Tang makes things work with Wildcats

Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang celebrates with members of the pep band after defeating Kentucky in a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, March 19, 2023, in Greensboro, N.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang celebrates with members of the pep band after defeating Kentucky in a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, March 19, 2023, in Greensboro, N.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)


MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Jerome Tang was tearing around his property on an unseasonably warm spring day not long ago, just before Kansas State headed down Interstate 70 for the Big 12 Tournament, when he noticed his four-wheeler was running out of fuel.

So the Wildcats' coach did what anyone would do in a small town: He steered it onto the road, conveniently forgetting that it wasn't exactly street legal, and headed off for the service station.

"So I'm zooming down and the college kids are outside. They're hollering at you, happy to see you. I mean, how great is that?" Tang said. "My wife was upset. She's like, 'You're going to get arrested. It's going to be on the news!' "

Tang glances around furtively, his ever-present smile growing just a bit wider.

"I can't, like, get in trouble for something that already happened, right?"

Not these days. Not in Manhattan, Kan.

One year after taking over a downtrodden program coming off three straight losing seasons, Tang and his upstart Wildcats are preparing to play Michigan State in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night.

The fan apathy that reached a nadir last spring? Forgotten after eight straight sellouts to end the regular season. Chants of "Eff K-U" during home games, the epitome of a long-standing inferiority complex toward their bitter rival, replaced by pride-filled shouts of "K-S-U," much to the relief of a coach who demands 10 pushups every time his players swear.

This is a coach who can be found posted up on a purple sofa delivered to random spots around campus, from dining halls to the engineering building, so that he can chat with students going about their everyday lives.

"I mean, I'm just happy to see Coach Tang and our team having so much success," said Markquis Nowell, a guard who transferred from UALR after the 2020-21 season and earned All-American honors this season. "He's the reason we play with so much love and joy. And you know, we still have a lot to prove."

Tang kept using the term "elevate" when he was hired to replace Bruce Weber a year ago. But not even the longtime Baylor assistant could imagine how quickly, and how high, he would have the Wildcats soaring.

Born in San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago, Tang moved to St. Croix with his mother and three siblings while his father chased work in the oil industry. He was about 5 years old and playing marbles beneath a car in his aunt's driveway when his cousin, not knowing he was there, got behind the wheel and drove away.

"Drove right over him," Tang's older sister, Kim, said. "He's lucky. He was in the hospital for weeks."

Perhaps that brush with death somehow infused in Tang his profoundly deep faith -- "I believe my gift is ministry," he said, "and my passion just happens to be basketball."

"He treats people the right way," said Baylor Coach Scott Drew, his longtime friend. "He just always sees the good in people."

Tang grew up playing cricket and soccer, and when his family moved to the Houston area, it became baseball and football. But in 1979, while watching Magic Johnson and Michigan State beat Larry Bird and Indiana State in the title game that truly gave birth to March Madness, Tang fell in love with basketball.

A bible scholarship that got him to North Central College. He returned to Texas, intent on becoming a youth pastor. But the founder of Heritage Christian Academy, Dr. Jennifer Cooper, was searching for a basketball coach.

"We drove around in, like, a Cheech-and-Chong van to get places," Tang said.

Tang soon built the small school into a national power, pumping out prospects such as Von Wafer, who played at Florida State and in the NBA. And he was still there in 2002 when Drew was hired to clean up an inconceivable mess at Baylor.

Drew needed someone with an unflinchingly positive attitude who could recruit in Texas, and over dinner one night, Tang won him over, earning a job that Drew had very nearly given to someone else.

Nearly two decades later, inside a quiet football stadium at the end of an NCAA Tournament played entirely inside a covid-19 bubble, Drew and Tang celebrated the Bears winning the 2021 national championship.

The right guys turned out to be a motley crew carefully assembled.

Nowell is the 5-8 sparkplug that Kentucky Coach John Calipari couldn't get himself to call by name -- "That little guy" -- after he'd minced up his own Wildcats in last weekend's second-round tourney game.

Keyontae Johnson was voted an All-American alongside Nowell. Cam Carter came from Mississippi State, David N'Guessan from Virginia Tech. Desi Sills (Jonesboro) arrived from Arkansas State after a stint at the University of Arkansas, Abayomi Iyiola from Hofstra. Nae'Qwan Tomlin, who never even played basketball in high school, signed out of junior college.

"Nobody," Kansas Coach Bill Self said, "has done a better job of assembling talent in a short amount of time."

  photo  Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang ceclebrates after defeating Kentucky in a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, March 19, 2023, in Greensboro, N.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
 
 
  photo  Kansas State coach Jerome Tang cheers on the team against Oklahoma during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Manhattan, Kan., Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)
 
 
  photo  Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang congratulates Kansas State center Abayomi Iyiola (23) as he heads to the bench during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Manhattan, Kan. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)
 
 
  photo  Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang thanks the fans after they beat Oklahoma, 85-69, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Manhattan, Kan., Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)
 
 
  photo  Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang, center, celebrates his team's 75-65 win over Baylor with fans during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Manhattan, Kan. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)
 
 
  photo  Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang gestures to fans after Kansas State defeated Oklahoma State in an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, in Stillwater, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
 
 


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