One of the biggest reasons Kansas State athletic director John Currie hired Bruce Weber to coach basketball last spring was his experience with in-state rivalries.
Weber was part of a bitter one for 18 years.
As an assistant coach under Gene Keady at Purdue, he was on the court for 37 classic bouts with Bob Knight and Indiana. The Hoosiers were dominant back then, winning two national championships and advancing to three Final Fours from the time Keady came to Purdue in 1980 and Weber left for Southern Illinois in 1998.
But the Boilermakers never backed down. Weber helped Keady take Purdue to 14 NCAA Tournaments and advance as far as the Elite Eight. All while playing Indiana tough. Purdue won their head-to-head meetings 19-18, but the Hoosiers hold the edge in the record book due to a Purdue forfeit that stemmed from a NCAA eligibility violation.
Whenever the cross-state rivals met, Weber could feel the intensity.
“We had some knock-down drag outs,” Weber said. “We had to call the police once. Our bus was surrounded by cars. We couldn’t get out. It was pretty intense. The thing that really makes it a rivalry is when you beat each other and go back and forth. That made it a more heated rivalry than anything.”
Weber hopes to experience similar success in his new job and his new rivalry.
The scene on Tuesday night at Bramlage Coliseum, when No. 11 Kansas State hosts No. 3 Kansas in Weber’s first Sunflower Showdown, should be similar to what he experienced at Purdue. The Wildcats will benefit from the wildest home crowd of the season and the intensity levels will be hard to miss.
His job is to produce victories against the Jayhawks in that environment. Those have been hard to come by lately. Kansas has won 44 of the last 47.
Former coach Frank Martin made the rivalry more interesting by beating Kansas twice in his five seasons. But Currie wanted more. He wanted a coach who could challenge KU coach Bill Self consistently. He turned to the man who followed Self at Illinois.
“He laid a really nice foundation for me at Illinois to have success,” Weber said. “You respect that. … To take over for Roy (Williams) and all the success he had, that’s not that easy. He’s not only done it, but probably took it to another level. It’s impressive.
“John Currie asked me, ‘Do you really want to come here and go against him?’ It was one of the questions in the interview. That’s the exciting part about it, to go against the best guys. That’s why you coach, to have that opportunity.”
Weber’s enthusiasm adds a new twist to the rivalry.
At Illinois, Weber struggled to escape Self’s shadow. He took the Illini to the Sweet 16 in his first season and all the way to the national championship game in his second, winning two Big Ten championships along the way, but critics claimed he couldn’t win without Self’s players when he failed to advance past the second round of the NCAA Tournament in his final seven seasons.
And he still gets asked about the mock funeral he had in 2003, coaching a game in all black to signify the end of Self at Illinois.
“I’ve answered it way too many times,” Weber said. “Really, it’s a compliment to Bill. It was really more for the media, because you guys won’t stop asking the question. Every time I went to a press conference it was more about that, and the kids finally came to me and said, ‘Coach, we are sick of this.’ So I had to do something, whether it was the right thing or not.”
Now Weber is going against Self twice a year while trying to forge his own legacy in the wake of Martin’s success.
So far, so good. At 15-2, the No. 11 Wildcats are off to their best start since the 2009-10 season, and have their highest ranking in three years. Their 4-0 start in Big 12 games was last duplicated in 2008. The fans upset by Martin’s departure have dwindled.
Self is impressed.
“Do they play with passion and reckless abandon and toughness and those sorts of things? Without any hesitation, they do,” Self said. “That is a credit to the new staff. They have taken these kids and what they know and incorporated their system but kept the good, too. They should be commended on the job they have done.”
Winning his first Sunflower Showdown would take Weber’s early success to an even higher level.
“If we weren’t very good then it’s, ‘You have to win this game to make your season.’ But we’re good,” Weber said. “We’re battling to try and be a top-level team in the league. That is why it is really important. They are really good, too. That’s how we have got to approach the game.”