Weber Keeps Recruiting Despite Barriers

Basketball is a great game, and few sports attract the interest generated by the NCAA basketball tournament each March. College basketball has seen tremendous growth over the years, but not without a seedy element threatening to undermine all the advances. Illini coach Bruce Weber must recruit in an environment that is difficult at best.

Illinois has a proud history in college basketball. While no national championship banners hang from the rafters, several fabled Illini teams are remembered among the best ever in their eras. The overall winning percentage is excellent.

However, Illini Nation always wants more. Illini coaches work constantly to attract great players to the program, hoping to outdo their brethren. Recruiting has become at least as competitive as the games themselves, and not all schools play by the rules.

Plus, numerous middle men have wormed their way into the picture. They befriend top players and serve as "street agents," expecting something for themselves and their players in return for pushing their kids toward certain schools.

Coaches seeking to prove themselves as facilitators of great basketball can become frustrated by the games they are forced to play off the court. Illinois coach Bruce Weber mentions two promising assistant coaches who recently left the profession due to the pressures of recruiting.

"Two top assistants, one at Xavier and one at Ohio State, I'm not sure of their situations. But from what we've heard, they're just sick of the business. Think of all the stuff you have to go through. These were guys you'd think had pretty good futures."

It hit home even more for Weber when good friend Ed DeChellis left Penn State for Navy. The level of competition is less, but he will be recruiting a different caliber of player and won't have to deal with the middle men. Perhaps more peace of mind will result.

"Penn State's a tough job in basketball. It's not a basketball state. They have to go out and find guys. They have very competitive teams, but he was frustrated. He probably didn't have the support he needed. Is it worth it?

"It surprised me but it didn't, to be honest. I'm a good friend of his. He told me before he took it he was gonna take it. For him, the biggest thing for him and all the coaches is to just be happy. The business is so hard. You have no life. If you can't be happy, it's not worth it."

Which is more important, winning games or recruiting superstars? For those who pride themselves on being good coaches, it is the former. But it gets to the point where coaches like Weber question the future of the sport.

"It's something all coaches talk about at Big 10 meetings. Where's this game going? There's a bunch of us, we're all getting older. You start thinking about it, and you've got to keep your priorities straight.

"Ed feels like he's got a fresh start. He's at a place where he can coach and not deal with all the recruiting. He has to recruit true student-athletes, even more than before because they have to make a commitment to the Naval Academy. If he's happy, I'm happy for him."

There is an unwritten taboo against discussing the seedy side of college basketball recruiting. Perhaps there is fear the whole system would break down if it were discussed openly. Perhaps fans would become disenchanted and stop supporting the sport. Whatever, whole books can be written on what goes on in some locales.

Weber is under pressure to win games, and recruiting superstars is assumed to help the cause. No one outworks Weber. If he is working in a level playing field, he succeeds. He speaks in vague terms about the problem he faces.

"To be honest, I don't think I lack the ability to attract superstars. With some of the superstars, I've worked harder and out-recruited a lot of guys, and then we don't get them for other reasons.

"Somebody comes one time, and I go thirty times over 3-4 years, and I don't get them. Does that mean that they're a better recruiter? But it's the nature of the business."

Weber is considered an outstanding coach by knowledgeable people throughout the profession. But some say he is on a hot seat to produce or lose his job. He feels pressure to win games, but he is secure within his own skin. He knows he is a good coach, and he knows other opportunities will present themselves should it not work out at Illinois.

"My thing is, I don't know if I have to prove anything. I had three chances to leave this spring, double my money, double my years.

"I like Illinois. It's a great job, I like my young kids, the family likes it here. And I think we have a great opportunity to continue to be successful. Hopefully we can do that, and I can finish my career here. We just have to wait and see."

Weber will not cheat to recruit players. This puts him at a competitive disadvantage for some players. Can he make up for it with quality coaching?

"I hope so. Obviously, we've picked up our recruiting. Our players are rated higher."

The Illini suffered through a couple frustrating seasons as Weber found himself without adequate replacements when superstars jilted him. The temptation was to bring in better athletes and hope they mesh with each other and the coaching. That doesn't always work either.

Weber and his staff are now trying to combine quality recruiting with more selectivity to get good players who are coachable and can blend into a team concept.

"I think now, and I've talked to our coaches about this, we don't just take top players, we've got to take guys that fit our system and also fit the roles we need."

Weber continues this concept in the seventh part of a nine-part series.

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