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Bruce Weber says he can keep K-State basketball in right direction

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, March 31, 2012, at 10:56 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, April 15, 2012, at 8:22 a.m.

— Bruce Weber is well known in coaching circles and is one of the most recognizable faces in college basketball, but he comes to Kansas State surrounded by uncertainty.

His back story is filled with successes and failures. Few can focus on the same areas.

The Wildcats’ new coach has been to the Final Four and was within a few points of the 2005 national championship. He was consensus national coach of the year that season and has taken eight teams to the NCAA Tournaments after success as an assistant with Purdue.

He is part of Gene Keady’s coaching tree and also lists Eddie Sutton as a mentor.

“We’ve got a head basketball coach who has been there and knows the route and the path to that destination,” K-State athletic director John Currie said. “In his career he has developed and mentored NBA lottery picks.”

But he is also fresh off being fired. His final team at Illinois went 17-15 and missed the postseason. He hasn’t taken a team to the Sweet 16 since 2005, and his best seasons with the Illini came with players Bill Self recruited before leaving for Kansas.

Though he accomplished much in his five seasons as Southern Illinois’ coach, taking the Missouri Valley Conference team to the Sweet 16 in 2002, he finished in the top three of the Big Ten once in his final five years and didn’t reach the Sweet 16 in that span.

Because of that, some K-State fans reacted negatively to Weber’s introduction on Saturday. A small group of fans protested his hiring outside Bramlage Coliseum. One booster, who asked not to be named, said he won’t renew his season tickets. Career scoring leader Jacob Pullen, who played for Frank Martin ending in 2011, criticized Weber on Twitter.

“I think K-State can do a lot better,” Pullen wrote.

Weber, a 55-year-old Milwaukee native, will be paid $8.5 million over five years. He’ll have to deal with those dueling perceptions as he tries to keep the Wildcats on the path Martin created before leaving for South Carolina on Tuesday.

K-State has played in four of the past five NCAA Tournaments. Weber is hopeful he can guide it back there next season. He has a message for fans until he takes the floor.

“Give me a chance,” Weber said. “It doesn’t matter where you go or which coach they hired, it was always going to be a question mark. There’s no doubt about that. That is part of college sports today. I think my track record shows what I’ve done as a coach.”

Dave Dreiling, a major K-State donor, said he was willing to give Weber that much despite not knowing much about him beyond the fact that he was recently fired from Illinois.

“I trust in president Kirk Schulz and John Currie to make the right decision,” Dreiling said. “That doesn’t mean they are going to be right every time, but in this case I know John has been studying this. That’s his job. When this came up, this was his moment to shine. For me to look over his shoulder and second guess would be completely unfair.”

Keady, now an advisor to the St. John’s staff, thinks the Wildcats will win right away under Weber.

“He’s one of the best five coaches in the country,” Keady said by phone. “He was with me for 18 years at Purdue, and he was very instrumental in our success. We won a lot of games, and he’s won a lot of games since. That won’t change.”

Weber will now try to win over more fans as he settles in at K-State. But first, he says he needs to win over the current players. He has already met with most of them, though K-State’s freshmen were out of town and Rodney McGruder was recovering from a surgical procedure on his foot, and is looking forward to working with them on a limited basis starting Monday.

He said he will emphasize defense, and an offensive style that works both in transition and the half court.

“I’m excited,” sophomore Will Spradling said. “I feel like he has been in this situation before and was very successful. I’m just ready to get started.”

“He’s a great coach,” junior Jordan Henriquez said. “I’m not into the positives or negatives people are saying on the Internet, I just know growing up I watched him in the Final Four. I’m excited to play for him … I’m happy that the team is sticking together. I don’t think there will be any changes made with us. Nobody is leaving.”

No one’s happier to hear that than Weber. When Currie first contacted him Tuesday, Weber said he told him he viewed K-State as a Sweet 16 team next year.

Though he said he interviewed with several other schools, including College of Charleston and SMU, in the past few days, that potential sold him on K-State as much as anything else.

“From all my peers and the people I trust, the No. 1 thing they said is make sure you take a job where you can have success,” Weber said. “You deserve that … To me, this was the best situation — an area and a community and a university that I’m familiar with and great tradition. And it’s nice to have some pretty good players coming back.”

He will need to look into building a coaching staff first, though. He said he would like to hire someone with K-State ties or the old staff. That would make associate head coach Brad Underwood a candidate. But he may also look to his past successes. Former Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery, fired after this season, worked under Weber for several years and could be a possibility.

Weber discussed all that and more while eating dinner with Keady in New Orleans on Friday night.

“He’s got a lot of energy and is very excited about this,” Keady said. “He will be well organized and bring in a good group of assistants. He is very unselfish and very loyal. He will talk to alumni groups and anything else he is asked to do. He’s not just a coach. He’s the whole package.”

Weber has a career record of 313-115 and was 210-101 at Illinois in nine seasons. But he failed to lead the Illini to three of the past five NCAA Tournaments. Illinois must pay Weber $3.9 million to make up the final three years on his contract.

He said that downturn humbled him. But he didn’t want to stay out of coaching long.

“I have got to be who I am and what I believe in,” Weber said. “My teams, they have been blue-collar, hard-nosed, they have defended. I think sometimes if I did anything I was trying to please everybody instead of doing what I know is successful and will be successful in the future.”

Check Kellis Robinett’s K-Stated blog at blogs.kansas.com/kstated. Reach him at krobinett@wichitaeagle.com.

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