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Criticism or Caution? Coach Weber’s Parting Lament

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Instead of being insulted by Bruce’s social media complaint, should K-State fans engage in some introspection?

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament-West Virginia vs Kansas State
Coach Weber’s perceived parting shot might really have been a cautionary warning.
William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

I’m sticking my neck out posting this. Publishing sports opinion these days is fraught. Worse, this is an opinion about opinions and how they affect our common rooting interest in Kansas State athletics. But I think, maybe, in their knee-jerk defensive reaction to Coach Weber’s parting commentary concerning players’ access to social media, some K-State fans may be ignoring some uncomfortable truths.

Though certain quarters will undoubtedly engage in the same reflexive reductionism and brand this an “apologist” piece for former head basketball coach Bruce Weber, it is not that. Coaches who preside over three consecutive losing seasons in big-time college sports with big-time college contracts should not expect another year to figure things out. Termination is the natural consequence of poor performance.

No, this commentary is not intended to defend Coach Weber. It is an attempt to put a little context on his tenure and to urge that we fans not start down the same unproductive, self-defeating path we trod during his tenure. Because Bruce’s underlying message is correct: The negative commentary of a vocal online minority is hurting and will continue to hurt K-State.

Defining the Problem (and Naming it)

There is an ugly part of human nature that seeks self-validation in other people’s failures. This is a few degrees removed from schadenfreude, and it’s even more selfish. More than merely deriving pleasure from the misfortune of others, this ugly corner of the human psyche needs another person’s failure to validate the person’s own viewpoint. Put simply, that other person must fail, so that I will not be wrong. Maybe there is no word for this. (If there is, like schadenfreude, it’s probably a German word.) For the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to coin one. Highlighting, overstating, even celebrating the failures of the K-State basketball teams against your own professed rooting interests will be called “Weberizing.”

“Weberizing,” in this context, is downplaying every success and pouncing on every failure of K-State basketball, just to be able to say, “See! I was right!”

Flashback to Spring 2012 and recall the visceral reaction to news leaking that former K-State athletic director John Currie had hired Bruce Weber to succeed Frank Martin as head basketball coach. Comments on social media—and on this very site—were withering. Calling the reaction of some outright hateful would not be stretching the truth. K-State fans have long patted their own backs for welcoming visiting fans to their tailgates, for personifying the affable purple travelers that descend on bowl destinations, for being that admirable little Land Grant that Could. But a very vocal contingent of fans spewed irrational bile on that day. Some of them never gave it up, except for brief interludes where on-court accomplishments forced them to swallow it temporarily.

Weberizing means never giving Bruce credit for anything, to the point of resenting success. It first manifested in the insistence that the roster of players left behind by Frank Martin (shorthand: “Frank’s guys,” though they were apparently threatening a mass exodus if he had stayed at K-State) deserved all or most of the credit for winning the 2012-2013 Big 12 Title. This was an absurdity. Pretending that just anyone could have rolled the ball out on the floor and watched those players win 27 games on their own diminishes not only the role Coach Weber played in leading that team, but the importance of coaching in general. Why not just assemble a talented squad and let them figure it out? Why hire a coach at all? And why, in God’s name, pay any coach millions if the players can do it without him?

That first Weber team went 14-4 in league play to claim K-State’s first share of a conference title since Jack Hartman’s squad won the Big 8 in 1977. It seemed that acceptance would come quickly for Bruce. Some K-State fans, though, did not enjoy the title run. Seethed at having to eat crow, in fact, because the team’s success—partly Coach Weber’s success, though they would not admit it—made them wrong.

Then, as a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament, Rodney McGruder, Shane Southwell, Will Spradling and the guys lost a heartbreaking two-point game to 13th-seeded LaSalle in Kansas City. I was at Sprint (now, T-Mobile) Center that day. People angrily called for Coach Weber to be fired on the spot. “Make him walk back to Manhattan. Or, better yet, Champaign!” they yelled. Everyone heard them. It was impossible not to. See! they were telling us. I was right, all along! Validation for the naysayers.

Weberizing.

The scenario played out in different form in 2018, when a 25-12 squad that had finished 4th in Big 12 play and was seeded 9th in the NCAA tournament’s South region earned its way to the Elite 8 by beating Kentucky for the first time in program history. “Kentucky was only a 5-seed,” some grumped. When the Cats lost a chance to advance to the Final Four against that year’s Cinderella, Loyola-Chicago, with its Sister Jean mojo, the torches were out for Coach Weber again. Never mind that Dean Wade was unavailable due to a foot injury. Never mind that Loyola had also vanquished No. 22 Miami, No. 13 Tennessee and No. 24 Nevada just to earn the right to play unranked K-State. “Weber. Pssh! Dude’s a loser, man. Told you.”

We-ber-iz-ing.

The following season, the Wildcats won a second shared Big 12 title under Weber—this time snapping the prolonged reign of terror imposed on the rest of the league by the Jayhawks. The recruiting class of Barry Brown, Dean Wade and Kamau Stokes that Coach Weber had nurtured for four years and supplemented with Xavier Sneed and Cartier Diarra broke through the “he can only win with other coaches’ players” gripe. They were awarded a 4-seed in the NCAA tournament and drew a first round matchup with a mature, 30-win California-Irvine team in San Jose. Dean Wade’s postseason-cursed foot crippled him again, and with their star and future NBA player out, the Wildcats fell 70-64. The head coach went from hero to goat in a matter of days. Metaphorical Pitchforks. Social media torches. Online diatribes. It was routine, by now.

Weberizing!

Weber’s Message in Context

We live in a world that abhors nuance. The impulse to summarize and assume accurate oversimplicity dominates. This week, certain K-State commentators have complained that Coach Weber was “allowed” to speak at the announcement of his resignation. Leaving aside the availability of countless microphones and print media sources that could have collected his thoughts and published them elsewhere, the complaints that his comments “hurt K-State” are just the latest recasting of an entire message and its full context in an attempt to avoid an uncomfortable truth. One of my colleagues, a K-Stater who does not obsess over sports the way we do here, said he had heard that Bruce “criticized the fans.” In part, that’s true, though I suspect the message was actually more directed at a few specific outlets, platforms, and their subscribers. And it certainly was not intended to criticize all K-State fans, as some would too conveniently have you believe.

Let’s look at the actual words, because they matter. And there aren’t so many that they demand paraphrasing. Weber prefaced his comment about steering players away from K-State-targeted social media by saying this:

It’s been an unbelievable pleasure to be the coach at Kansas State...I truly love K-State. I’m really proud of what we’ve done and accomplished here. And I still want K-State to be successful.

After that framing context, he went on to say:

It’s really, really sad to me. This is the only school that I’ve been associated with, that I am afraid to give our recruits and have them connected with our social media, because [of] what they will hear and see. I know other coaches in our department feel the same way.

For better or worse, Coach Weber has always said what is on his mind, sometimes unartfully. But did his comments “hurt K-State?” Anyone who has followed social media commentary surrounding K-State basketball during his 10-year tenure knows that it has at times been a cesspool of negativity. Criticism is part of college sports, sure. But comments about Bruce and the players have occasionally veered toward the entirely too personal, too vitriolic, too insistent that the failure of the moment was foreseeable the moment John Currie committed the ultimate, preliminary failure by hiring the head coach Illinois had expelled ten years ago.

Bruce’s comments certainly may have served a selfish purpose of airing some of his own bitterness at being forced out and sensitivity to the barbs hurled at him. But if we take him at his word that he wants K-State to succeed—and, really, is there any reason not to?—we should view them as cautionary advice. And we should evaluate the truth of the criticism. Did his comments hurt K-State? Or does the truth of the criticism itself threaten the future we want for K-State’s athletic programs?

The Uncertain Future

Here is the list of the Power-5 schools currently searching for a new head basketball coach, along with the name of the departing coach:

  • Florida (Mike White)
  • Kansas State (Weber)
  • Louisiana State (Will Wade)
  • Louisville (Chris Mack)
  • Maryland (Mark Turgeon)
  • Missouri (Cuonzo Martin)
  • South Carolina (Frank Martin)

We can argue about the respective merits of K-State versus this competition, and we should acknowledge that the list of vacancies is sure to grow. But if we assume that all else is relatively equal, and that the top candidate will have his pick of all the contenders, do you believe that candidate will ignore the negative climate that has dogged the Bruce Weber era—sometimes on the very heels of his biggest successes? The problem is not that Bruce highlighted it. The problem is that it is real.

Choose to be insulted, if you must. But I think Bruce is right: Persistent negativity hurts K-State’s chances to hire the best possible coach. Maybe in only a small way. But don’t be so sure. We all know people who have left lucrative jobs for less financially rewarding opportunities because of stress caused by unduly harsh criticism, insurmountable pressure, or just plain old unkindness. Why would anyone volunteer for those things when other opportunities are available?

The point of this particular sermon is not merely to chide. I seriously hope we can avoid the low road we took 10 years ago, the one that some never made any effort to exit. But I fear K-State may repeat that mistake.

In the present coaching search, fan preferences have fallen on one candidate, in particular, though another familiar name has recently joined the discussion. Some want Frank Martin to return, hoping he can reprise the magic of the early part of his first K-State tenure, though he seemed to run out of spells in South Carolina after one truly mystical season took the Gamecocks to their first-ever Final Four appearance in 2017. Frank was dismissed on Monday. It would be an interesting twist if some of the same folks that railed about John Currie hiring the castoff coach from Illinois would now want South Carolina’s discarded coach. I suspect such people exist. Hypocrisy is as lost a concept as nuance.

The other favorite, of course, is McPherson native, K-State graduate, and former assistant coach Brad Underwood. “Home” was enough to pull Bob Huggins away from K-State, the reasoning goes, and it will be enough to attract Underwood to K-State. There are a few million problems with that assumption, unfortunately.

Underwood signed a contract extension at Illinois less than eight months ago that made him one of the 10 highest-paid college basketball coaches in the country, at $4.1 million the first two seasons, with escalators each year after until it expires in 2027.

“We’ll gladly match it,” you say? Well, hold on. There is also the matter of a large buyout, variously reported as either $7 million or $8 million.

“Pay it,” you say. “Pay whatever it takes.”

You can’t pay it if you don’t have it, right? K-State Athletics, despite its notorious frugality and careful money management, does not have that kind of excess cash lying around. It will need a willing benefactor to have any chance of making this happen. So, who is the beneficent Wildcat alum?

Maybe the world is full of people who are as indifferent to letting go of seven or eight million dollars as George “Baby Face” Nelson was to his folding money blowing out the back window of his sedan in O Brother, Where art Thou. I don’t know any of those people. I don’t know whether any such people are K-State fans. And if any such K-State fans exist, I don’t know if they would toss that many of their dollars through Illini Athletics’ window to buy out Brad Underwood’s contract so he can be the next basketball coach at Kansas State University. But I rather doubt the confluence of all those improbabilities will occur.

I’m not rooting to be right, mind you. Nor would being wrong upset me in the slightest. I would love to have Underwood as the next head coach of K-State hoops. I just think it’s unlikely. And I think it would be irrational and self-defeating to be so mad about not overcoming overwhelming odds to get Brad that I’d take it out on the new head coach, whoever he turns out to be.

Surmount all of those imposing obstacles, and Gene Taylor would still have to convince Coach Underwood to leave his current, highly successful post to come to Manhattan. He might. But then, he might not. Thinking of this as a foregone conclusion insults the complexity of the decision and the honor of the man. Remember how jilted (for some, “outraged” would be a more accurate word) we all felt when Bob Huggins left Manhattan? He was going home, too. But he had not agreed to an enormous buyout that would prevent it. Brad did agree to one, apparently.

And again, there’s that nagging hypocrisy thing. Not okay for West Virginia to steal our coach after only one semi-transformative year, but just fine for K-State to steal one from Illinois after he has its program humming? Explain the ethics of that, if you would.

If I were betting my limited folding money, I would wager against the next K-State head coach being Brad Underwood. I would give excellent odds against it being Frank Martin. And I’d feel quite secure plunking down greenbacks on the proposition that whoever is named the next head coach in their stead will face a sizable contingent fans who are furious at Athletics Director Gene Taylor for failing in the impossible quest to get the right man, that some will remain furious regardless of the next coach’s results, and that a few will repeat the same self-defeating pattern of sarcasm, criticism and bitterness that tainted the last ten years of their K-State basketball fandom.

If I put my money down, I’ll be rooting for those fans’ failure, perhaps against my own interests as a K-State fan.

That’s right. I’ll be Weberizing.