Bruce Weber is a passionate and determined coach, and he fought off criticism from fans and media calling for his job to bring Kansas State back to the NCAA Tournament.
January, 2003. A young college student writing a story about mid-major programs on the rise awaits Bruce Weber’s call at 11:15 p.m. Eastern Time for a quick interview.
Weber, then Southern Illinois’ head coach, had no qualms about the hour when previously discussing a time frame. He’d be coming back from a recruiting trip, he said, and was more concerned about keeping the aspiring sports writer awake too late.
The phone rings once. “Hi, Coach. How are you?”
“Well, I’m in the middle of nowhere on some two-lane road, it’s pitch dark and I almost hit a deer about two minutes ago,” Weber said through his cellphone, occasionally injecting laughter.
I admired his ability to turn an annoying situation into something light-hearted and conversational while still making sure that I realized he was, in fact, annoyed. It’s something I’d learn about him even more over the years, albeit from afar.
Weber didn’t mince words during his final season at Illinois, a program he took to its only national championship game appearance. He was fired shortly after a disappointing 17-15 campaign in 2011-12 that included Weber being brutally honest following a disheartening loss to Purdue.
He’s not hiding from the criticism he’s received at Kansas State this year, either. Weber uses that raspy voice to motivate his players, motivate himself and let every one of the detractors know that they’re not being ignored, but that they’ll be eating their words later. And he does it in a manner that is charmingly authoritative.
The Wildcats were 12-1 to start the season, then 17-12. Weber heard the outsiders calling for his job with there being a possibility that Kansas State would miss the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season.
Weber didn’t give up and say all the right things so as to not ruffle feathers. He told everyone his players would be up for the challenge. And they were, winning three straight games down the stretch – including a victory over Baylor in the Big 12 tournament – and getting the at-large bid many believe they needed to save Weber’s job.
Now Kansas State is preparing to face Wake Forest on Tuesday night in Dayton in a First Four matchup. But it’s not as if Weber is just breathing a sigh of relief and thinking his employment status is safe. And he’s certainly not letting his players feel content.
“I want them to be prepared,” Weber said. “I want them to come play with reckless abandon and I don’t want them to have any regrets at 11:15 (Tuesday) night. Leave it all on the court.”
Our conversation 14 years ago shot through my mind when I heard Weber say that. The season before, the Salukis made a run to the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed, defeating Bobby Knight’s Texas Tech team and No. 3 seed Georgia – coached by former national championship-winning coach Jim Harrick – before falling to UConn.
It was high times for the small public school in Carbondale, Ill., and Weber received plenty of praise. Yet there he was, in the middle of the night, complaining about almost running over deer while discussing the challenges of recruiting at a mid-major, no matter the success.
“Look, I’m driving basically blind in the middle of nowhere after watching a JUCO kid that I’m probably not going to get,” Weber said, laughing again. “There’s always going to be challenges for schools like us, coaches like me.”
He took Southern Illinois back to the Tournament the next season. Two years later he was coaching the Fighting Illini in the national championship game. Later, he took Kansas State to the Big Dance in his first two seasons after being let go at Illinois.
He’s always landed on his feet. So have the majority of his teams. And in the years since our conversation, there’s one thing I’ve learned:
Never count out Bruce Weber.
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