KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A man becomes familiar with the details of his own funeral and it spooks him to the bone. This sort of thing is only supposed to happen in that dimension that lies between the pit of Rod Serling’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.
And at Bruce Weber’s basketball practice.
In a move that at some level has haunted Bill Self since it happened — despite how he has played it off publicly — and could haunt Weber every time his Kansas State team plays against Kansas, Weber held a mock Self funeral at an Illinois practice.
Since his own funeral, Self has won eight consecutive Big 12 titles, plus a national title, has gone 3-1 in Final Four games and has signed a 10-year, $53 million contract, all of which helps to explain why he’s such a friendly ghost.
Tired of his players getting peppered with questions about Self, Weber showed up for practice wearing black and informed the players there would be a funeral for Self.
Weber’s nearly decade-old macabre act is grist for the Kansas-Kansas State rivalry, but only to an extent. Bob Huggins, as his is custom, got right to the point regarding the rivalry when he started his only season in Manhattan. It’s only a rivalry, he said, if both teams win their fair share of games.
Huggins, back in the conference with West Virginia, added rivalry spark with the national reputation he brought and the alley-fighter quality he and his teams bring to every game, but he went 0-3 against Kansas.
Huggins left K-State after a year, but left behind key recruits and his combative spirit in the form of his long-time assistant. Frank Martin coached 11 games against Kansas and his court-side antics — death glares, foot stomps and verbal bombs aimed at his players and referees — made his rivalry role memorable, but he only won twice.
Other than winning more often, about all Weber could do to approach the sizzle Huggins and Martin brought to the rivalry is wear all black every time he faces KU, but he’s not likely to cling to the weirdest incident of his career.
I asked Weber about the mock funeral and whether if he had to do over again he would not have done it. He stopped short of saying that.
“To me it was a compliment to Bill,” Weber said this morning in the Sprint Center at Big 12 Media Day. “The players loved him. The fans loved him. And he left. And I always joked, the fans were mad at me for coming and he’s the one who left. It didn’t make sense to me and I would always tell people, this is bass-akward.”
Why the funeral?
“I did it for the players,” Weber said. “The players kept saying, ‘Coach, we can’t move on. The media’s not letting us.’ Just like you’re not letting me move on. ‘They keep asking the same question.’ So I said, ‘I’m going to end it for you guys.’ That was my way of doing it.”
The after-shock continues.
“Now, did I ever anticipate it would get the publicity it did? No, I didn’t anticipate that,” Weber said. “For Bill’s sake, it was a compliment for what he had done there in a short period of time. Just like now, there are a lot of people who love Frank Martin. Now you’ve got to kind of win those guys over.
"Bill obviously did a great job at Illinois, at Tulsa, at Oral Roberts, and now at Kansas. He’s an exceptional coach. I’m just happy I’m at K-State and have a chance to compete against one of the top programs.”
In a five-year stretch that spanned his final two seasons at Southern Illinois and his first three at Illinois, Weber averaged more than 28 victories and won 10 NCAA Tournament games. He took his second Illinois team, loaded with Self’s recruits, to the national-title game, where it lost 75-70 to Roy Williams and North Carolina.
Timing is everything. Had Weber come to K-State in the midst of that run of big-time success, Manhattan might have erected a purple statue in his likeness. Instead, some faces turned purple with outrage, clinging to the belief that athletic director John Currie was responsible for Martin fleeing to South Carolina.
“What I’ve done is try to be out there,” Weber said. “You’ve got to be around and let them get to know you. I know there was some people grumbling a little bit when I took the job, but overall I just can’t believe the reception. They keep coming up to me and saying, ‘Thank you for coming to K-State.’ I tell them, ‘Thank you for having me.’ ”
Weber said that during his interview for the Kansas State job after getting fired by Illinois, one of the first questions athletic director John Currie asked him was, “Do you want to come here and deal with that?” meaning the KU rivalry.
“I think as a coach you want to compete against the best,” Weber said. “... I hope we can make it a rivalry. Obviously, it is a rivalry, but we hope we can compete and have a chance to really get them worried about us also. It should be fun.”