Through the Trifocals

Through the years, many Illinois fans have developed feelings towards Gene Keady that would probably be best described as <i>hatred.</i> Gene Keady has always been a thorn in the side of the Fighting Illini, no matter who is on the sidelines.<br><br>Unlike Illinois fans, Bruce Weber's feelings towards Gene Keady are best described as <i>love.</i> In his latest column, Illinisports discusses why his love of Gene Keady is exactly why Illinois fans already love having Bruce Weber in Champaign.

In a prelude to his final game as an Illini, Jerrance Howard was asked by the Champaign News-Gazette to compare the three coaches he played for while at Illinois. He said Lon Kruger was a "First-class guy." Confirming what we all know about Bill Self, he said, "He has one of the great personalities I've ever been around." The one word he used that most described Bruce Weber was "Energy."

Quoting more of Jerrance's comments about Coach Weber, "I love him. Out of all my coaches, I think I'll be the most like Coach Weber because he's so hands-on. What other coach of a big-time program would be out there after practice rebounding for his players?" Truly, Bruce Weber has a great heart, and he shares it with his players, his coaches, his family, his friends, the Orange Krush, and anyone else who is a part of his life.

As Jerrance says, Bruce Weber has tons of energy. That big-hearted energy causes him to give his all to his team both in practice and games. It allows him to rebound for his players at the end of practice. It pushes him to do everything but suit up and play during the games, yelling, encouraging, shouting plays, and working the refs like a veritable whirlwind to motivate and encourage his players. He gets so far out on the court it seems he is ready to dive for the next loose ball.

It is hard to love someone, like Jerrance loves Coach Weber, unless it is obvious that he loves you in return. And all the energy Weber brings to his work is shared with his players and coaches in a way they can benefit. His willingness to give of his energy to help others goes way beyond just trying to win games. This good-hearted man inspires a desire to play well for him and to not disappoint him. His positive energy also encourages maturation and personal growth in individual players who can later share their energy with others throughout their lives, like Jerrance wishes to do as a coach.

I bring this up for two reasons. One, I believe Coach Weber's heart is a major factor in our success this year. And two, it is the reason he publicly proclaims his love for Coach Gene Keady and the Purdue Boilermakers while simultaneously desiring to beat them on the basketball floor.

Taking the latter situation first, I think it is helpful to define the nature of Coach Weber's love for Purdue because some people fear he may harbor mixed feelings about trying to beat his mentor. And they question whether returning to his former home and rekindling numerous great friendships might weaken his resolve and backbone, making his Illini susceptible for an upset.

Bruce Weber genuinely loves Gene Keady, so we might as well get used to the platitudes and the feel-good stories about their relationship. Much of Coach Weber's philosophy, especially about hard-nosed man-to-man defense and motion offense, was formulated during 18 years of practice under Coach Keady's leadership. I know how hard it is for us to accept this and to hear about it over and over, but some of our present success can be attributed to a coaching expertise molded within our present coach by our basketball enemy Gene Keady.

Many Illinois fans have developed hate feelings toward Purdue and Gene Keady because they have beaten us so often. I have many painful memories of losses to them, and I am as tired of it as anyone. But to beat them, we must understand them. We must be able to beat them at their own game. It helps to have had spies in their huddles over all these years (Weber and assistant Jay Price), and Bruce Weber is capable of beating him as much as anyone for having been there. Weber knows Keady will give every ounce of energy he has to beating his beloved student, so Weber also knows energy must be returned in like kind.

I read a few posters a couple months ago who were disgusted upon hearing that Weber and Price were celebrating a Purdue victory on TV. Granted, if Weber and Price were here just to aid Purdue (a woman's basketball coaching assistant actually did this a few years ago), then I would be alarmed. But a person with a big heart like Bruce Weber has plenty of room in there to love both Purdue and Illinois. In fact, he would not be himself unless he continued to find new people to love while retaining previous ones. Such is the nature of a big-hearted person.

Yes, we lost to Purdue at home, but that was not because Weber loves Gene Keady. Rather, Purdue played a practically perfect game. As Weber predicted, Keady had his charges breathing fire after being embarrassed in their game preceding ours. During the course of that game, Purdue was precise at controlling tempo, waiting until the last 5 seconds of the shot clock to shoot. And they then hit a high percentage of those shots despite deadline pressure.

Keady did a masterful job of preparing his troops for that game. We should credit him for his ability, knowing we will have the same advantages against good teams in the future with Bruce Weber as our coach. We don't have to love Keady to respect the job he did that day, and it is that respect that will require us to give our best to beat him.

We cannot expect our own fans to start loving Gene Keady because most people don't possess Weber's great heart. But there's no reason why we should be all-or-none about him either. The middle ground is to allow Coach Weber to love Coach Keady while also loving Illinois, and then to trust him to know the difference when he is playing basketball against Purdue. A true teacher helps the student to free himself from the constraints of the teacher, allowing the student to become a teacher capable of rising above his mentor. There is every reason to believe that Coach Weber has done that.

Truly, Bruce Weber is a player's coach, and he is blue-collar all the way. He is a true leader who goes to war with his players rather than simply acting as a figurehead. Like Gene Keady, Weber wants his players to outwork opponents. He doesn't want coronations but hard-earned victories. He isn't satisfied just to win, he actually wants to earn those wins.

It is funny to read how some people wish him to wear designer suits. Perhaps they think that people with large salaries should flaunt their wealth. Maybe they think an expensive suit will attract superstar players. After all, it is true that numerous star players wish to see themselves as elite and better than others. These players often are attracted to white-collar coaches who prefer style over substance. But coaches like Billy Donovan and Quin Snyder, with their impeccable coaching and playing backgrounds, expensive clothes and self-importance to match, seem to lose occasionally just like everyone else despite recruiting McDonald's All-Americans.

To my way of thinking, you can fit Coach Weber into any number of expensive outfits, automobiles, and homes, and there will still be no doubt who he really is under that facade. Weber's energy seeps through like sweat through a basketball uniform. Weber's heart penetrates far beyond the outline of his clothes, vehicle or home. No potential recruit will have trouble distinguishing the man from the image. The elitists may go elsewhere, but the hard workers will crave the chance to play for him.

Thus, Illinois will probably continue to recruit players that fit Coach Weber's system and are attracted to his big heart and blue-collar ethic. Maybe they won't be as highly ranked by the know-it-all recruiting "gurus", many of whom rate players on style points such as vertical jump and dunking ability rather than midrange jumpers, sound defense, unselfishness and ballhandling fundamentals. But they will give their energy to help Illinois win, just like this year's team is learning to do. They will emulate their coach.

Illinois has given us great joy this year for learning how to win with a new coach and new system. And Bruce Weber has given his players and fans a new way of winning games that we have finally begun to embrace. With three coaches in five years, Illini fans have discovered that championships can be won with several different styles, as long as we play like winners.

We are not guaranteed wins or a Big 10 Championship, and we now have to travel to hungry Purdue right after it has been embarrassed by Wisconsin. We might not beat Purdue, but it won't be from lack of trying. And it won't be because Coach Weber is somehow deferential to his mentor and former friends. If we do win, it will be in large part because Coach Weber has shared his love and energy with the team. And it will be because the players and fans have come to embrace the man as a quality person and coach.

Win or lose, Coach Weber will continue to love Coach Keady and Purdue. After all, that is Weber's nature. But without any doubt, Coach Weber loves Illinois and his present team at least as much, and he is now giving all his undivided attention to helping us beat Purdue and Ohio State on the way to a possible Big 10 Championship. We wouldn't want it any other way, would we?

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If you have any questions for Illinisports, you can reach him via e-mail at

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