Traveling through St. Louis the other day, Bruce Weber encountered an Illinois fan who felt compelled to step out of his car and offer an apology to the former Illini coach.
"He says, 'Coach, I still feel bad about what happened,' '' the Kansas State coach recalled over the phone. "So, yeah, it was hard to leave (Illinois) and get away from it. That's part of coaching I hoped I would never be part of. You doubt yourself a little. So this season has been a good way to re-energize and make you more confident and feel good about what you do for a living.''
Nobody in the Big 12 feels sorry for Weber, named the conference coach of the year on Sunday. Pity Kansas State's opponents after the 25-6 Wildcats, despite losing Saturday, earned a share of the league title for the first time since 1977 thanks to an upset of No. 4 Kansas by Baylor.
A year after a messy divorce, as America's best basketball conference and its cadre of coaching giants convene in Chicago for the Big Ten tournament, Weber finds himself thriving and Illinois arrives with its arrow pointing up. From Champaign to Manhattan, Kan., they call that win-win, the rare nice guy finishing first. But just because Weber has made his coaching transition look easy doesn't necessarily mean it was.
"I didn't want to make a change, but there were circumstances that predicated it,'' said Weber, whose relationship with Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas deteriorated. "The distractions, the pressure from December on last year, when I started getting feedback, it took a toll. In hindsight, I should have blocked it out and just coached them. I didn't. I let it get to me. Then you're not doing what you need to do coaching-wise.''
Eventually, as Weber pondered life after Illinois, faith replaced doubt. Calls from interested athletic directors quickly rebuilt Weber's confidence. He was close to accepting the job at the College of Charleston when Kansas State AD John Currie called looking for a replacement for Frank Martin, who surprisingly bolted for South Carolina.
Currie knew Weber achieved instant success replacing popular coaches at Southern Illinois and Illinois under similarly tenuous circumstances and possessed the affable personality to adjust. The challenge reminded Weber of being a 24-year-old assistant on Gene Keady's Western Kentucky staff who accompanied Keady to Purdue in 1980 — the season after the Boilermakers went to the Final Four.
"Things happen for a reason and through all those experiences I've learned that you can't win fans or media over right away because they will have their doubts,'' Weber said. "So you've got to win the players over. That was the most important thing. I don't want to say I attacked them, but I got to know them individually.''
His first call went to Rodney McGruder, Kansas State's best player. Weber inherited four returning starters from Martin's team that won an NCAA tournament game and knew winning trust of the entire roster would take time. Nothing accelerated that process more than an August trip to Brazil, where the Wildcats bonded "hanging out at the beaches of Rio and visiting the Christ statue,'' Weber said.
Perhaps the most memorable sightseeing experience for Kansas State players came watching the fourth quarter of an exhibition loss to a Brazilian professional team. In a wild game that included five Wildcats fouling out, Weber erupted so badly sticking up for his players that he was ejected. He even threw a basketball in frustration.
But Weber thinks his team truly began to believe in him and his staff, which includes former Illini assistant Wayne McClain and player Chester Frazier, after beating No. 8 Florida on Dec. 22 in Kansas City. The Wildcats grasped Weber's new screen-heavy motion offense. They played defense the way he stressed and Martin always demanded. But, most significantly, they never questioned themselves and withstood a furious Florida rally.
Like their coach when he was down but not out, Kansas State players simply rediscovered the power of positive thinking.
"It's like after that they said, 'Hey, it's OK, this staff knows what they're doing, so let's move forward,' '' Weber said.
As well as Weber has moved on — he acknowledged being happy for Illinois, especially seniors who "I've known for seven years'' — the specter of Kansas coach Bill Self still looms. Currie even brought up Self's presence 90 miles away in Lawrence, Kan., during Weber's job interview and liked that Weber considered that part of the appeal. Kansas State lost both meetings this year, but the rivalry has spawned a respect Self-evident by the way the Kansas coach cast his Big 12 Coach of the Year ballot.
"I would vote for Bruce Weber,'' Self told the Kansas City Star.
No apologies necessary.