Bruce Weber knows that Kansas State fans may not accept him right away. That much became clear when a small rally for another coaching candidate turned into a protest of his hiring.
The former Illinois coach doesn’t have a problem with that, though.
Weber is up for any challenge that’s presented to him.
The former Illinois coach was hired by Kansas State on Saturday to replace Frank Martin, whose departure for South Carolina earlier in the week sent shockwaves through the program. The school moved quickly on the hiring, reaching out to Weber in the last few days and finalizing a deal late Friday.
Weber agreed to a five-year, $8.5 million contract that will pay him $1.5 million next season and an additional $100,000 each remaining year. There are also several benefits.
“It’s been a whirlwind, to be honest. Just a few hours ago I was in New Orleans thinking I was going to have gumbo,” said Weber, who was attending the Final Four before hopping on a plane with Kansas State athletic director John Currie and heading to Kansas on Saturday.
“We wanted a coach who recognized the tremendous opportunity that exists here at Kansas State,” Currie said. “Bruce Weber’s name repeatedly rose to the top of the list, whose personal values and integrity matched those of K-State.”
Weber was greeted at Bramlage Coliseum by a small group of fans who had been planning to support another candidate, and who were displeased with the hiring of a coach recently fired by Illinois.
Weber was let go after compiling 210-101 record over nine seasons, which included six trips to the NCAA tournament and a national runner-up finish in 2005. The Illini went 17-15 and 6-12 in the Big Ten this season, prompting the administration let Weber go with three years left on his contract.
“I’ll be honest: We had a young team, six freshmen, one returning starter,” Weber said. “The disappointment of a lot of close losses took a toll. It happens.”
Weber takes over for Martin, who returned a once-proud program to national prominence after Bob Huggins’ departure for West Virginia five years ago. Weber will be the fourth coach to lead Kansas State in the past eight seasons — and the third to cause some consternation among fans.
Huggins was hired still carrying baggage from his messy divorce with Cincinnati, while Martin was a nondescript assistant who had never been a college head coach.
Weber certainly has experience running a program. It’s just that not all of it has been good.
He was considered one of the rising stars of the profession after taking Southern Illinois to a pair of NCAA tournament appearances, one of which ended in the regional semifinals. He then took over a program at Illinois that had been built into a perennial contender under Bill Self — now the coach at Kansas, just down the Interstate from Manhattan, Kan., and the Wildcats’ biggest rival.
The Jayhawks were scheduled to play Ohio State in the Final Four on Saturday, just hours after officials at Kansas State were to announce Weber’s hiring.
Weber had immediate success at Illinois with players largely recruited by Self, returning to the NCAA tournament his first four seasons. That included a 37-2 record during the 2004-05 season, which ended with a 75-70 loss to North Carolina in the national championship game.
The program began to slip soon after, though, and fans who had grown accustomed to winning began to sour. The Illini had a losing record by Weber’s fifth season in charge, and despite winning 20 or more games the next three seasons, the program had faded from the national spotlight.
Weber never seemed entirely comfortable following Self at Illinois, and now he’ll be matching wits with the Jayhawks’ coach at least twice a year.
In fact, Weber had grown so tired of the comparisons to the uber-successful Self that he walked into the locker room before a game in 2003 dressed entirely in black. The quirky coach told the Illini that he was “going to throw a funeral. It’s the end of Bill Self.”
The idea was to somehow get across the message that the program had moved on.
That’s exactly what Kansas State fans are being forced to do.
Martin’s intense style and own quirks endeared him to many Kansas State fans. Of course, the winning helped — at least 20 wins each of the past five seasons, four of them ending in NCAA tournament berths, with a trip to the regional finals with Jacob Pullen in 2010.
The school’s career scoring leader, Pullen grew up in Chicago and now plays overseas. He offered his assessment of the hiring via Twitter, even misspelling Weber’s name: “Bruce Webber didn’t think I was good enough to play at Illinois and I don’t think he is good enough to coach at Kansas State.”
Others have praised the hiring of Weber, whose strong recruiting ties to Chicago will no doubt come in handy at a school that’s forced to recruit nationally. Weber is also energetic and personable, two traits that will help as he attempts to quell a fan base wary of more change.
“Give me a chance,” Weber said. “It doesn’t matter where you go or which coach you hired, there was always going to be a question mark. There’s no doubt about that. That’s part of college sports.”