Reactionary posting. Disappointment. Back tracking. Moving on.
I suppose all of those would be fair ways to characterize where I’ve been and where I’m going with this post. A few days ago I compared Bruce Weber to Asbury and Wooldridge. While I still have some of the same concerns, I don’t think I was being completely fair to Weber, and much of what I was saying was venting and frustration mixed with an attempt at analysis. Granted, I still have and will continue to do plenty of analysis, my excel file has grown to 7 or 8 sheets on Weber’s tenure. But what I really needed was perspective, so I sat down and tried to take a real look at the history or K-State basketball over the last quarter of a century, which is the K-State basketball I know. I remember a snow storm cancelling a trip to watch K-State and KU match up in Ahearn in the mid-80s and I cried when I found out we weren’t going. Sadly another opportunity never arose and I never saw a game in the old building nor did I watch Jack Hartman coach a game. The following is my attempt to piece together a narrative of K-State basketball as I’ve seen it unfold. Granted, there are plenty of my presuppositions mixed in, but for the most part I tried to be real with what K-State basketball has been for 26 years, how expectations have come and gone, and whether or not K-State fans are “accepting mediocrity” or looking for something else.
There has been a lot of talk lately about “accepting mediocrity” with the recent hire of Bruce Weber expected to send K-State basketball back to the days of Asbury and Wooldridge, some of it coming from myself. I’ve outlined my concerns with the Weber hire (and there are plenty), but I also believe we’re dealing with revisionist history if we equate this hire to the late 90s and early 00s of K-State basketball. This was really the only era where K-State basketball and the administration of K-State “accepted mediocrity”, IMO the rest of the time K-State has probably “accepted competiveness”, but I think that is much different than “accepting mediocrity”. In reality, only once in the last 25 years has K-State went beyond simply “accepting competitiveness”. The Weber hire wasn’t a great one and certainly wasn’t a splash, but it is much more about seeking to simply be competitive than it is about sending K-State basketball back to the days of Jim Wooldridge.
To get a good grasp of the dark days of K-State basketball we have to really look at each hire that occurred after Hartman retired. Hartman was the last great long time coach for K-State basketball and the last coach to bring K-State league championships. His retirement and the hires that occurred afterward ushered in the new era of K-State basketball, an era which has seen K-State rotate coaches (or coaching staffs) in 4-6 year increments.
Its easy to look back on Lon Kruger now, both seeing his overall career and his short run at K-State, and think this was a homerun hire. While it turned out that way, at the time hiring Kruger was essentially hiring a slightly better version of Tim Jankovich. Kruger had a great career at K-State, then worked for several years as an assistant at Kansas State before a mediocre start as a head coach at Texas-Pan American. In 4 years there Kruger went 52-59 there and was then hired to replace Hartman after he retired. Kruger was the type of hire that many K-State fans now dread, hiring a K-State connection, and really was no more of a guarantee than any hire that came after him until Huggins. Kruger essentially set the standard for the modern K-State basketball fan; upper half league finishes, NCAA tournaments, and one excellent season where K-State was in the discussion for the league title and made an Elite 8 run. Kruger also ushered in the era of K-State basketball of relying much more on the JUCO jackpot than high school players. For the next dozen or so years K-State basketball would live and die with JUCO players, the best seasons coming when coaches managed to bring in a couple JUCOs that were good enough, but never really building a program with a solid foundation of high school talent. Many expected Kruger to be the next Harman, but due to several different circumstances he took off for a mediocre SEC program.
Altman was the early late 80s/early 90s version of a really good recruiter. He brought Mitch Richmond to K-State, but the belief was that his connections in JUCO basketball would continue to bring in the top JUCO players, and before the prep school era there was a lot of talent there. This hire featured K-State’s first hiring mistake (in complete hindsight) as Eddie Sutton had recently been fired at Kentucky and wanted the job. K-State went with the safer hire and the rest is history. Altman had 2 JUCO head coaching jobs before his package deal hire as an assistant, spent one year as head coach at Marshall, then was hired when Kruger left for Florida. While Altman brought in solid JUCO talent he wasn’t able to bring that talent together well enough over his 4 year stint to keep K-State basketball up to the expectations that Kruger had set, though he did have one pretty good season keyed by a great JUCO point guard. Altman’s league record was terrible and his pair of NITs and one NCAA appearance weren’t enough. While he wasn’t technically fired, the writing was on the wall and he took the Creighton job before he could be let go. Altman had made some changes in focus during his 4 years though, and had a solid high school class coming when he left. Mark Young didn’t live up to his hype, but he was likely K-State’s best high school recruit since Rolando Blackman and would arguably be the best until Huggins landed Beasley and Walker. At that point K-State was far from “accepting mediocrity”, but in 4 to 5 years that mentality would arrive.
Asbury was K-State’s version of hiring the mid-major up and comer. He had a very good run at Pepperdine with 3 NCAAs and 2 NITs in 6 years while winning 68% of his games. At the time it was viewed by K-Staters as a very good hire, maybe slightly below homerun status. This hire featured another hindsight hiring mistake, as reportedly K-State was on the verge of hiring Tubby Smith who had just taken Tulsa to the NCAA tournament, but he chose to stay at Tulsa and K-State turned to Asbury. Once again Asbury used a couple really good JUCO players to get K-State to another NCAA tournament in his 2nd year, but that run was surrounded by 2 losing seasons. The K-State administration (and fans) remained patient as it appeared Asbury was building the program with a different focus, solid high school talent (including good local players) mixed with a few good transfers. IMO this is when “accepting mediocrity” for K-State basketball really began as Asbury put together two winning seasons, but both featured mediocre 7-9 league records led by an inability to win league road games. Following consecutive NIT first round exits, most of the talent base that Asbury built was gone and Asbury brought K-State one of the worst seasons K-State had seen since the 40s. Asbury was never disliked by most for not attempting to build a competitive program, his first 4 or so seasons he tried to do that, but he really initiated the “you can’t recruit to Manhattan” mentality and by his last couple of seasons he essentially quit trying. This mentality along with the rise of K-State football through the mid to late 90s contributed to a culture of “accepting mediocrity” that surrounded the K-State basketball program and the next hire only served to hammer that mentality home.
Jim Wooldridge’s hire was a head scratcher to most K-State fans at the time. Wooldridge had a successful division 2 run as a head coach at Central Missouri State and took what is now Texas State to the NCAA tournament after 3 years, but then he had an extremely mediocre run at Louisiana Tech before spending a couple years as an assistant with the Chicago Bulls. Those two years with the Bulls essentially earned Wooldridge the job as it was largely Tex Winter’s recommendation that convinced K-State to give him a chance. Wooldridge tried Asbury’s formula for building K-State basketball, starting by recruiting largely JUCO players and then going to the high school route. In spite of recruiting well in both areas on paper, Wooldridge could not put together any success on the floor and had only one winning season in 6 years at Kansas State with no postseason appearances. The apathy in most of the K-State fan base, again with K-State’s continued success in football contributing, led to extreme patience and half full arenas throughout his tenure. This was the height of “accepting mediocrity” for K-State basketball, both from the administration and from the fans.
This is the beginning of what led K-State basketball back to being competitive and the return of raised expectations. It was only at this point that K-State decided to end the “accepting of mediocrity” that had led to the previous 7-8 years of terrible basketball and in fact for the first time went beyond “accepting competitiveness”. Yes, there was bad basketball in the years following Kruger leading up to that point, but I don’t think it was because K-State accepted mediocrity as much as it was K-State making hiring mistakes. Neither of those hiring mistakes (Altman, Asbury) were terrible at the time, they just didn’t work out, though Asbury was kept too long. Then the terrible hire (Wooldridge) was made, and that has burned K-State fans badly.
Weiser changed the culture by hiring Bob Huggins. Huggins changed the culture by truly raising expectations… “why settle for second when first is available.” Huggins took the talent he inherited and made it competitive getting K-State to the verge of the NCAA tournament. While Huggins’ stay was very short, he impacted K-State basketball (and the fan base) in great ways. Though he didn’t take K-State beyond being competitive (or even back to the NCAA tournament), he at least brought K-State basketball back to that point for the first time in over a decade. But most importantly Huggins brought talent, what it really takes to win big in college basketball, and the desire to keep that talent while he departed brought Frank Martin.
The Martin hire was really the only choice, but it was a huge risk. And it was a risk intended to simply keep K-State basketball competitive by keeping Beasley and Walker. Most people thought that if he could keep the talent around with any skills as a coach he would at least bring K-State back to the NCAA tournament. There were very few that legitimately believed K-State would make a run to win the league, but that wasn’t the expectation. Frank lived up to that original expectation and then took it even further. Despite losing Beasley and Walker after only one season, he built off his early success and brought K-State basketball back to Kruger levels of success; upper half league finishes, NCAA tournaments, and one excellent season where K-State was in the discussion for the league title and made an Elite 8 run. While K-State fans hoped for a championship of some sort, this became the actual level of expectation for most fans. What Frank really added, despite not being a consistent title contender, was that he made K-State basketball a national program because he became a star. Frank’s program wasn’t without its frustrations; player defections, average recruiting, and mind boggling stretches of poor basketball seemed to happen each season. But Frank always found a way to turn it around, get K-State to the tournament, and win a game. Despite points in the season where many fans were on the verge of turning, in the end this was what K-State fans wanted and Frank was loved. K-State fans showed this love for competitive basketball by investing heavily in the program, leading to the construction of a multi-million dollar practice facility.
Martin’s departure for a lesser program brought great frustration to K-State fans. The Jamar situation only contributed to negative feelings toward the administration. It seemed that the K-State administration cared little for winning basketball and then they only made things worse. I don’t think K-State fans expected to get another Frank, but most enjoyed being a national program with a national face, and the candidates that many fans chose to champion reflected that. Whether it was a current head coach like Mack or Pastner, a major assistant like Antigua or Wojo, or a Huggins-like choice like Pearl, K-State fans at least wanted someone with personality; a creative hire that could help keep K-State national. Currie didn’t provide that.
Currie’s hire was a safe one. He wanted a coach with experience, preferably at the major college level, and he got one. The problem was that coach had just been fired. That coach was not only not like Frank, he was nearly the exact opposite, and definitely not the type of coach that becomes a national star. Weber was a longtime major conference assistant, had mid major success, and took a program in great shape to new heights by playing for a national title. The problem is after that the program stagnated, mainly because he didn’t recruit to the level of his predecessor initially. He wasn’t terrible after his initial success, he still brought postseason appearances, but he never got the program back to the national stage. More importantly, after he finally seemed to get the recruiting problems corrected, he took a team with plenty of Top 100 level talent and lost them. After a great start, his season and ultimately his career at Illinois fell apart.
In spite of all that, I think it’s a stretch to compare this hire to Jim Wooldridge and “accepting mediocrity”. Weber certainly isn’t reaching to the standard that Huggins brought, but I also don’t think he’s hire that’s comparable to any of the post-Hartman hires. It’s a different type of hire and the biggest question is whether Weber can learn from the mistakes he made at Illinois and avoid the bad seasons that he mixed with competitive ones. IMHO it’s still a hire that “accepts competiveness”, but definitely doesn’t bring the standard Huggins brought. Even though reality shows this is really what K-State fans expect, and even though Frank never had K-State as a consistent league title contender , Weber’s uninspiring qualities and recent past cause significant concern among many fans. For many those concerns have boiled over and that angst is what we’ve seen here at goemaw.com for the past week.
None of this is to say you have to “accept competitiveness” as your standard. But I think before getting too worked up about the current state of K-State basketball you have to try to really look back at the last 26 years of K-State basketball and assess how often K-State has truly “accepted mediocrity”. If you truly feel that “burning it down”, “don’t pay, don’t go”, and hoping for Weber to fail is the best option, go for it. I think it’s misguided and reactionary and highly unlikely to achieve what people want (getting rid of Currie), but no one is saying you can’t try that route. I really don’t think this movement will be more than a blip on Schulz and Currie’s radar in the short term. However, I realize venues like this are for those types of discussion. I don’t think Currie and Weber will be the end of K-State basketball. K-State basketball, even in down times and when fans stayed away from the OOD, has always been bigger than individuals. It has also been bigger than the good times and personalities like Huggins and Frank. K-State basketball goes on and I will continue to be a fan. There are legitimate concerns about the criteria that Currie used in this search and the spin he’s put on several things, but at the end of the day I don’t think he’s out to destroy K-State basketball as we know it. People will say that “I’m part of the problem” or even call me a tuck, but I honestly can’t imagine doing anything different than continuing to be a K-State fan, even if I have concerns with administration or the coach.
So in the end, I will give Bruce Weber a chance.