CHAMPAIGN — Chester Frazier’s first recruiting win technically came before he even joined Bruce Weber’s coaching staff at Kansas State.
Frazier was playing in Germany when he received a call from his old coach. Weber’s question: Did he know Rodney McGruder?
Weber was taking over the Kansas State job, and McGruder, the team’s leading scorer the year prior, wasn’t sure about sticking around following Frank Martin’s departure for South Carolina.
So Frazier did his old coach a favor, reaching out to people who knew McGruder given their DMV connections — Frazier from Baltimore, McGruder from Washington, D.C.
“I called a few people who knew Rodney, and he was out the door,” Frazier said. “I convinced him that he should stay. Then he asked me, ‘Are you coming?’”
Frazier didn’t have any intention at that time of giving up his professional career. He was playing well overseas, making good money and was about to sign a two-year contract to return to Germany.
McGruder’s return to Manhattan, Kan., secured, Weber had one more question for Frazier.
“Coach Weber just said, ‘Look, are you ready to start?’” Frazier said.
That decision required a conversation between Frazier and his wife, Sarah. Frazier thought he could keep playing at least six or seven more years.
“I’ll probably be walking funny when I’m done, but I’ve got another six or seven left,” Frazier said was his thought at the time. “But I could coach for another 50 years. I knew I wanted to coach and knew how hard it is to get in at that level, so it was a no brainer. It was an easy decision for my future, doing something I already loved doing and wanted to do.”
Now, Frazier is about to enter his 10th season as an assistant coach following seven seasons at Kansas State and two at Virginia Tech. And he’s back at his alma mater in a situation filled with just as much happenstance as his first job with the Wildcats.
Just like he never expected that to be his start in the coaching world — he was surprised by, but more than ready for — the opportunity to return to Champaign. And he does it with a wealth of experience at the high-major level for a 35-year-old assistant.
“One of the hardest things to do sometimes is transition from player to coach,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “But one of the things that was very evident when you talked to people around here was his leadership qualities. You’re talking about a guy that was an unbelievable and had so much respect from so many different players.
“When you take on that coaching role and have those innate abilities to lead, those things become almost second nature to you. It’s easy to see why he was very successful at a very early age.”
Frazier wasn’t overwhelmed by the transition from player to coach simply because it’s where he knew he’d wind up all along. Even playing at Illinois, his future was going to be on the sideline.
“I always felt like I was a coach,” Frazier said. “I always felt that was my role as a player being a point guard. I felt I had a tremendous basketball IQ, a good feel for the game.”
Frazier demanded, but also earned, respect from players during that first season at Kansas State. Given some of the veteran players weren’t all that much younger than he was, it was the only real approach. He also embraced the challenge presented by Weber, who put plenty on the plate of his newest assistant.
“I didn’t get a crash course in how to coach at 25 jumping right into the Big 12,” Frazier said. “I learned a lot on my own and also a lot from Coach Weber by allowing me room to grow. … Nobody said what region to recruit. I just went out and hunted for players. Being at Kansas State, I became an evaluator more than I became a recruiter.
“I had to evaluate talent at a higher level than anybody else. I was able to identify guys who wanted to be at Kansas State and were good enough to play at Kansas State that maybe the untrained eye or fan couldn’t see. Then develop that talent.”