Bruce Weber sounds like a man who has been at Kansas State for 25 years. Not two.
Ask the Wildcat basketball coach what he enjoys most about his job, and he rattles off details about the dinner he had with donors a few weeks back, the strangers who gave him purple clothes when he was new in town and the fan base that has made him feel at home. That last part is especially meaningful, because he spends most of his free time away recruiting.
“It’s the people,” Weber said last week. “I think that is the best thing about K-State. They are just good people that care. They want us to win, but also they just want us to compete and play hard and do it the right way. I think that is very refreshing.”
If it sounds like Weber has been searching for a basketball program like K-State his entire life, it’s because he has. He got his start working for Gene Keady at Purdue. He spread his coaching wings at Southern Illinois. And he won big at Illinois, coaching current NBA players, winning Big Ten titles and getting as far as the national championship game in 2005.
But none of those places were perfect fits. He left Purdue and Southern Illinois looking for something more, and Illinois fired him when he couldn’t sustain his initial level of success.
That made him an unlikely and unpopular K-State hire following the departure of former coach Frank Martin, but his doubters have dwindled. So far, his success has been staggering. He won 27 games and guided K-State to its first conference championship since 1977 in his debut season. Then he won 20 games and led the Wildcats to a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament this season. Add it all up, and he has more victories in his first two years than any other coach in program history.
Maybe he has finally found his ideal fit.
“He loves Manhattan,” K-State junior forward Thomas Gipson said. “He is always wearing purple. He always talks about our fans and the publicity we get and how great a place this is. I don’t think he would want to be anywhere else.”
There is work to be done, of course. The Wildcats didn’t win a game in the NCAA Tournament last year, shockingly losing to No. 13 seed La Salle in nearby Kansas City, Mo. And they have struggled mightily away from home this season, winning two road games. Another early March exit will leave some wanting more.
Still, many think Weber has overachieved. He convinced a fractured roster to stay together last season, and he won with a young roster this season. The age-old knock on Weber is that he can only win with another coach’s players, but his recruits are thriving.
Marcus Foster is the top freshman to come through the program since Michael Beasley, Wesley Iwundu has started 31 games in his first year and Jevon Thomas and Nigel Johnson are both contributors. Next year, they will be joined by Maine transfer Justin Edwards, the America East’s top scorer a year ago; Georgetown transfer Brandon Bolden, a 6-foot-11 defender; Stephen Hurt, a touted junior-college forward; and shooter Tre Harris.
Weber has constructed a team that is both built for the future and winning in the present.
“With the base that they have coming back next year, that is going to be a great group,” K-State senior guard Will Spradling said. “You add in those players that coach is bringing in, and I feel like they will be better than what we were last year and better than what we were this year. It’s exciting to think about, even though I won’t be a part of it.”
How did Weber get K-State on this optimistic track? The answer is simple: He got back to his core values.
Those were temporarily lost at Illinois. He said he allowed outside influences to impact the way he ran his program, narrowing his recruiting scope to focus on in-state talent and taking it easy on certain players during practice. Near the end, he wasn’t coaching or recruiting the way he wanted, and he was filled with regret.
He set out to redeem himself at K-State, vowing to recruit nationally, to coach defense first and to demand toughness from his players.
“I probably let the pressure and all the politics take a toll on me (at Illinois),” Weber said. “Here I just told the players, ‘I’m going to coach you the way I can, and I am going to make the freshmen work. If you miss classes, I don’t care if you are Marcus Foster, you are coming in the next morning to run. If you want to transfer, then transfer. I’m not helping you in the long run if I’m not teaching you how to practice the right way, play the right way and go to school the right way.’
“That’s all I told them. We expect problems from freshmen, some from sophomores and none from juniors. Seniors have to be problem solvers. We have good kids and we have tried to stay hard on them. I don’t care who you are, you can always get better.”
K-State players like that approach.
“He isn’t doing this for his resume or to make him look better,” Foster said. “He is doing this to make us better people, on and off the court. He checks in our schoolwork and makes sure we are getting better as players. He really loves us and takes care of us.”
Spradling describes Weber as a welcome change. During his first two years under Martin, Spradling said players were restricted to their hotel rooms on the road. Back home, group activities were rarely arranged.
With Weber, players can count on steady interaction with team trips to the movie theater or the bowling alley, and a fun Christmas party.
“He takes care of us,” Spradling said. “When we are on the road, we are going out to eat at the best restaurant in the area and eating great meals every night. When we have Christmas break and we have to stay in Manhattan when nobody is around, he always sets up stuff for us. That’s something we didn’t experience in our first two years. It was a big change and a great change.”
When K-State athletic director John Currie hired Weber, he did so because of his versatility. He thought Weber was capable of stepping into a new situation and winning over players he didn’t bring in. He also saw that Weber could develop talent. And, despite what some said, he thought Weber could recruit.
Weber has validated that claim by searching high and low for players. He is constantly on the road, devoting so much time to recruiting that his wife sometimes travels with him.
That persistence has helped him sign overlooked talent. Foster, Iwundu, Thomas and Johnson were all unheralded recruits. Harris wasn’t listed in the Rivals.com database when he committed to K-State last fall. Nor did he have an offer from another major program. Now he has a three-star rating.
“It would be hard to argue that his evaluations of future student-athletes has been superb,” Currie said. “We are playing against mature teams and we have three true freshmen on the floor at the same time and we are winning. He has done a great job of coaching and being consistent. If you look at our football program and Bill Snyder, he is very consistent. That is one of the main reasons he is so successful. I think Coach Weber and his staff have been just as consistent.”
That shouldn’t be a surprise. In many ways, Weber models his team after Snyder’s. A year ago, Weber asked Snyder to speak with K-State basketball players midway through conference play. He told them to stay focused on the next game, that their goal should be to go 1-0 instead of 40-0. They went on to share a Big 12 title.
This year, Weber came up with a slogan of his own: next game, big game.
Who knows what he will try next? It seems he will get years to refine his methods.
Weber has found a home at K-State.
“I would love to retire here,” Weber said. “That means we keep winning and I last the duration of the journey. I don’t want to go somewhere and start another program. I don’t know if I have the energy. I guess the NBA could call. You never say never about some crazy thing, but I am in a good place and I am very fortunate. Hopefully we can keep building this program.”