WACO, Texas — Under the concrete steps that support thousands of plastic forest green seats in the brisk air of the filling the bearings of the Ferrell Center, Jerome Tang cried. He was back inside a place that was his home for 19 years – but on Saturday it was no longer his house.
For nearly two full decades, Jerome Tang served as Baylor head coach Scott Drew’s “right arm” until Tang, at the urging of Drew, accepted the head coaching position at Kansas State prior to the 2022-23 season.
On Saturday, for the first time since taking the job in Manhattan, Kan., Tang returned to Baylor – and the Ferrell Center – and coached his team to a 97-95 victory over No. 19 Baylor, helping the Wildcats improve to 3-0 in Big 12 play with all three wins coming against ranked opponents.
Coming back to Baylor wasn’t fun Tang. He didn’t enjoy the buildup, which featured a video on the jumbotron that Tang strategically didn’t watch – he didn’t want to cry again. As Tang looked away, 9,211 fans didn’t blink as they stood and smacked their hands together emitting a noise louder than two cymbals colliding.
“My hair was black,” Tang said of what he noticed in the video before he turned away. “Gosh, I was a young ‘fella.”
And Tang didn’t enjoy the aftermath, which featured an extended hug with Baylor assistant coach Jared Nuness, somebody he worked with for about 15 seasons in Waco. Nuness kept Tang up to date on all the “trends” and Tang helped Nuness grow as a “man, a husband and a father.”
“We have a special relationship,” Tang said. “Those guys that [Baylor] bench, those are some special dudes.”
All Tang could enjoy was the 45 minutes of basketball that K-State and Baylor played, and that’s because he no longer had to think about coaching against Drew, somebody he calls a “brother.”
“The game of basketball is fun,” Tang said. “Watching them compete and do it at a high level, that’s fun. But the before and after, somebody has to win and lose – it’s just not fun. I love Scott, and I never want to see him lose. It’s never a good Saturday when Scott losses.”
K-State’s overtime win likely will have the Wildcats ranked in the top 25 on Monday when the newest polls are released after winning games against then No. 24 West Virginia, at No. 6 Texas and now at Baylor. The Wildcats – despite returning just two players from last season and being picked to finish in last place in the Big 12 before the season – are now 14-1 on the season, it’s the best start in program history since 1958-59. K-State is 3-0 in Big 12 play for the first time in a decade, and the three wins vs. ranked rivals is a first in program history, too. When Tang was hired, he said that K-State was going to “accomplish great things” and that it was “not going to take long.”
“He’s done a remarkable job,” Drew, the 2021 national champion, said, “in a short of amount of time.”
Tang has done it on the backs of Markquis Nowell and Florida transfer Keyontae Johnson, who in the last two games have combined for 120 points, 22 rebounds and 31 assists. On Saturday, Nowell had a game-high 32 points and a program-record 14 assists in a conference game. He’s the first player in college basketball to record a 30-point and 10 assists double-double since Trae Young (Oklahoma 2017-18), and they are the only two players to record such marks in the last decade.
Drew, when asked if Nowell is the most improved player in the Big 12 joked, that there are not many players averaging 30 points and 10 assists per game in the Big 12. Tang, who coaches him every day, says that his staff has simply tried to give Nowell the track to chug along like a steam engine.
“All we’ve done as a staff is just put some tracks under him, so he can go wherever he wants to within the boundaries of the tracks,” Tang said. “For him to embrace that, and some see that as limitations, but it’s not. It allows you to propel your game further by taking some things away and adding some things.”
Whiles games are about players – not coaches – Nowell understood that Saturday’s game was a lot about the coaches and the history Tang and Drew shared for 19 seasons before Tang infiltrated Nowell’s life.
“It meant a lot,” Nowell said. “Coach Tang, he wanted to make sure that it wasn’t about him. It was about us. We talked about that during shooting around. He knew what it was going to be like coming back. But he just focused on the game plan – and that was to win. That is how the team handled it, and that’s how he handled it.”
Saturday wasn’t fun for Jerome Tang. He doesn’t like seeing Scott Drew and Baylor lose, and he was reminded of how much winning was done in his final years at Baylor when he was presented with his 2022 Big 12 Championship right prior to the game.
“That’s pretty special,’ he said, “it’s hard to win a Big 12 Championship – so I’m thankful for that.”
Tang cried on Saturday during his return to the Ferrell Center. It was “different, but not uncomfortable” for Tang on Saturday inside the Ferrell Center. A win may bring tears of joy to his eyes too.
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