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Weber, Lowery form effective 1-2 coaching punch for Kansas State

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, at 7:17 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, March 1, 2013, at 9:48 a.m.

— All it took was a phone call.

When Chris Lowery agreed to join Bruce Weber at Kansas State as associate head coach last March, they skipped the bureaucracy. No formal interview. No contract talk. No hiring process.

Instead, Weber called Lowery with instructions: Pack a bag, drive to Champaign, Ill. and board a chartered flight to Manhattan.

“For what?” Lowery remembers asking.

“We’re taking the job at Kansas State,” Weber replied.

“We never talked about it,” Lowery says now, “but I think we both knew I was going with him wherever he got a job.”

Almost a year later, it’s easy to see why they were eager to coach basketball together again. Weber and Lowery are longtime friends with a successful track record as co-workers. They accomplished big things at Southern Illinois and Illinois, and are now excelling with K-State.

At 23-5, 12-3 in the Big 12, Weber is one victory shy of becoming the winningest first-year coach in program history and the Wildcats are within reach of their first conference championship since 1977.

With the help of a veteran team, they have successfully recaptured the chemistry that worked so well when they first teamed up in 2001. Back then, they had a spectacular three-year run that featured 78 victories, two Missouri Valley Conference championships, one Big Ten title, three NCAA Tournaments and two trips to the Sweet 16.

Their failures, which ultimately led them to K-State last offseason, didn’t occur until they were apart.

When Lowery took over at Southern Illinois in 2004, both coaches began a roller-coaster journey that lasted eight years.

The rise saw Weber guide Illinois to the 2005 national championship game and four more NCAA Tournaments, and Lowery lead Southern Illinois to three straight NCAA Tournaments and another Sweet 16, becoming one of the hottest young coaches in the country.

The fall included Weber winning two NCAA Tournament games in his final seven seasons, and Lowery missing the postseason in his final four seasons.

They were on an eerily parallel path. Weber’s career peaked in 2005 with a 37-2 record while Lowery won 29 games in 2007. Then they both missed the NCAA Tournament in 2008 and were fired last year when their teams continued to decline.

But a silver lining was quickly found.

“It was fate, I guess,” Weber said. “It’s kind of unusual timing, but it ended up being good. That first month was very hectic and crazy. You’re working from 9 in the morning until midnight or later. There were a lot of good memories and fun times, but it’s hard on you and your families. Right when we got here we knew we were walking into a pretty good situation, but it helped that we had each other.”

That has always been the case.

• • • 

Together, they have won 79 percent of their games. Apart, Weber’s winning percentage dropped to 66 percent. Even though both had other options and enough money to take a few years off, reuniting at K-State was a no-brainer.

“We needed each other coming out of a position where we both got fired after having tremendous success,” Lowery said. “We were coming into a situation with a great team, following a beloved coach. We had to win everyone over. It took a lot of work, and we struggled really bad early, but you can see the improvement.”

The journey started with just the two of them. It took Weber months to hire his current staff, but Lowery was with him from Day 1. Together, they met with K-State’s returning roster and their families, convincing 10 scholarship players to stay put. They introduced their coaching philosophies in practices and individual workouts. They started recruiting. And they reflected.

It was a lot for two coaches to handle, but they managed to establish a foundation.

“It was just me and Coach for that first month,” Lowery said. “But it was good. We stayed up late every night. It was good to talk about different things. Why did we fail? What do we need to do to make it better? How can we take this job to the next level? What is the layout of the land? Where are the recruiting hotbeds the league is using? Those are the things we figured out and helped us develop the rest of our staff and our team.”

So why do they work well together?

There are many reasons and stories that stretch back over a decade. From Lowery’s persistence when Weber twice turned him down for jobs at Southern Illinois, to Weber’s competitive nature and always positive outlook.

But it all stems from their passion for basketball. They’re junkies.

“Coach is a savant,” Lowery said of Weber. “He doesn’t have any hobbies. He’s only interested in basketball. It’s what he lives for.”

“He really loves basketball,” Weber said of Lowery. “He is always watching it. He studies it. He knows so much about it.”

It also helps that they are close friends. They talked regularly while they coached different schools, calling each other at random times and asking for advice on everything from future opponents to inbounds plays and game management. Weber recommended Lowery for his first head coaching job. Lowery was first in line to join Weber at K-State.

Their families vacation together. Their personalities match. Their coaching styles blend.

They bounce ideas off each other so regularly that players have learned not to interrupt once they get going, even if it looks like they are arguing. That’s just how they talk.

“They are both stubborn,” K-State director of basketball operations Brad Korn said. “Neither one of them is going to give in too easily.”

It’s common to see them outside the locker room after games, going back and forth about the art of a ball screen and the importance of pressure defense.

“He never makes you feel like you are working for him,” Lowery said. “That’s the sign of a great boss. I work harder because I am working with him. I’m glad we’re here now. We are both extremely happy.”

• • • 

Sophomore forward Nino Williams knows how to describe playing for Weber and Lowery.

“It’s like we have two head coaches,” Williams said. “Both of them were head coaches and command respect. Sometimes Coach Weber will say something and Coach Lowery will jump in and correct him, but not in a way that says he is smarter or a better coach. They have good a relationship.”

So good, they refuse to back down when they know they’re right.

“They are different from any other coaches I’ve seen because they aren’t afraid to butt heads,” junior guard Will Spradling said. “Coach Lowery really isn’t afraid to compete with Coach Weber on anything. That’s good, because it’s a lot like what the players go through. They are challenging each other at all times and that makes them better coaches and shows us that they are working hard.”

Assistant coach Alvin Brooks III first noticed their strong connection when he interviewed at K-State last spring. As part of his campus tour, Weber and Lowery asked him to sit in on a practice. While he watched, one coach ran practice and the other visited with Brooks. No matter how much they switched back and forth, practice remained on point and the intensity never dipped.

He walked away impressed.

“You could tell from the chemistry that they had worked together before,” Brooks said. “That helps a lot, especially when it is a transitional phase. If you have two groups, Coach Weber can do one end and Coach Lowery knows exactly what to do on the other end. They don’t even have to talk about it.”

• • • 

In many ways, Weber and Lowery are still learning from each other.

Weber is the coach, Lowery the top assistant. But they might as well be offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator.

Weber is a master of the motion offense. Always has been. K-State has used it with varying success, averaging 69.7 points, but opposing coaches continually say that the Wildcats run the motion better than anybody else.

Lowery is a defensive guru. He convinces players to pressure the ball without getting beat to the basket. His ways have clearly rubbed off. The Wildcats lead the Big 12 in scoring defense, allowing 59.7 points.

“He loves defense,” Weber said. “He studies it. I don’t know if he would tell you it was his forte when he first joined my staff at Southern Illinois, but he started really getting into it. We were really solid on defense and he made us better. When he took over as the head coach, it really became the strength and the staple of that program.”

Perhaps most importantly, both coaches understand each other’s weaknesses.

Last year, when both were miserable and in the middle of disappointing seasons, they talked about those weaknesses all the time in late-night phone calls they now call “pity parties.” It was hard for them to watch each other lose, but, as Lowery says, “It was nice to have somebody you trust to turn to.”

Lowery says he could see Weber losing his identity at Illinois. He was worried about more than simply being the basketball coach. Weber says Lowery started recruiting players that weren’t willing to embrace his defensive strategies.

Would those problems persist at K-State? Could Weber follow Frank Martin? Could Lowery go back to the life of an assistant? Internally, those concerns didn’t exist.

As long as they worked together, they knew success would follow.

“We are compatible,” Weber said. “When you work together like we have, you just get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and understand what you believe in. It’s a good match.”

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

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