MANHATTAN — At the peak of his basketball coaching career, Chris Lowery was a wanted man.
The year was 2007, and he was three seasons into an eight-year stint as the coach at Southern Illinois. He had just guided the Salukis to 29 wins and a trip to the Sweet 16. Combined with two Missouri Valley Conference championships and two other NCAA Tournament appearances, he was a candidate for plenty of major coaching jobs.
Sounds like the perfect opening line to use on players and recruits when introducing himself, right? Maybe, but when Lowery found himself staring at a room full of K-State basketball players last week inside Bramlage Coliseum, he took a totally different approach.
Instead of telling them about his experience coaching college basketball, his long-time friendship with new K-State coach Bruce Weber or the high points of his resume, the Wildcats’ newest assistant coach simply reminded them what happened when they shared the same basketball court months earlier at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.
“You remember me guys? You beat us by 8 million,” Lowery said. “They all started laughing. That’s how I broke the ice.”
K-State defeated Southern Illinois 83-58 in that game days before Christmas. Though that loss was one of many that led to Lowery being fired after an 8-23 season last month, he isn’t bitter about his new role.
He says he is happy to be where he is, and ready to try working behind the scenes instead of on center stage.
“When you love doing something, those are the things that drive you,” Lowery said. “It’s not about money. It’s not about anything. It’s about the love of coaching. I became a head coach at 30 years old because I went into it at 21 for the love of it. That love never changed.”
K-State players seem to appreciate his attitude. The 39-year-old has been on the court every day with them, tenaciously helping as much as NCAA rules allow.
“Even though we beat Southern Illinois, they were a challenge,” said junior forward Jordan Henriquez. “It’s pretty funny, because I still remember the little short guy (Lowery) on the sideline being loud. I still remember that game like it was yesterday.”
So does Lowery, but he is trying to focus on the future right now. Though he had success as a head coach and helped Weber reach three NCAA Tournaments as an assistant, he may need to keep his spirits up to succeed in his new job.
He is starting over. Sure, he was one of the hottest names in the coaching business five years ago. And it would only be natural for him to wonder about the decision he made to stay at Southern Illinois, where he played in the early ’90s and thought he could sustain winning as a coach.
But he thinks about that time only as a cautionary tale. After his initial success, he lost the majority of his coaching staff, recruiting took a hit and the Salukis didn’t contend for the NCAA Tournament again. His eight-year run at Southern Illinois ended with four straight disappointing seasons.
“My first four years, we knocked them out of the park,” Lowery said. “When you’re a loyal person like I am, that’s my alma mater. I did what I thought was the right thing and I stayed. You can’t go back and talk about what happened and where it went from there.
“You just have to talk about the fact that I was extremely loyal to the place that gave me my degree and an opportunity. Unfortunately it didn’t end the way that it started.”
Now he is an assistant coach at Kansas State. But he has no regrets.
He could have stayed out of coaching for a while. He made enough money at Southern Illinois to take a year or two off. But the opportunity to join Weber, a mentor who he considers a father figure, was too good to pass up.
When he was a member of Weber’s staff at Southern Illinois, the Salukis went 52-15, won two conference titles and played in two NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet 16. When he was a member of Weber’s staff for one season at Illinois, the Illini advanced to the Sweet 16.
“Good things happen when we have been together,” Lowery said.
Apart, they have both experienced ups and downs. Weber took Illinois to the national championship game and was a consensus Coach of the Year in 2005. Lowery landed a No. 4 seed with Southern Illinois in 2007. And both were recently fired.
Their first weeks in Manhattan have been good, though Lowery hasn’t had much of a chance to see the town yet. He is living at a hotel, and his daily routine consists of driving back and forth between the basketball facilities and his room.
Looking for a new house and making new friends can wait until he is joined by a full coaching staff. For now, helping Weber win, and possibly finding redemption, are his only priorities.
“We’re glad to be here. I’m just glad to come with him,” Lowery said. “The one thing we are going to bring together is we understand what it’s like to be beat up on. And now we’ve got a new life and everything that has happened in the past few weeks is over. We want to give everything we can to K-State.”