Give John Currie credit for this much. He pulled a fast one when much of the college basketball world was looking elsewhere.
On the weekend of the Final Four, shortly after successfully pushing his program’s remarkably successful head basketball coach out of Kansas State and on to what is, at best, a lateral move, Currie brought in a new guy who will serve John Currie very, very well.
As for serving Kansas State, the school for which Currie serves as athletic director, and the fans he theoretically has been hired to represent? Not so much.
That’s the takeaway from Frank Martin’s exit and Bruce Weber’s arrival at a basketball program Martin made into an unexpected perennial winner: Potentially very good for John Currie. Most likely disastrous for Kansas State.
“We’ve got a head basketball coach who has been there and knows the route and the path to that destination,” Currie said at an introductory press conference Saturday afternoon. “In his career, he has developed and mentored NBA lottery picks.”
But here’s what Currie and Kansas State really have: A head basketball coach Currie chose after running out a stone-cold winner, a new coach who might help Currie get a better job who knows how to take other coaches’ recruits and win with them before his own guys have to play and his teams’ levels of excellence wanes.
Let me be clear. I like Bruce Weber. He has a reputation for being as clean as any coach in the NCAA. He can coach, and with the team Martin assembled, Kansas State should be in good hands next year, and perhaps the year after that, as long as those players don’t transfer.
Bruce Weber is a very good basketball coach. But to win in Manhattan – to bring in players and win in one of the least desirable college towns in America – you need a certain kind of guy. And that is not, and will never be, Weber. It’s simply a bad fit.
Don’t listen to John Currie when he says he and Frank Martin had a fine relationship. Don’t listen to Frank Martin, now the very highly paid head coach at South Carolina, if he tries to say the same thing.
Those close to the program were well aware, for more than a year, that these two men loathed each other. Martin was a man widely disrespected when he became Kansas State’s head coach in 2007. Seen as a placeholder for a recruiting class highlighted by Michael Beasley after Bob Huggins bolted for West Virginia, Martin was probably the least respected head basketball coach in America at the time.
And he never forgot – not the love he felt for those who showed loyalty, or the grudges that burned inside him for those who called him a crook, a cheat, a placeholder, incompetent.
Martin is emotional, loyal, candid and capable of holding grudges as surely as he was at working some magical alchemy in Kansas State. In going from laughing stock in 2007 to celebrated success story after Beasley left in the years that followed, he didn’t just prove himself. He showed a world that, in many quarters, never game him a shot.
So you better believe that when Currie arrived in 2009 – a man with no history with Martin, an AD who did not hire him – Martin was poised to recognize a boss who didn’t want him there.
And believe Currie wasn’t subtle on the matter, either. I have no doubt from numerous conversations with those close to the program that this was a divorce long coming, one Martin pushed off in large part because of the kids. He loved those players, and he had a team next year that would have been more formidable than any he’s had, including his 2010 Elite Eight team.
Frank Martin works hard, his teams play with a blue-collar sensibility that played well in rural Kansas, he is loyal and candid no matter where he stands, and the result is his teams won time and again despite a continued belief from most everyone that every upcoming year would finally expose them. No year ever did so.
No, at K-State, if you looked closely enough, the powers that be always showed their true colors. Head football coach Bill Snyder was and is the genius who will always be a Wildcat. Martin was the outsider who could actually coach despite the way he got the job and the lack of head-coaching experience he brought with him, who wanted to stay because Kansas State believed in him when no one else would. And John Currie was and is the athletic director who hired neither of them, and according to sources gets along with neither of them, and who doesn’t have the good sense to utilize the most important weapon in the athletic-director playbook: humility.
That’s why this Weber hire is so galling. A K-State AD looking out for his university’s athletic future would recognize the difficulty of winning in, and recruiting to, Manhattan, Kan.
First, that AD would do everything he or she could to keep Frank Martin. Currie, by souring that relationship long before he pulled Jamar Samuels from an NCAA tournament game against Syracuse this March and then refusing to make up once Martin had had enough, did the opposite. I have no doubt he worked diligently to alienate his coach and got what he wanted: Martin gone.
Second, an AD thinking of the Wildcats’ future would find a coach who could somehow muster the same recipe for success. I’d have learned from Martin’s success and gone with a little-known name with a loyalty streak, a guy able to perpetuate a coaching culture and recruiting legacy, and hired Brad Underwood, K-State’s No. 2 since Martin was hired and a former K-State player.
Otherwise, you have to find someone who can recruit to Manhattan and – like Martin – win with the particular kind of players they can actually land.
And John Currie thinks that person is Bruce Weber?
Weber hasn’t been to a Sweet 16 since 2005, when he led Illinois there (and ultimately to the national title game, losing to North Carolina) … with Bill Self’s players. If you can’t recruit to and win in Illinois well enough to hold onto your job, how on earth can you do so in Manhattan?
Answer: You can’t.
But that’s all besides the point.
One of two things is going on with Kansas State’s athletic director.
Either John Currie is borderline incompetent at the job, with a shaky idea of how to win in a place like Manhattan, or else he’s in it for himself and would rather run off the right guy because he doesn’t like him than change his own ways in order to keep him.
If it’s the former, Currie will get his due in two or three years. Running off Martin from a place like Kansas State is a fireable offense. Being college basketball, that bill won’t come due for a few years.
But there’s always option two, which I suspect to be behind most of this: That Currie made this hire for Currie and Currie’s career. Weber has a squeaky-clean image, giving Currie some high marks with high-minded university presidents. Weber can win with Martin’s players, giving Currie a possible one- or two-year window of faux achievement. And Currie, who will never get credit for Bill Snyder and didn’t have the good sense to want credit for keeping Frank Martin, finally has a hire of his own to smack on his resume and wave around to prospective employers.
Which is why I think hiring Bruce Weber is entirely about John Currie and not at all about Bruce Weber. K-State’s AD, having run out the right guy, now has brought in as a replacement someone perfectly built to get John Currie a job elsewhere.
It’s also true that Kansas State was a program far ahead of Illinois under the tenure of these two men. Martin won more games than Weber in four of the past five seasons and has six NCAA tournament wins to Weber’s one in the same time frame. And as if more proof was needed, Jacob Pullen, K-State’s top career scorer, summed it up thusly on his Twitter account: "Bruce (Weber) didn’t think I was good enough to play at Illinois and I don’t think he is good enough to coach at Kansas State."
This is America, where ego, incompetence and B.S. often fail forward. No telling to which place John Currie hopes to take his galling failing next.
I get it. It’s the Final Four. Most of you couldn’t care less about Kansas State’s problems (though fans of other Big 12 schools should be rejoicing). You may not care today about the long-term shambles John Currie just put Kansas State’s basketball program into. But in a year or two, if he’s suddenly the athletic director at whatever school you root for, you may look back and realize this was the weekend Kansas State’s troubles soon led to your own.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.