MANHATTAN, Kan. – This is the job Jerome Tang wanted. More than the others. That much was clear last spring when the long-time Baylor assistant set up his Alexa to play "Wabash Cannonball" as the Kansas State search committee walked through the door.
Tang knew exactly the statement he was making before the interview began. That K-State fight song has been seared into the fiber of every Wildcat since it was the last piece of sheet music rescued from an on-campus fire in the late 1960s.
The 56-year-old native of Trinidad and Tobago wanted to be part of that fiber.
"We were supposed to do a two-hour interview," K-State athletic director Gene Taylor recalled. "An hour into it, he did most of the talking. He walked us through offense, defense. He said, 'I've got to go to the restroom.' I said, 'Fellas, I'm done. What are we doing? Let's make an offer.' "
That's the short version of why Kansas State is No. 5 in the AP Top 25, its highest ranking since reaching No. 3 in 2010-11, and leads the Big 12 nearing the halfway point of the conference season. Following Bruce Weber's firing, Tang took over a team that had two scholarship players, added 13 new faces and blended it into what is currently the best start in the country by a first-year Division I head coach (17-2). The Cats have already won three more games than they did all last season.
The long-form story has as many layers as the coach himself. You just have to be patient enough to peel them away. You had to watch all the way to the postgame celebration following K-State's 68-58 win over Texas Tech. Tang rushed into the student section to dance with the students to the strains of that beloved fight song.
That was the same game "Sandstorm" – a 1999 electro-synth song that has evolved into the Wildcats' hype music – was played in Bramlage Coliseum this season. It had been silenced because students traditionally have chanted "F--- KU" along with the beat. On Saturday, they instead rhythmically chanted "K-S-U".
And they were proud of themselves having taken Tang's message to heart: Make it more about Kansas State than the opponent and get rid of the profanity.
"We haven't been able to play it," a giddy Taylor said. "I would try it before he got here and they'd start chanting it and I'd stop. I just cut it off. We've done everything. I've gone to the students. The presidents have gone [to them]. He alone got it [done].
'That is the first time we played Sandstorm without 'F-KU.' "
That is the ancillary benefit to a complete team that features the 2020 SEC Preseason Player of the Year (Florida transfer Keyontae Johnson) and one of the smallest players in Division I. Spunky guard Markquis Nowell is listed at 5-foot-9 but says he is "a legit 5-7."
The fifth-year senior point guard is also the No. 2 scorer in Big 12 games.
"Nothing frightens me," said Nowell, one of four New York City native on the roster. "I give this game my all. An old head back in New York told me if I could survive in New York, I could survive anywhere. I did a pretty good job of surviving in New York."
Put it this way: There is arguably less contact in the Big 12 than at legendary Rucker Park on 155th Street where Nowell refined his game.
Wildcat fans wild about Tang
Tang was Scott Drew's loyal right-hand man, ace recruiter and one of the most respected assistants in the nation for 19 years. But who knew the suddenly national coach of the year candidate had this kind of immediate turnaround ability and … swag?
Students participated in a Tang chugging contest during a timeout. Fans lined up courtside for an audience Saturday after the coach's postgame appearance on the Wildcat radio network wearing "Tang You Very Much" T-shirts
"They're selling like crazy," one fawning fan told Tang.
That's not ignoring "Hangin' With Tang", a series of chats with the coach who had the idea of dragging a couch into the student union and rapping with the rank and file.
Tang had been dancing by himself on the court after wins, but decided spontaneously Saturday to join the students. All of it seems natural, not grandstanding, in a sport whose culture is much more flamboyant than its college football counterpart.
Who knew Tang had this much charisma … and influence? On Tuesday following the upset of then-No. 2 Kansas, Tang grabbed a mic, jumped on the scorer's table and issued what might as well be his Wildcat manifesto on sportsmanship and kicking a rival's butt.
"I told y'all we would get you one court storming," he concluded. "From here on out, expect to win."
Thirty-four-year-old Bramlage Coliseum may have never been louder.
"All of America listens in," Tang told CBS Sports in a private moment following Saturday's win. "We get a few minutes to send a message to them. Is the message that we want to hear 'KU' -- even if they don't hear the 'F' -- or do we want them to hear 'KSU'?
At least for now, the nation has its answer. A team picked last out of 10 teams in the Big 12 preseason is now top 10 in the nation. These Wildcats fit in with the cuddly underdog role cultivated for years by hall of fame football coach Bill Snyder. Five stars don't typically come to Manhattan. Kansas State is a developmental program in both major revenue sports.
But there has seldom been a better time to be a Wildcat. K-State won the Big 12 in football with a backup quarterback (Will Howard), a 5-6 tailback (Deuce Vaughn) and a Big 12 defensive player of the year (edge Felix Anudike-Uzomah) who arrived on campus as a three-star prospect.
Tang's best player arrived with promise, fanfare and some history. Johnson hadn't played since December 2020 when he collapsed on the court at Florida. The exact nature of a heart ailment that caused a nine-day hospitalization and included a medically-induced coma has never been revealed.
Florida paid the premium on a $5 million insurance policy that guaranteed funds in case Johnson's professional career was impacted. However, the school did not clear him medically. Johnson entered the transfer portal last May. Johnson told CBS Sports in October that he didn't start working out until two months previous "when Kansas State cleared me."
"Some schools were definitely scared to take a risk with me," Johnson said before the season.
However, Kansas State wasn't alone in thinking Johnson was worth a shot. Johnson said he was also pursued by Western Kentucky, USC and Memphis.
"I call it a rebirth, a second chance," Johnson said. "[God] gave me a second chance. I thank him for the opportunity to wake up every morning."
K-State also had to vet accusations of sexual assault against Johnson last year. The Florida state attorney's office said it did not proceed in part because Johnson and his accuser had previous consensual relationships. Johnson asserted in a statement at the time he did nothing wrong.
"Jerome got a lot of stories and police reports," Taylor said. "I just asked him to dig deep and he did. We felt pretty good. There weren't any charges."
Midway through what projects to be his last season before a shot at the NBA, the brawny 6-6 Johnson leads the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding (third and second in the Big 12 in those categories).
With 10 minutes left in Saturday's game Johnson didn't have a field goal. He finished with his third double-double of the season (15 points, 11 rebounds).
Earlier this season, Nowell went for 36 against Texas and 32 against Baylor in back-to-back games, just the the third Division I player to combine for at least 65 points and 20 assists in consecutive games in the last 10 years, according to Sports Illustrated. The other two were Trae Young and Ja Morant.
How Tang rebuilt K-State's roster
The whining from college football about the transfer portal should take a tip from college basketball. The sport has been dealing with massive roster turnover for years. Tang has refined the art. Nowell and Ish Massoud were the only remaining scholarship players. Massoud, a sinewy 6-9 backup forward, has been so effective in conference play (52% from the arc) his nickname has become "Big 12 Ish."
Seven Wildcats entered the season with one or two years' eligibility left.
"It really reminds us of what we did last year," said Texas Tech coach Mark Adams.
In Adams' first season the Red Raiders won 27 games and advanced to the Sweet 16 after losing eight players to graduation or transfer.
"We were able to bring in some quality transfers that were older," Adams added. "There is a lot to be said for guys with one year left, even with two. These guys kind of come in with a new sense of urgency. They want to be coached, make this their last year special."
Roster management shouldn't ever be a problem at K-State. Tang was with Drew when they cobbled together a roster of mostly walk-ons after crippling NCAA sanctions following the Dave Bliss scandal in 2003.
That near-death penalty was the reason Drew was hired and eventually built Baylor – with Tang's help – into a national program.
"There were times this summer, in July, where Jerome was still looking for dudes," Taylor said. "I'm like, 'Are you panicking, because I am?' He said, 'Ah, no, Gene.' He might have been [OK] but he was putting on a good front."
No need to panic. Tang convinced Johnson and his parents by reminding them he had coached two Baylor players with heart issues – Jared Butler and King McClure. Both continued to play after being diagnosed with a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Butler played in the NBA.
"I know how to help them get back in shape," Tang said. "I had done it before."
But why Kansas State and why now? Drew told CBS Sports his former assistant would receive interest from 1-2 programs a year. Tang would interview but the time wasn't right. Tang and his wife Careylyen were empty nesters for the first time. Both children (Seven and Aylyn) are in college. The question became: Why not K-State?
Yes, it lives in that long, long shadow cast from down the road in Lawrence. But it's still a high major with loads of tradition. Recently, K-State has won a share of the Big 12 regular-season title twice since 2013. Weber's 2018 group went to the Elite Eight.
"Coach Drew told me, 'Get it, then figure it out if you want it,' Tang recalled. "If I had been, like, 'Well, I'm not sure,' then maybe I'm not the best version of myself. So I just went at it like this is the only job I want in America."
Tang doesn't just answer questions. He considers them, rolls them around in his considerable basketball mind and reveals himself – yes, layer by layer. Only Nowell and Massoud remained as scholarship players. But they wanted to stay.
They just needed a reason.
Nowell got it when he texted Taylor urging him to hire Tang. The guard had gotten a scouting report from his 28-year old brother Marcus who had done his research.
"He saw the 19 years, the winning," Nowell said. "He told me Coach Tang is the guy K-State really needs to hire … He is somebody who God sent to me at Kansas State University."
They wanted structure.
Tang stopped practice last week and sent his players home after he sensed a Kansas hangover. With 13 minutes left Saturday it seemed like that hangover hadn't lifted. The Wildcats trailed by eight to a team that hadn't won since December.
Tang called a timeout. Something was said in the huddle and off the Wildcats went – on a 31-13 run, on a Sandstorm frenzy, and on into a wide-open future with their coach dancing to the "Wabash Cannonball."