Loyola’s Porter Moser, Kansas State’s Bruce Weber have had time to get it right
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
ATLANTA — The cracks at Illinois’ expense practically write themselves.
Here’s former Illini coach Bruce Weber, getting ready to coach Kansas State in an Elite Eight game against Loyola on Saturday night. And there’s Illinois — which fired Weber in 2012 — seemingly frozen in time as a postseason non-player, a former college basketball power turned barely recognizable relic.
It’s why pundits are falling over one another to write that Illinois never should’ve given up on the plugger of a coach with the piercing, tortured voice and the insurance salesman’s appearance. I was tempted to pile in with a few shots at Illinois myself.
But then the number hit me: seven years. After coaching a team of Bill Self-recruited players to the national title game in 2005, Weber got seven more seasons to show what he could do. His recruits underwhelmed and his records steadily declined, yet there he remained in front of the Illini bench for a length of time that many a rabid fan base would’ve considered unacceptable.
“Fire Bruce Weber” sentiment coursed through Champaign then and it has run amok at times in Manhattan, Kansas, where Weber’s six-season run has convinced many Wildcats fans that there just plain has to be someone more dynamic out there.
“It doesn’t bother me,” he said Friday. “Obviously, I’m human. I really try to stay away from social media, from papers. I used to listen to talk radio, and then I became a head coach and had to go to country music just to have something to listen to and not hear people talk about me.”
Seven years. You know who else was given one heck of a long leash? Loyola’s Porter Moser. In his first season, the Ramblers were 7-23 overall and 1-17 in the Horizon League. Two years later, they debuted in the Missouri Valley Conference with a 10th-place dud. A 24-13 spike in Moser’s fourth season was followed by a 15-17 plummet.
This was not the Moser who lately has been becoming a bigger rock star by the day. This was the Moser who’d already been fired — after four seasons — from his previous head job at another MVC school, Illinois State. The Redbirds had won big under Bob Donewald and Kevin Stallings. It might sound crazy, but Moser — judging strictly by his win-loss records — was one of the worst coaches ISU ever had.
Yet Loyola allowed him to build a program his own way. That means instilling a culture — an “accumulation of a bunch of habits,” Moser calls it — that is passed down from seniors to freshmen. That means “not bending” on academics, on character, on accountability. In Year 7, it happens to mean debuting in unforgettable fashion on the national stage.
“We’ve just kind of been building and getting our arrow going up,” he said. “And I think — I hope — we’re an example of, you know, it takes time. I get it. I’ve been there. Fans, administrations, they want it to fast and it’s tough.”
If some bigger schools out there are going to wave a bunch of money at Porter — and they should — they’d better understand that patience is going to have to be part of the deal. If that makes Porter more of a mid-major kind of guy, so be it and good for the Ramblers.
Frankly, Weber — who in 2002 took Southern Illinois to the Sweet 16 — might be more of a mid-major kind of guy, too.
“I’ve just tried to do it the right way, the way I feel it should be done,” he said. “I don’t like what’s going on in our business, to be honest.”
Back in the lobby of the team hotel after Thursday’s Sweet 16 upset of Kentucky, Weber was surrounded by players, their families and other Wildcats administrators, staffers and fans. He looked exhausted but happy as he posed for photos with moms, dads, brothers, sisters. And when he bellowed to his players at 1:05 a.m. that it was time to get their butts upstairs, everyone laughed.
It was a moment six years in the making. Again, for Moser it has been one year longer than that.
“He’s a good guy in the business,” Weber said. “And I’m happy he got a second chance.”
Should Illinois be kicking itself? Should Illinois State? Nah, probably not.
But the ninth-seeded Wildcats and 11th-seeded Ramblers will face off for a spot in the Final Four, and when they do it’ll be the highest seed total — 20 — for a regional final since the tournament first was seeded in 1979. Matter of fact, it will be the first 9-vs.-11 game in any round in tournament history.
For Weber and Moser, a moment as fine as that will undoubtedly have been worth the wait.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.