WEBER STATE'S rich basketball tradition is receding quickly into the past, into the realm of the good old days, but, lest anybody forgets, there are plenty of reminders around the Dee Events Center.
Glass-enclosed cases are filled with old trophies and pictures. Large purple banners representing each of the team's conference championships hang on the walls surrounding the court. On the wall of the Weber locker room, there are lists of the team's championships and NCAA berths - with blank slots left for more such honors.The question is, will they ever come?
The Wildcats have now gone five years without a 20-win season or a conference championship, which were once forgone conclusions. They've had just one winning season in the last four years, and this year's team is off to a 2-4 start.
All of which takes some getting used to if you're a follower of Weber State hoops. After all, there has never been a dry spell to equal this one at Weber, which used to consider a dry spell any year in which the Wildcats didn't win 20 games.
The Wildcats were once a national force in college basketball. Even if basketball fans didn't know where the school was, or how to pronounce its name (Webber or Wee-ber?), they knew it produced good basketball teams.
It always had. As a junior college, the Wildcats won the national JC championship in '59 (and were runnersup in '58). When they became a four-year school in 1962, they began playing Division I basketball - and barely noticed the difference. During the next 23 years, they produced 15 20-win seasons, 12 Big Sky championships, 10 NCAA Tournament berths, two losing seasons and three local coaching giants.
The Wildcats always had good coaches, if not overly talented players. Dick Motta went on to the NBA. So did Phil Johnson. Neil McCarthy took his act to New Mexico State, where he created another winner. The Wildcats had always managed to replace one great coach with another, so when McCarthy left there was no reason to believe they wouldn't do so again, especially when they hired Larry Farmer of UCLA fame. Farmer, you might recall, won his first 10 games, and Weber State gave him a Mercedes. But it was all downhill from there. Farmer lasted three seasons.
He was replaced two years ago by Denny Huston, a small, scholarly looking fellow with a deep voice and spectacles who seems more suited to lectures on English literature than the full-court press, at least until you see him work the referees some Saturday night."I would say we're still in the process of getting back to the old McCarthy-Johnson-Motta era," says Huston in what is surely understatement.
The process has had problems. Last year two of Huston's regular players pulled up lame. This year his starting center has probably been lost for the season because of injury.
Picking up the pieces of the Farmer era, Huston took a team that had finished 9-21 the previous year and fashioned a 17-11 season in his first year at Weber. Last year the 'Cats slipped to 14-15 ("Last year was not the total disaster many people feel we had," Huston has said. "I like to call it a Chapter 11 season.").
This year Huston is counting on the likes of senior Aaron Bell, sophomore Al Hamilton and junior David Baldwin, but the latter two players have played just six Division I games in their careers.
Huston says his rebuilding plans are made more difficult by the lack of television exposure. His predecessors faced the same problem, but not quite. "Nowadays you can turn the TV on any night of the week and see a Top 20 team," says Huston. "The recruits see those teams. They haven't seen the Big Sky teams."
Huston has at least one strong selling point for recruits: "We work very hard at selling Weber's tradition," he says. "We sell that very hard. We keep the banners up."
In the meantime, Weber fans are learning something new: patience. They once packed the Dee Events Center 9,000 strong or more each game. Predictably, this year attendance has slipped to 5,500.
It's difficult to imagine that the Wildcats will ever return to their former level of play, particularly with such consistency, but then again . . .
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I couldn't restore the program," says Huston.