoning now.
“All I can do,” he said, “is do my job right.”
He has been all along, from paying endless dues as an assistant to K-State grad Gene Keady from 1979-1998 at Western Kentucky and Purdue to learning from a crumbling product at SIUC.
Those roots are the essentials in his career that defy the lazy narrative that Weber somehow has only truly prospered with inherited players (from Bill Self at Illinois and Martin at K-State).
For one thing, that 2004-2005 Illinois team was in year two after Self left for Kansas. And while Weber indeed benefited from players brought in by Self, coaching melded that talented group into one of the most selfless and team-oriented groups you’ll ever see.
For another, consider what it took to revive the program in Carbondale.
Means were so meager when he arrived that Weber and his staff would use his secretary’s “real nice car” to drive around recruits, and the budget was dependent on such initiatives as fundraising car washes or Weber going on goose hunts with boosters, he told me in 2007.
For that matter, Weber at times went into his own pocket for SIUC expenses — something that continued for years after he left (and maybe to this day) in the form of sending generous checks to an SIUC foundation to help pay for the team’s road meals.
"He set the stage for everybody else behind him: 'Don't be too full of yourself to carry the ice,' " former SIUC assistant Rodney Watson said in 2007 for a story I was doing on the program for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "He's honest and not flashy and knew how to solve his own problems. I mean, he was a perfect fit."
And a better fit at K-State than many were willing to accept through the growing pains and fits and starts as he worked to create his own culture in the wake of Martin.
“I knew coming in the program had some rebuilding (to be done),” said Barry Brown Jr., who has emerged as an All-Big 12 player after being an under-the-radar recruit. “... With the pieces we had, we just needed time to get a little bit of experience, gel together, and come together and really buy into the program.”
One that reflects Weber’s considerable will — riding shotgun on a bandwagon that doesn’t discriminate against the newly converted.