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Archive for Saturday, February 25, 2006

Wildcats’ Wooldridge keeping focus

February 25, 2006

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— As another disappointing season for Kansas State nears its end, Jim Wooldridge is trying to keep the focus on what might be.

A break here, an upset there, a win or two in the Big 12 Conference tournament, and the Wildcats still could make the NIT. It would be Kansas State's first postseason berth in six years under Wooldridge. But it might not be enough to save his job.

In a telephone interview Friday, athletic director Tim Weiser said Wooldridge remained "a good fit" for Kansas State - but reserved judgment on whether the coach's contract would be extended after this season.

"He's been viewed by K-Staters and others as someone who fits in well with our program, and that is important," Weiser said. "We want to have people who succeed and who are respected."

Kansas State (14-10, 5-8 Big 12) hasn't seen much success of late, though - and the situation has been compounded by Wooldridge's physical problems.

He had surgery earlier this month to remove a bulging disk in his neck, a condition which caused numbness and tingling in his arms and legs, and to fuse two vertebrae. Wooldridge missed two games after the operation and still wears a neck brace.

When he stomps his foot to get a player's attention, he winces in pain. His voice is raspy in postgame interviews, even when he hasn't shouted - but the tenor of his message hasn't changed.

When he talks about the future, it's in terms of the next game and not the next season.

"I haven't noticed any change in him, and I've been around him for three years," guard Lance Harris said. "I just know he's a fighting person, and he's trying to get out there and get wins."

The Big 12 already has seen its first coaching casualty of the season: Quin Snyder's resignation at Missouri, a messy breakup full of allegations that have prompted an outside investigation.

Things seem unlikely to turn as ugly in Manhattan, even if the Wildcats continue to struggle.

While he might not be revered at Kansas State the way the late Jack Hartman was when Kansas State was a fixture in the NCAA Tournament, Wooldridge is well-regarded by fans.

He is greeted with applause whenever he takes the court, boos being reserved for the officials and opponents. Nobody has poured popcorn on Wooldridge's head, as happened to Snyder after a 32-point loss to Illinois in St. Louis.

Even on fan sites, often the domain of bile-slingers when a program is struggling, Wooldridge is seldom the target of personal attacks - even from those who believe he should be replaced.

"It would be real easy for fans to turn on a coach who has lost so many close games, but they haven't," said Tim Fitzgerald, a Kansas State alumnus who publishes Powercat Illustrated and is a message board moderator on its Web site, www.gopowercat.com. "I think that says something about K-State fans, and their appreciation for the effort and passion Jim Wooldridge has put into this.

"He hasn't just cashed checks. He's out there trying to win ballgames."

Many observers of the Wildcats' program thought Wooldridge would be fired at the end of last season, when Kansas State went 17-14 but was snubbed by the NIT. The school stuck with him, giving him a one-year contract extension.

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