Weber re-energized at Kansas State

Originally Published: May 4, 2012
By Jason King | ESPN.com

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Multiple times during the past month -- in the wee hours of the morning, when he couldn't sleep -- Bruce Weber grabbed his cellphone from the nightstand and began to text.

Often he'd send four or five messages. Other times it was 10 or 20. Eventually, Weber plans to respond to every text he received the week after he was fired from Illinois.

The problem?

There are more than 1,000 of them.

"I've got about 200 left to return," Weber said. "Coaches I didn't even know were contacting me. Former players, guys that are playing in Europe … so many people reached out and said, 'Thank you. You did things right. You affected me.'

[+] EnlargeBruce Weber
Bradley Leeb/US PresswireAs with most firings, Weber was showered with sympathy in the wake of his dismissal from Illinois.

"It made me feel so good. I was basically being eulogized every day."

Weber stops and chuckles.

"Somebody actually told me, 'You got to live through your own wake,'" he said.

Weber's time at Illinois may be finished, but his career is far from dead. Twenty-two days after his nine-year run with the Illini came to an end, Weber was hired to replace Frank Martin at Kansas State.

Few are the times when a coach lands a high-profile job in a big six conference less than a month after being fired from an almost-equal position in another big six league. Then again, schools such as K-State rarely have opportunities to hire a man who has appeared in an NCAA title game or a guy who was once named national coach of the year.

"Coach Weber," K-State athletic director John Currie said, "exemplifies everything we were looking for in our next head coach."

Frustrating as things were during his final season in Champaign -- the Illini went 6-12 in the Big Ten -- Weber told ESPN.com Wednesday that he feels reinvigorated with the Wildcats.

"There's no doubt that it's re-energized me," he said. "I don't want to say you get in a rut, but when you stay at a place, you get in a routine. Now we're out of the routine.

"New kids, new scene. It's got me excited. Not that I wasn't excited before, but it's a new kind of challenge."

While most new coaches inherit programs in need of major rebuilding jobs, Weber couldn't have walked into a better situation. The Wildcats lost just one key player, Jamar Samuels, from a team that won 22 games last season while finishing fifth in the Big 12.

If anything, Weber's biggest task during his first few weeks on the job was to re-recruit the players on his roster and persuade them to stay in Manhattan. Thus far, not one Wildcat has indicated his intention to leave.

That's a credit to Weber, who spent eight hours on the phone a few Saturdays ago contacting the parents of each member of his team. He also put his squad through the NCAA-allotted 12 workouts during his first four weeks, so the Cats were able to get a feel for their new coach.

"There were a few guys who were thinking of leaving," Weber said, "but we've tried to get to know everyone and develop a level of trust. I feel good about our situation -- but I'll feel a lot better about it in June, once they're all back for summer school."

Guard Rodney McGruder, who averaged a team-high 15.8 points last season, said he's confident the team will return intact.

"This is like a brotherhood," McGruder said. "We all chose to stick together, no matter what. This program wasn't turned over to the wrong person. [Weber] is about the right things. He's about winning. He's a great guy. He's straightforward with you. He's very honest. He cares. I learned that from day one."

[+] EnlargeBruce Weber
Bo Rader/Wichita Eagle/Getty ImagesWeber's coaching style is different than Frank Martin's was at K-State. Will it be as effective?

Weber certainly has a different coaching style than Martin, who didn't hold back when it came to yelling and screaming at his players in practices and during games. Martin's success was often overshadowed by his fiery antics and cold stares from the sideline.

Martin's method certainly produced results, though. Kansas State made the NCAA tournament in four of his five seasons. In 2009-10, the Wildcats finished second in the Big 12 and reached the Elite Eight.

"I like the way Frank coached," McGruder said. "That really didn't bother me. I believe Coach Weber is going to get on us a little bit. But you won't see all the things you may have seen from Frank, and there's nothing wrong with that. Every coach is different."

Although he's not against raising his voice, Weber said he tries to use "the other approach first" when coaching his players. He said he believes in "hugging a lot and talking a lot." If the Wildcats aren't mature enough to listen and respond, he won't hesitate to put them through extra conditioning drills.

"I'll be strong with them when I have to," he said.

Still, that's not to say that Weber doesn't respect what his predecessor accomplished during his tenure in Manhattan. Weber and Martin sat down for a lengthy conversation at a recruiting event last month, and Martin -- now the coach at South Carolina -- gave Weber the skinny on each and every player on the roster. Weber said he's also talked with former K-State assistant Brad Underwood, adding that he plans to call both coaches again "once things calm down" this month.

"They want their guys to be successful," Weber said. "They recruited them and built the program. They want to see it continue.

"I even told our guys, 'You can't forget who you are. You won [under Martin] because of rebounding, toughness and defense. Don't lose that.' Now if we can add a little more offensive [structure], maybe we can take another step."

This program wasn't turned over to the wrong person. [Weber] is about the right things. He's about winning. He's a great guy. He's straightforward with you. He's very honest. He cares. I learned that from day one.

-- KSU guard Rodney McGruder

With McGruder returning alongside guards Angel Rodriguez and Will Spradling, with 6-11 center Jordan Henriquez back in the fold, the Wildcats could finish anywhere from first to fifth in the Big 12 next season.

Weber knows that the graduation of McGruder, Henriquez and guard Martavious Irving next spring will leave some massive holes in his roster, so a strong 2013 signing class is a must.

A large amount of Weber's recruiting efforts at Illinois focused on in-state players. Now that he's at K-State, he said he'll have to branch out and develop relationships with coaches in states such as Texas. Along with former Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery, Weber has hired Alvin Brooks III, who has deep Texas ties. His father is an assistant at Houston and was once the Cougars' head coach.

Weber said he's looking forward to hitting the recruiting trail this summer. But first, he has a few matters to finish up in Champaign. Weber's daughter is getting married there this weekend. After that, he and his wife will pack up their belongings and move to Manhattan.

"We sold our house in one day," he said. "It was unbelievable. My wife has only spent three days in Manhattan since I got the job. I've just been so busy since I got here.

"It'll be 10:30 at night and the coaches will tease me. They'll say, 'Coach, we haven't eaten yet.' We've become quite familiar with Chili's and Old Chicago and Houlihan's, because they're open late. It's just been a whirlwind."

Within a day of his March 9 firing at Illinois, Weber began fielding calls about potential jobs. Southern Illinois offered him its vacant position -- he coached the Salukis before being hired by the Illini -- but Weber turned it down. SMU, Tulsa, Ohio and Miami (Ohio) called too. So did the College of Charleston. He and his wife, who often vacation in the area, flew to visit the campus, and Weber heavily considered taking the job.

But once the K-State position became available, the opportunity was simply too good to pass up.

"My wife said, 'Do you still have that fire inside to be at the highest level?'" Weber said. "She already knew the answer."

[+] EnlargeBruce Weber
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireWeber won only one NCAA tournament game in his final six seasons at Illinois.

Weber said he's hardly discouraged by his tenure at Illinois, where he led the Illini to a 37-2 record during his second season in 2004-05 and the Illini lost to North Carolina in the NCAA title game. Even though he was coaching players who were recruited by his predecessor, Bill Self, it was still a magnificent performance by Weber.

Things gradually began to decline after that. Illinois failed to advance past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament during Weber's next seven seasons, and three times it failed to even earn a berth.

Last season, Illinois won its first 10 nonconference games and defeated Ohio State and Michigan State in Big Ten play but lost 12 of its final 14 contests.

Weber said things began to snowball once his players received word that he would likely be fired.

"[Otherwise] we would've made the NCAA tournament," Weber said. "It was really hard on our kids. They really took it hard. They could sense what was going on. I mean, kids cried in my office, on the phone.

"We had been very competitive, but that caused us to lose some of that sense of togetherness, a sense of a future or whatever. That's what gets you over the hump in some of those games. We didn't have it."

A few weeks before his ouster, during an emotional postgame news conference, Weber expressed regret about some of the decisions he made during his final few seasons in Champaign. He echoed those sentiments this week when asked what he learned in the face of adversity.

"Remember who you are," Weber said. "Recruit the kids you think you can coach. We'd always had success. We'd always had toughness and togetherness. Don't you try to do something outside of your personality. If I would've changed something, that's what I would've done."

Weber now has the chance to get back to those principles at Kansas State.

"It's a new adventure in life," he said. "It's hard to leave anywhere, but it's part of life. Things happen for a reason.

"They're usually for the best."

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