Bob Lutz: Weber works to win over K-State doubters

04/15/2012 8:22 AM

04/15/2012 8:22 AM

Is Bruce Weber winning over the Kansas State basketball fans who scoffed at his hiring a couple of weeks ago?

Or is Weber still suffering in the court of public opinion?

The 55-year-old Weber, who rightly claims his long-term popularity will be determined by his success, is on the job. Boy is he.

After recruiting in three cities Friday, Weber said he didn’t leave the office until 10:30 p.m.. And he was back in the office early Saturday morning. As severe weather threats were being issued for Manhattan and surrounding counties, Weber hunkered down to address the process of being a new coach, one that is never easy.

This time, in particular.

Weber replaces Frank Martin, a coach who came equipped with a lightning rod. But the K-Staters who loved Martin, who left Manhattan to coach at South Carolina, loved him passionately.

Weber is no Martin. In fact, it’s surprising that they come from the same species, such are there differences.

Martin’s glare could make a lion run up a tree. Weber, on the other hand, usually has a gleam in his eyes and a smile on his lips.

But coming off his firing after nine seasons at Illinois — the first three of which were historically good, the rest of which were so-so — Weber is determined to be more than a coach with a reputation as a “good guy.”

“It’s been a crazy two weeks,” Weber said from his K-State office Saturday morning. “But it’s an exciting thing because you’re revived again. There are so many things to deal with, a lot of pieces in the puzzle to put together. But we’re at a good place. That’s probably the best thing about it.”

With the expected return of seniors-to-be Rodney McGruder, Jordan Henriquez and Martavious Irving, there’s a core of experience to build around. From all accounts, Will Spradling will be back for his junior season, while there have been no announcements concerning the futures of freshmen Thomas Gipson and Angel Rodriguez.

“I don’t mind expectations,” Weber said. “I’d rather have it that way than the other. I’ve done it both ways; when I was in my first season at Southern Illinois (1998-99), I was told we would be lucky to win five games. Well, we won 15.”

Weber knows his hiring at K-State took people by surprise, coming just weeks after he was fired at Illinois. He was reportedly interested in coaching jobs at SMU and College of Charleston before Kansas State athletic director John Currie started courting him.

Just four days after Martin made it official that he was headed to South Carolina, Weber was introduced as K-State’s new coach during an afternoon news conference on March 31.

He has filled one opening on his coaching staff by hiring Chris Lowery, who was fired after this season at Southern Illinois. Two recently-fired coaches, albeit experienced ones, are in charge of the Wildcats’ basketball program.

Weber is aware of the skepticism, yet is prepared with a long list of his past successes as an assistant at Purdue and coach at SIU and Illinois. He is friendly when addressing the doubts of K-State fans, but also determined to prove the doubters wrong.

“There’s some things that happened last season at Illinois that I just can’t get into,” Weber said.

He pointed out an injury to guard Sam Maniscalco and the team’s six freshmen. He mentioned that there was only one returning starter.

“But we got off to a pretty good start,” Weber said. “We had so many close games and with a young team it all kind of took its toll. Some events happened that were very hard on our team. But they didn’t quit. They kept playing.”

Weber was extremely popular early on at Illinois, which was 89-16 during his first three seasons and won eight NCAA Tournament games. Remember, he wasn’t welcomed with open arms in Champaign, either, because he was replacing Bill Self, who left after the 2002-03 season to go to Kansas.

Illinois fans couldn’t fathom that Self would leave for another job and they were reluctant to embrace Weber. But all of the winning gave them no choice.

Early on, believing his players were tired of hearing all of the talk about Self’s departure, a black-clad Weber staged a mock funeral for Self, one that didn’t sit so well with the coach who had moved on to Kansas.

Now, guess what? Weber and Self and their teams will battle at least twice a year in one of the biggest rivalries in the Big 12, but a rivalry KU has owned for many years.

“What I did was supposed to be a compliment to Bill,” Weber said. “It was, ‘Hey, this is the end. Now we gotta change.’ It was more for the players. I’m not sure now how brilliant it was to do that, but it helped at the moment.”

If Weber wasn’t aware just how badly K-State supporters want to win some of the basketball battles with Kansas, it didn’t take long for him to find out.

“Yeah, they keep bringing it up every time I go out and talk to people,” Weber said. “I know it’s important and I think it’s exciting. We had this kind of thing with Indiana when I was at Purdue and it was Coach (Bob) Knight going against Coach (Gene) Keady. And when teams knock each other off and the coaches stay around, it even adds more fuel. Hopefully we can make it a better rivalry and make the Kansas people worry about us. That’s the big thing.”

Weber did not have a great first day at Kansas State. He butchered the names of K-State legends Cotton Fitzsimmons, whom he referred to as “Fitzpatrick,” and Ernie Barrett, whom he called “Barnett.”

Then Kansas State’s all-time scoring leader Jacob Pullen attacked the hiring on Twitter, writing: “I support kstate for life no matter what but I’m not a Bruce Webber (sic) fan and I think Kstate can do a lot better.”

Pullen, who is from Chicago and is playing professional basketball in Italy, also wrote: “Bruce Webber didn’t think I was good enough to play at Illinois and I don’t think he is good enough to coach at Kansas State.”

Not every new coach, thank goodness, has to deal with the negative Twitter words of one of his school’s all-time greats, but Weber says he took it in stride.

“Jacob did prove me wrong,” Weber said. “Not only me but a lot of people. Nobody else in the Big 10 offered him a scholarship. He should really be happy he came to Kansas State, where he had a great career.”

Weber said he’s tried to reach out to Pullen through some current Kansas State players, but has not been successful.

“It didn’t bruise my feelings,” Weber said. “I understand, it’s a typical Twitter thing. Sometimes kids say things and don’t realize the impact it’s going to have. But he did prove us wrong at Illinois. He had a great career here.”

Weber would like to find another Pullen and recruiting is his focus. He’s also looking for two more assistant coaches and said he expects to hire both sometime this week.

“We’ve got a good program to sell here,” Weber said. “They’ve gotten some national attention and some pretty good players have been here. I don’t have to sell it like ‘Where’s K-State?’ or anything like that. And people know me because I’ve been out there for a long time. Now we’re going to have to go into some different areas. I’ve been to Kansas City and to Texas, but it’s not where our main focus has been. And we still think we can go into Illinois. We’ve gotten a lot of positive response.”

Weber is happy to have Lowery on board. They coached together for two seasons at Southern Illinois and one more at Illinois, during which those teams were 78-22. While they were coaching apart, Weber said they talked at least five days per week.

“You’ve got certain guys in your basketball family and those are the guys you talk with almost on a daily basis,” Weber said. “They might be having problems or you might be having problems. You might be looking for something new or just throwing new ideas at one another. But I’ve always talked to guys like Chris, (Tom) Izzo, (Kevin) Stallings and Coach Keady a lot. Having a support network is important.”

No doubt, Weber has been using it heavily since he was hired at Kansas State, where a wary fan base waits to see what he can produce.

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