Seeing Bruce Weber strolling the sidelines at Madison Square Garden last week didn't feel unusual. Weber spent nine seasons at Illinois, one of the nation's bigger name programs, so his appearance in a nationally televised NIT Tip-Off semifinal wasn't particularly remarkable on its own. Seeing him surrounded by players in the distinct white, grey and purple of Kansas State, though, was jarring. It was like spying a recently divorced man with his new girlfriend. The first sight takes some getting used to.
Weber was one of the more talked-about hires of this past spring's coaching carousel, with the general consensus being that Manhattan, Kan., was not the ideal place for a coach who didn't accomplish enough in Champaign once he ran through the roster he inherited from now-Kansas coach Bill Self. If one of the nice guys in the game couldn't get it done at a bellwether program with proximity to a major talent base, the thinking went, how was he going to build anything substantial with the Wildcats?
Weber, though, has inherited a pretty good roster, and he also fits into a burgeoning college hoops trend for quick rehires. There are a number of current coaches who excelled at their first job at a mid-major, went on to earn and then lose a major-conference gig, and then immediately resurfaced at a third job and have had significant success again. The Wildcats hope that Weber will be next on that list.
It's hard to imagine Gonzaga basketball without Mark Few at the helm, but it was under Dan Monson that the Bulldogs launched into the nation's conscience. Monson led the school to the Elite Eight in 1999 and immediately jumped to take over at scandal-ridden Minnesota which, ironically, Gonzaga had beaten in that year's NCAA first round. In his seven-plus seasons in Minneapolis, Monson went just 44-68 in Big Ten play and only made one NCAA tournament appearance. Since arriving at Long Beach State in 2007, he's built the 49ers into a 25-win program.
Monson was open about his experience at Minnesota and how it helped him thrive with his current program, the only one that was interested in him after he was fired mid-season late in 2006. Monson said that he missed on a couple of jobs at western private schools before Long Beach State reached out to him and sold him on the opportunity there, one that Monson knew was pivotal for his career.
"I feel very fortunate to get a second chance. I know there is no third chance along the way," Monson said. "I knew I'd had one successful stop and one unsuccessful one, and this one was going to define me in a lot of ways. You wake up very motivated coming out of a situation like Minnesota."
Monson admitted that the allure of a very significant pay raise from his pay at Gonzaga -- he said that he earned less than $100,000 during that Elite Eight season -- was a significant part of his decision to leave Spokane. His compensation from Minnesota has helped him to live well in pricey Southern California, which has aided his comfort level with what was initially a fairly foreign situation for him. Monson wasn't from the area and didn't have ties to traditional pipelines around L.A. The biggest thing Monson espoused as a factor in his refound success, though, was simply feeling desired again.
"You leave a state where the whole state tells you they don't want you, and mentally you needed someone who said, 'No, you are who we want,'" Monson said.
Recruiting is the major area where a lot of mid-major coaches end up feeling some culture shock when they arrive at major-conference jobs. Former coach Ralph Willard, who had excellent runs at Western Kentucky and Holy Cross wrapped around a disappointing tenure at Pittsburgh, noted that who you are dealing with around a recruit changes significantly in a lot of cases when you're at a high-major program.
"AAU involvement is much greater. It's much more involved. So not only do you have to deal with the parents and the kids, you have to recruit the AAU coach," said Willard, who also spent time as Rick Pitino's assistant at Louisville before becoming a consultant to Holy Cross, his alma mater." Sometimes, the high school coach is involved, but the better the kid, the less the high school coach is usually involved. They usually end up playing a lot more games for the AAU coach."
That sell can be doubly difficult when you have landed at a traditional high-major minnow. Gary Waters had an up-and-down, five-season run at Rutgers after initial success building Kent State into an NCAA tournament team. He never made the NCAAs with the Scarlet Knights, although he had three seasons of at least 18 wins and made an NIT final. He's subsequently led Cleveland State to four postseason appearances, including the NCAA tournament's round of 32 in 2009.
Waters' Rutgers exit may or may not have been greased by an incident where a snowstorm prevented him from making it back to campus for a game after attending an induction ceremony at Kent State, but it certainly was aided by his troubles in the recruiting world. Waters, a Michigan native who spent more than two decades in that state as an assistant coach, said he found the recruiting situation in the East to be difficult and he often ended up losing battles for prime recruits to more prestigious programs in the Big East. The reputation deficit that comes along with the kind of jobs a lot of mid-major coaches inherit also manifested itself on the court.
"In many leagues you go into [after success at a mid-major], you're at the bottom for a purpose," Waters said. "... You have the toughest schedule, it's going to be tough to win many of those games on the road. Until you establish and jump out of there, it's just not going to happen. Then everyone looks at you in the position you're in -- officials, everyone -- that you're the bottom dweller. And when you go to play in other people's place, you're not going to get that extra call because of the position you're in, so you really have to fight when you get one of those types of jobs."
Luckily for Kansas State and Weber, he isn't inheriting that kind of job, but the situation in Manhattan still comes with some challenges. Weber's recruiting was scrutinized at Illinois, and now he will have to delve more deeply into the juco market and convince quality players of all types to come to the Little Apple.
Reached late Tuesday night on his way back from a recruiting trip, Weber said the advice he received was not to take on a rebuilding situation at this point in his career, and Weber and his staff worked hard to convince the current Wildcats to stay for this season. He also acknowledged the differences in the size and location of the recruiting base he's now working with, but that the possibilities to get into different markets and the depth of in-state programs providing two-year talent will help.
The Wildcats also have to deal with a little brother complex with Kansas, one of the nation's uber-elite programs, but Weber said that his experience at Purdue as an assistant coach -- where they were annually competing with Bob Knight's Indiana -- gives him reason to believe K-State can thrive in a similar spot. The school's administrators also made him feel wanted. Weber said he has a good relationship with athletic director John Currie and the school's president, who share his vision for what Kansas State basketball should -- and can -- be.
"It's a good job. They've had pretty good success. The tradition is pretty good. When you go back, the coaching tree is pretty amazing," Weber said of his newfound home. "... They've had success, and if you've had success in the past, you have a chance to continue to be good."