Every year during the NCAA Tournament, a moment reveals to me why we all love this sporting event so much. It's usually on the court, of course. But sometimes it happens during the lull between rounds. It happened for me on Monday while I was on the phone with a coach who was in his car on a recruiting trip.
Bruce Weber, coach of the surprising Southern Illinois Salukis, was not kicking back and enjoying his ride from an 11th seed to the Sweet 16. He was in his car heading off to see a recruit because he knows that the national TV exposure his program got over the weekend is recruiting ammunition that must be fired quickly. And Weber is used to driving.
||I hear you on the radio all the time, Dan. This is not a huge program -- it's a mid-major. We don't fly, we drive. ”
||— Southern Illinois coach Bruce Weber on his recruiting-trip habits
"I hear you on the radio all the time, Dan," he said in a coaching-hoarse voice. "This is not a huge program -- it's a mid-major. We don't fly, we drive."
They don't waste momentum at mid-majors, either.
As much as he's worried about his next opponent (UConn), he has to worry about next year, too. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski takes phones calls from recruits who saw him on TV over the weekend. Bruce Weber calls recruits and asks if they saw Southern Illinois on TV over the weekend.
I could hear the excitement in Weber's voice, an excitement you wouldn't hear in the voices of Tubby Smith or Gary Williams or Roy Williams, all tourney-tested vets. Weber's mid-major team had just beaten Texas Tech coach Bob Knight and Georgia coach Jim Harrick -- that's four national titles right there (Knight's three at Indiana and Harrick at UCLA). If the Salukis beat UConn and Jim Calhoun on Friday, that will be three coaches with five national titles to fall to Weber's team. He had pride in his team and wonder in his voice. Weber was finding out what's so Sweet about winning those first two games in this tournament.
Weber wasn't completely in awe of his circumstances, though. He expressed some disappointment over Harrick all but dismissing Southern Illinois before the game. "If I had known he said that stuff, it would have been on our bulletin board," he said. "But I didn't find out until later."
Weber is thought to be the heir apparent to Gene Keady at Purdue. Weber was an assistant to Keady there and certainly knows all the people who will be involved in the coaching decision when Keady, a Hall of Famer, retires. The possibility of missing out on the Purdue job could be the one downside of Weber's current run of success. Weber has coached himself to prominence in this tournament. If he wins another game, he could very well get job offers come April or May.
But Keady is not stepping down any time soon. Purdue runs the risk of letting Weber slip away if he moves on in the next year or so. Maybe Keady will work something out, because he has expressed the notion that he wants Weber to take over for him. Weber doesn't have an out clause to let him go to Purdue or anywhere else.
These coaching transitions at basketball schools are not always easy, even when both sides want it to happen. Jud Heathcote wanted Tom Izzo to replace him at Michigan State and it happened. But North Carolina is struggling right now because of the difficulties they faced when Bill Guthridge retired. He hadn't been there long enough to develop an heir apparent. And everybody knows that Mike Davis was not exactly handed the keys to the gym by Knight at Indiana.
Success can complicate your life. You have to make the right decision when you're at the crossroads, as Bruce Weber is now. Ask former Iowa State and Chicago Bulls coach Tim Floyd.
But that's for another time. Right now, Bruce Weber is coaching and recruiting. He was excited as he made his way on a recruiting trip. It was almost like talking to a player, not a coach. It was refreshing to talk to him at this time in his life, with so much accomplished and so much more to do.
That, to me, is what March Madness is all about.