March Madness 2019: Bruce Weber won over Kansas State, now his seniors hope to make him proud

What Kansas State players heard their first semester that fall of 2015 were more than whispers. The Wildcats were coming off a 15-17 season, Bruce Weber’s third at the school.

Never mind Weber two years earlier had delivered a share of the Big 12 title. For a couple of weeks in that 2012-13 season the Wildcats were even top 10 material.

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That’s what those incoming freshman in ’15 class knew. What they were hearing about their coach was something different.

“I remember my freshman year he wasn’t really [totally accepted],” guard Kamau Stokes said. “I had people in class talking about, ‘Oh, how do you like Coach Weber?'”

K-State fans never seemed to totally accept the impish coach with the raspy voice and Final Four pedigree. One former player chimed in upon his hiring …

It’s what Weber wasn’t, it seemed, the troubled them most. Upon Weber’s arrival, some fans protested. They wanted Doug Gottlieb, the son of a former K-State assistant, former Oklahoma State guard and now a basketball pundit. If not him, then Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich, who had played and coached at K-State. Native son and former Wildcat great Steve Henson was a hot name then as an assistant at Oklahoma. Top K-State assistant Brad Underwood was sitting right there in Manhattan.

“Everybody was down on Bruce except me,” Gottlieb said. “I was saying, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. Bruce is good.'”

That’s why, in a section of Kansas State’s locker room this tournament week, you’ll find those freshmen are now seniors. Stokes, guard Barry Brown and forward Dean Wade are the only trio of senior starters in the country who have combined for 4,000 points.

With them, Kansas State won a share of the Big 12, nabbing the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament for the first time since 1977. With them, Weber is now a hero to some of those same fans who never thought he measured up. At least he should be.

“I listened to it; it was disrespectful,” Brown said of the criticism. “It’s kind of annoying when [the fans] kind of flip the script right now and call him the best coach ever and stuff like that. They’ll jump on the bandwagon, of course.”

Kansas State’s success hasn’t quite risen to the level of sexy as the NCAA Tournament opens. The Wildcats are the lowest-scoring team in the Big Dance (65.8 points). They’re not a Cinderella as a No. 4 seed in the South Region. They are coming off an Elite Eight run last year. The Big 12 title was Weber’s second.  

Like their coach, the Wildcats endured. As they approach their tournament opener Friday against UC-Irvine, there is still uncertainty about Wade, their best rebounder, shooter and second-leading scorer. (A source told CBS Sports he has a broken foot.)

Without Wade, the Wildcats were knocked out in the Big 12 Tournament semifinals. Guard Cartier Diarra is coming off a broken finger so serious it required surgery. Stokes had a recent mysterious bout with migraines.

“It’s the worst thing ever. I wouldn’t wish that upon anybody,” Stokes said. “It’s only the left side of my head. When it hits, it hits hard. I don’t know what triggers it. I’m fine in games and in games it’s probably louder than anything. I hope it doesn’t hit me in a game.”

It’s not known whether the Wildcats have another deep NCAA run in them this year. It is known that former athletic director John Currie did the right thing seven years ago when he landed Weber.

Well, “landed” might not be the right verb. Weber was fired at Illinois March 9, 2012, after nine seasons. He was out of work for all of three weeks before K-State came calling. The then-55 year old son of an Austrian immigrant was leaving one job where he replaced Bill Self to one where he played him at least twice a year.

That was one of the first questions Currie asked Weber. Why?

“You spent all those years following Bill Self at Illinois, why would you want to compete against him right down the road?” Currie said.

Weber has spent these last seven seasons answering the question. While Kansas and Self have dominated Weber and Kansas State — winning 15 of 18 meetings — there is something to be said for the big picture.

Weber is not afraid to play in Self’s shadow. He was not afraid to follow Frank Martin who had gone to the tournament in four of his five seasons at K-State. Every conference in which he has led a team, Weber has won a coach of the year honor. At Kansas State, there have been four NCAA Tournaments in six seasons. His 150 wins are third all-time at the school behind Jack Hartman and Tex Winter.

Turns out, Weber is not afraid. At all.

“Coach Weber is a nice person and does all this stuff for United Way and leader in cancer [support] and treats everybody great, but he’s also some kind of competitor,” Currie said. “He wants to win the right way, but don’t confuse that with a lack of competitive fire. He’s busted his butt to prove he’s a great coach.”

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Kansas gets elite players. Kansas State is lucky to get on the radar of elite players. When Martin left for South Carolina in 2012, Currie had to hold the roster together. Weber was the perfect glue.

“Immediately after the press conference, he’s working out with guys to win them over,” Currie said. “He just knew what to do.”

Weber is a byproduct of patience — on the part of fans, players and himself. Kansas State is not for everyone. Playing there requires a certain work ethic and humility.

Even Pullen, the Twitter critic, has come around.

“I have the utmost respect for Bruce Weber, and I love everything he is doing with program,” he said prior to the season.

The current success is as much a salute to Currie as it is Weber.

Brown, the leading scorer, “could be a starter and a star in the Southeastern Conference or the Atlantic Coast Conference,” Currie said, “and yet he’s at K-State because of Bruce.”

Wade may have played his way into the NBA if his injuries ever subside. Wade also may have played his last college game. Weber said Tuesday it was doubtful his star would play in the NCAA Tournament because of the foot. Nevertheless, Wade will go down as the typical try-hard Kansas kid from the state’s hinterland (St. John, Kansas) who thrives in Manhattan.

Stokes scored 19 points against Oklahoma 10 days ago in the game that clinched a share of the Big 12 title. He immediately began to suffer that migraine.

“When we came in the locker room I said, ‘Where’s Kam?’ Weber recalled. “He was in the doctor’s office with the lights out, knocked out. They have given him medication. It didn’t work.”

Later that night, Stokes had to be taken to the hospital to relieve the pain. Weber felt so sorry that his senior missed the celebration he texted, “I’m so sorry you didn’t get to enjoy it.”

All that was lacking was a sympathy card and some confetti.

“Coach,” Stokes said, “to be part of a Big 12 champion, I’m as happy as I could be.”

“There’s nothing special about what they do,” Gottlieb said of K-State. “They get a couple of guys that are under the radar. That’s how you have to do it at Kansas State, get under-the-radar guys. Bruce has withstood some bullets and some bad teams. But he’s doing what a lot of coaches are doing, getting OKGs.”

That’s an acronym for Our Kind of Guys. That’s also a reference to valuing character and fit sometimes more than a jumper.

“You don’t have to be that extremely high-talented recruit to come to a high major program and do big things for yourself and the program,” Brown said.

There were 14 coaching changes in 2012 at high mid-major and major programs. Only three of those coaches are still around — Tim Miles at Nebraska (for now), Martin at South Carolina and Weber.

Guess who has been the most successful?

“Kansas State is a lot like Purdue,” said retired Boilermakers coach Gene Keady. “It’s a land-grant college, a lot of agricultural people love basketball so they back you. It’s very similar to Purdue. I think that’s why Bruce adjusted so well.”

Keady is now 82, a hall of famer admiring what he has wrought. In 1978, Keady got a tip on Weber while coaching at Western Kentucky.

There was one problem.

“Like a dumb ass, I want to USA Basketball in Colorado Springs and forgot about Bruce coming in,” Keady said. “Clem Haskins interviewed him. Clem said, ‘I think he’ll work.'”

That began an 18-year relationship with Weber being an assistant for Keady at Western Kentucky and Purdue. It would be so perfect if Weber’s career ends at Kansas State. Keady played baseball, football and ran track at K-State in the 1950s. That was him behind Tex Winter’s bench keeping stats for a sport he never played.

The relationship endured when Bramlage Coliseum opened in 1988. As a favor to his alma mater, Keady brought the Boilermakers in to play the first game in K-State’s arena.

That relationship endures today. Keady and Weber will talk this week like they always do – about the players, about the matchup. Mostly they’ll talk about K-State and left unspoken will be how Weber has adjusted so well.

In that locker room full of NCAA Tournament hopefuls this week, they are past the whispers they heard as freshmen.

“Just like us, Coach Weber has been doubted,” Stokes said. “One of the things he told us before was that we make him [proud]. That hit me hard.”

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