MANHATTAN — Bruce Weber faced a puzzling question last March: What does a man do when he has the freedom to do anything?
Weber had just been fired by Illinois following a nine-year run that featured two Big Ten titles and a trip to the national championship game — as well as three seasons with no NCAA Tournament.
His former employer was paying him handsomely not to work, so he was set financially. Weber could do anything — retire, take a job in broadcasting, spend a year with his family or look for another coaching job.
But he didn’t need much soul-searching. When Kansas State athletic director John Currie offered him the chance to take over the Wildcat basketball program, Weber accepted immediately.
“I just love coaching. It’s my life,” Weber said. “I have trouble sitting. I like to do things. I like to be involved. Coaching is what I enjoy.”
It also keeps him sane.
Without his job, he figures he would be in a hospital right now, nursing an injury suffered away from the basketball court. He always seems to get hurt when he’s not coaching. Weber pulled a hamstring the last time he played tennis, nearly broke his thumb the last time he tried table tennis and found a way to injure himself the last time he went to the beach. He has also twice been hit by a car.
“I go hard just like I expect my players to go hard,” Weber said. “Sometimes I just start running outside to remind myself that I’m alive. I have fun. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to get hurt. I don’t know the exact number, but I made something like 17 trips to the emergency room by the age of 14. The cars hurt pretty bad. My mom was always begging me to slow down.”
He wouldn’t listen. More than 40 years later, he still isn’t.
When Weber was looking for a new job last year, he did so tenaciously. College of Charleston and SMU were also interested. He knew he belonged around the game, and he made sure he would continue coaching. Somewhere, anywhere, at the time it didn’t matter.
“We’re just so fortunate to be walking into a situation that is in pretty good shape,” Weber said. “We have a new practice facility, football is doing so great and the fan reception here is unbelievable. We have some really nice pieces. Now it’s our job to make sure they fit together.”
This is Weber’s third head coaching job in the last 14 years, so he knows a thing or two about making everything work in a new situation.
The challenge motivates him. So much so that he doesn’t mind living in a townhouse with his wife while his future home is being built at Colbert Hills. It’s not like he spends tons of time there, anyway. When he first took the job, he worked such long hours that he had to plead with local restaurants to stay open late. Some agreed, and K-State’s coaches routinely dined at midnight.
“We got to know the waitresses really well,” said K-State associate head coach Chris Lowery, who worked with Weber at Southern Illinois and Illinois.
Like K-State football coach Bill Snyder, Weber doesn’t eat lunch. He doesn’t think there is enough time for it, instead opting to survive off fruit and candy during the day.
When he first started at Southern Illinois, he remembers current Purdue coach Matt Painter, then an assistant, couldn’t eat lunch, either. After a month on the job, he came to Weber with a plea.
“We were all fired up about our first chance at Southern, working till midnight like we do here,” Weber said. “Finally, Matt came into my office and said, ‘I love you, coach. I will do anything for you, but I’ve got to eat lunch. I can’t do this anymore.’ I didn’t care if he went to lunch, but it took him a couple weeks to realize it.”
His current situation reminds him of those days. Lowery is back by his side after taking Southern Illinois to the Sweet 16 and then falling on tough times. Former players Brad Korn and Chester Frazier are his director of basketball operations and third assistant. They are all eager to win.
When he left Illinois, Weber thought he still had plenty to offer a new team. He says he has no regrets about his time with the Illini, even though it ended with a 17-15 record and he admitted he “coached not to lose” instead of instilling toughness in his players.
“You’re trying to please the fans, you’re trying to please recruits and everybody else,” Weber said. “Sometimes you don’t do what you need to do and make sure you’re doing the right thing for yourself and for your team.”
Those who know him best could tell he was hurting.
“He lost his identity as a coach,” Lowery said. “To see him not being himself was hard. He handled it as well as anyone could being in the spotlight like that, but I think he will look back and realize that he should have pushed a little harder with this group and then he could have gotten over the hump and done better with the next group. It wore on him.”
Lowery noticed an instant change in Weber when he joined him in Manhattan, though. The first few months on the job, they were the only coaches there, working with new players. It was fun again.
No one was calling for Weber’s job. No one was criticizing him for not recruiting Chicago harder. It was just him and his team.
“K-State recharged him,” Lowery said. “This place makes you feel not only wanted but excited. The fans will you to work harder. That’s what he’s doing. He’s back to just coaching. And when he’s just coaching, it’s special.”
The special times started at Purdue, where he helped Gene Keady build a powerhouse as an assistant. Then he guided Southern Illinois to the Sweet 16 as a head coach. Next, he took Illinois to within a few points of a national championship in 2005.
Of course, some think he won big early at Illinois solely because he was coaching Bill Self’s players. He took over at Illinois the year after Self went to Kansas. Weber got the best out of those players, but he always had to share credit.
He could never recruit Chicago the way Self did, and fans thought less of him because of it.
“Illinois was the easiest place to recruit to I’ve been,” Self said last month. “Within three hours you can sign a Final Four team every year.”
But maybe Weber didn’t want to target Chicago players all the time. Maybe he wanted to recruit nationally. He certainly has so far at K-State, sending assistants on recruiting trips to California and the northeast, and getting commitments from players in Texas, Missouri, Indiana and Illinois.
Another former Illinois coach, Lon Kruger, who is a former K-Stater and currently coaching Oklahoma, admits there are advantages to exploring new recruiting ground.
“There are a lot of good players out there,” Kruger said. “At a place like Kansas State, you are free to target the three or four who fit what you want to do and want to be there.”
Weber had trouble finding those players late in his tenure at Illinois. It didn’t help that it felt like his employers wanted him to fail.
“We got a new president, a new chancellor and a new athletic director. It was pretty obvious things were going to be different,” Weber said. “I gave my heart and soul. I do that every day no matter where I work. I worked my tail off. I guess it wasn’t enough for those particular people.”
With better administrative support he thinks the Illini could have contended for a Big Ten title in his final season. At the least, it would have made the NCAA Tournament. But once Illinois started losing close games, players realized Weber was gone. They couldn’t bounce back.
Watching them suffer was the hardest part. He has long been a player’s coach, and it killed him to see them so upset. Some came to him in tears.
He already feels stronger support from Currie, though. He is confident that lame-duck situation won’t happen again. He can meet with Currie anytime. They often text late at night.
One of the main reasons Currie hired Weber was because he liked the way he helped build up a program at Purdue while Bob Knight was setting records at cross-state rival Indiana.
That’s something he wants Weber to repeat in Kansas, and is always available to help. At first, Currie was concerned Weber might not want to compete with Self after following him at Illinois. But that isn’t the case.
“He could be doing anything he wants right now, but he wants that challenge,” Currie said. “We’ve beaten them three times in 20 years. That’s not good. But he’s not afraid. He’s been there.”
Weber can tell the foundation is already in place. Senior Rodney McGruder is one of the best wing players in the Big 12, Jordan Henriquez is one of the nation’s top shot blockers and all but one starter returns from last year’s team.
Some of them were upset with former coach Frank Martin, and Weber admits “there was turmoil” within the program when he took over. But it didn’t take much to win them over. One player transferred.
“These players are tough,” Weber said. “They haven’t been pampered at all.”
Still, he decided to show them he had their support when they ran into trouble during the final game of a summer exhibition tour of Brazil.
The Brazilian pro team they went up against played rough, and the officials let them. Hard fouls dominated the game, but it seemed like only K-State players were fouling out. At one point, K-State players say Will Spradling was stomped on after falling to the floor. Later, he was kicked in the back while trying to grab a rebound.
“That game was one of the craziest experiences of my life. It was almost scary,” junior guard Shane Southwell said. “I wanted to play, but when you see guys getting kicked and tripped and punched, you just want to get out of there.”
Weber, normally mild-mannered on the sideline, argued every non-whistle, even after picking up a technical foul. When he saw a hard foul late, the ball ended up rolling near him. He couldn’t take it anymore, and threw it in disgust.
He was ejected.
“It really surprised me,” senior guard Martavious Irving said. “I had heard stories from assistants about how he was a fiery guy. But I was always like, ‘Who, this little guy?’ Sure enough, he will go to war for you. It was good to see that. You know Coach Weber has your back. I appreciated it a lot.
“We were in another country, and you probably shouldn’t react that way, because you don’t know what is going to happen. But he didn’t care. He wanted the game to be played honestly.”
K-State was losing at the time, but players responded to Weber’s actions. They quickly took the lead and competed until the end, falling just short.
“In a tough, adverse game we had guys step up and make plays to give us a chance when everything – bad fouls, guys fouled out, coach kicked out – went wrong,” Weber said. “We still kept fighting. I loved that. That’s all you can ask for.”
He proved something to his players. Then they proved something to him.
When he returned home, his athletic director patted him on the back and he returned to the office, ready to work through lunch and avoid injuries.
The man with the freedom to do anything is doing exactly what he wants to do.