Through the Trifocals

Bruce Weber held a private symbolic funeral for his predecessor to refocus his players toward the season ahead. And it helped. However, the fans have not yet been given the same opportunity. <br><Br> Illinisports proposes a wake for Weber's predecessor. After all, Bruce Weber has proven that he is an outstanding coach and worthy replacement. The Illini remain winners despite the change. So let's have a celebration of both the past and future.

Illinois has an outstanding coach in Bruce Weber. He is a continuation of a number of outstanding coaches who have led the Illini since early in the 20th century. Weber has succeeded beyond most people's wildest expectations, and this fact should help Illini fans to feel confident and secure about the future.

This year, the Illini have maintained excellence from previous years and gone beyond by breaking new ground. We have finally won an NCAA game against a higher seed for the first time in history and the first after six previous failures. We have won an undisputed Big 10 Championship for the first time since 1952.

We have every reason to be proud and no reason to be defensive against comparisons with other college programs or previous Illini teams. At least to this writer's belief, there is no longer any reason to complain about past hurts brought about by the departure of our previous coach because we have replaced him with a man of equal or better quality.

Unfortunately, some fans still have issues with the turmoil from last April, and it may be a long time before they can forgive or forget. In fact, anyone mentioning the name of our previous coach Bill Self on our fan forums is immediately attacked by those who still remain bitter about the past. I feel for these attackers, and I understand and empathize with their plight. But I also feel that we can now look upon the past with more confidence and less defensiveness since Bruce Weber has brought us back to the prominence we experienced under Self.

Bruce Weber felt the need symbolically to perform a private funeral for our previous coach to help his players let go of their attachment to the past, heal the wounds, and live for the future with a new coach. Some people misunderstood this act, and perhaps Bill Self was hurt by the bad publicity, but Weber was like a stepdad to a bunch of young men who just lost their father and friend. He needed their undivided attention, so he did something demonstrable to help them to give their energies to their new dad. And it helped.

Now, I think it will be equally helpful for Illini fans to share with me a wake for Bill Self. I think we are finally confident and secure enough to remind ourselves both of Self's assets and his liabilities and compare them to Bruce Weber. We are successful enough that we can shine a light on a "can of worms" that has continued to fester for almost a full year now. We can look at Self as a human being of great gifts and a few weaknesses without wanting to attack him for leaving Illinois. After all, if he had not left we would not now have Bruce Weber as our coach. And that is worth celebrating.

So please bear with me as I remind you of the reasons we loved our previous coach and then went through the emotional struggles we endured as he decided to leave for Kansas. Please try your best to allow the pain of these memories to float through your conscious mind without attaching to your emotions. At the least, try to remember that the Illini have had a long run of good coaches, so there is no reason to minimize that just to seek vengence against someone who broke our hearts. Ok?

Let's look first at Bill Self's assets. It has been said that he has a great mind for basketball and remembers every play of every game. He has been a winner wherever he has coached, and he won two Big 10 Championships and one Big Ten Tournament, mostly with Lon Kruger's recruits, at Illinois. He made it to an Elite 8 birth and Sweet 16 birth in consecutive NCAA tournaments despite some injuries and only average athleticism. He then took us to a second round game in his third year with three inexperienced freshmen starters. That was quite an accomplishment even with the excellent talent on hand. But remember, it was the Illini (of which Self was a part) that won all those games.

Bill Self has a charming personality. Away from his role as team leader, Self is a consummate player's coach because he has a childlike quality that allows him to be perceived as "one of the guys" by his players. People with charming personalities are very attractive to fans as well as players, and many of us got caught up in the "friends of Bill" mentality. In fact, I and numerous others felt almost giddy with the notion that we had a coach who could attract top recruits by the sheer force of his personality. Not many coaches have this kind of charm, so we felt he could provide us with an edge we had not experienced with previous coaches.

Another special Bill Self trait is his ability to befriend the media. Using his charm again, Self can get many journalists to write positive articles about him and to brag about him on radio and TV. Appearing to be well grounded, honest and open about the inner workings of his team, he can be a reporters' delight. After all, many coaches distrust the media and dislike having to deal with them. But Self can be like honey to a bear, and he benefits greatly by his personal interactions with his friends in the media. They tend to fall over backwards to repay all the favors and inside information he provides them.

I am sure most of us were exceedingly proud to see Self be part of an ESPN all-day telecast last year, knowing he was the first Illini coach in history to be so honored. There was no doubt in our minds that he could attract the national recruits that would make us an elite team. Fans almost drooled all over themselves with thoughts of the possibilities.

Unfortunately, all special gifts have a negative aspect, and Bill Self is no exception. I wonder what he might have been like as a child. I mean, I have had children who tried to manipulate me to get their way, and they tried to charm me and others to believe their lies. They were only moderately effective, but they did not possess Self's sparkling charm. I bet he had his parents wrapped around his little finger. Perhaps this is incorrect, but he had to have practiced techniques throughout his life to be as accomplished as he is today. Maybe he had the integrity not to ever use his skills against his loved ones, but he is too good at it to be unpracticed.

I once had a girlfriend who had a personality like Bill Self. It was exciting to be around her, but it was difficult to trust her. Part of the problem with both is they have an intense need to have everyone like them. Despite their abilities, they are insecure on a deep level and need constant reassurance. Therefore, a primary motive for Self maintaining so many friendships with coaches, players, college administrators, and the media is to make sure everyone likes him. Another is to keep track of alternatives in case one pathway doesn't work out for him.

Thus, with both Coach Self and my girl friend, you never know if they are being loyal to you or just using you until something better comes along. They may be totally trustworthy, but their extra friendly behavior toward alternate suitors makes them appear untrustworthy. They may have no hidden agenda, but then again maybe they do. Only they really know for sure.

Bill Self undoubtedly maintained contact with Kansas officials since his days as a graduate assistant there. In the same way, he maintains contact with Chicago media, Oklahoma media, Texas media, New York media, and media in every area in which he has recruited or plans to recruit in the future. There is nothing wrong with that, but Illini fans and administrators didn't realize it. Thus, we were shocked when he seemed to show a sudden strong interest in Kansas. Had we been aware, we might have handled the situation better. It wouldn't have changed the outcome, but perhaps we could have accepted it a little better.

Indeed, it appears that Bill Self is a master manipulator with the media. Rumors persist that he used his national media contacts to plant the seeds that he was an outstanding prospect for the Illini job before he was hired. If true, that would have been totally consistent with his personality. And some of the positive articles in the Chicago papers in recent months may have been planted by him to help him recruit Chicago area athletes. What galls Illini fans is that Self is so good at this but is no longer using it to benefit us.

Bill Self is a wonderful interview, but he is smooth about what he says, making sure he doesn't say anything inaccurate or accusatory in order to protect his innermost feelings. For instance, he was asked in a radio interview if he was continuing to recruit Charlie Villanueva after leaving for Kansas. His response was that he was not recruiting him "at this time", but that we did not know why that was the case. That is where he left it. But the very next week, Villanueva made an official visit to Kansas. I'm sure Self wasn't lieing, but he preferred preciseness over truth.

Anyone with an ability to sense people's thoughts and not blinded by a fear of losing Self to Kansas knew the evening of the 2003 postseason basketball banquet that he was deeply involved in the Kansas situation and might leave us for it. Unfortunately, most of us were too caught up in our own emotions to realize it, and our hurt became even more severe when he actually departed because we believed only his words. Self was extremely careful not to lie, but he needed to be cautious with his exact words. Thus, he said no one from Kansas had yet officially offered him the job. That was true, but unofficially he already had plenty of contact and reassurance from Kansas. Only his guilt feelings and his need for extreme precision betrayed his words.

When Bill Self said he was "torn" about leaving Illinois, I am absolutely certain that he was confused. After all, he loved his players, especially his own recruits, and he knew he had a good thing going. He also felt guilty for leaving under those circumstances even though there was no doubt he planned to fulfill his long-term self-interest in becoming coach at Kansas. All in all, I think from his perspective he said all the right things and handled a difficult situation as well as he could. But he had no ability to realize how much he was hurting Illini players and fans.

Ironically, for all his skill as a communicator and friend-creator, Bill Self isn't aware of what it is like to love him and then watch him leave for someone else. He was shocked at all the negative reverberation, and he was hurt because he wanted us all to still like him. Part of his post-leaving media calls have been to former allies to solicit their support to counterbalance the negativity. He will likely never understand that people who feel jilted may never forgive him for his selfishness.

Thus, many of us fans maintain an unhealthy but predictable disgust for all things Self, even to the point of resenting this writer for bringing him up in any positive way. In truth, many Illini fans opened their hearts to Bill Self, and he broke those hearts when he decided to leave for "greener pastures". After all, his decision was just the latest of several deep insults from previous coaches and players like John Mackovic, Corey Maggette, Shaun Livingston, and Moe Dampeer, all of whom claimed their interest in more "elite" programs than Illinois. Bill Self and the others could have helped make us an elite program, but they chose the easier path of gravitating to programs that were already considered elite.

Why shouldn't we be upset? Our hearts were at their most vulnerable, and then they were shattered. Most of us reacted demonstrably in response to Self's decision, to try to block the pain we felt. Some chose to attack everything Self, and they are still derogatory toward him nearly a year later.

Some others chose to go into denial and create a falsely positive image in their minds about Self's replacement Bruce Weber. They bragged that Bruce was superior to Self in every way even though they knew little about him. They may be proven right in the long run, but there was little evidence to prove it at the time. Others became cynical and standoffish, developing a "show me" attitude. After all, they were hurt severely before, so they don't want to open their hearts again and have the same thing happen.

Alas, much has changed since then. Some feared initially that Bruce Weber could not coach, but 26-6 and a place in the Sweet 16 proves otherwise. Some thought he would not impress the media, alumni, fans or recruits because he isn't as smooth a talker or as classy a dresser. But he is a player's coach who impresses his players with his strong coaching abilities and his great heart. Rather than a playmate, Weber is more a loving father figure, but players enjoy playing for him just the same. And he is completely honest and forthright with the media, providing plenty of usable material for them to utilize in their writings. He won't manipulate the media or charm them into doing his bidding, but he will bend over backwards to help them get their work accomplished successfully.

Bruce Weber also comes with some warts, just like his predecessor. He has a somewhat high-pitched voice that is often scratchy from yelling encouragement and plays to his players during games. His honesty is disconcerting to some because he speaks from a stream of consciousness that seems undisciplined at times. As a result, he sometimes stops one comment in mid sentence because his mind is already working on the next thought. He speaks precisely what is on his mind with little or no effort to disguise or twist it to advantage. Most people find his emotional honesty refreshing, but it may not be as appreciated during difficult times as it is during exciting times.

Regardless, it is this openness that guarantees that we know exactly what Weber is thinking. When he says he loves Illinois and wants to be our coach for the long term, you can rest assured he means it. No hidden agendas here. When he comments on imperfections in his players, he does so with no malice but with a desire to help them improve and help fans understand. When he says we have a certain need, you can be certain he will try to develop it or recruit it. If he is down, we will know it, but when he is pleased we will know that also. Yes, Illini fans, we can learn to trust again.

Recruiting is a long-term game, and perhaps we cannot yet make a determination on Bruce Weber's recruiting abilities. But we already know that he outrecruited Tom Izzo for the best big man in Illinois this year in Shaun Pruitt. He has a chance to recruit the top Chicago Public League player in Simeon's Calvin Brock, and this is never an easy prospect. And he already has commitments from two juniors in Jamar Smith and David Palmer, both of whom have a midrange game (like Pruitt and Brock) that we have lacked this season. Weber does not yet have the same attraction to national recruits like Self appears to have, but I for one have been pleased at the hard work our recruiters are doing to become national in reach.

So this is the bottom line. We have a great coach in Bruce Weber, and he is every bit as good as his predecessor. Win or lose this week, he no longer needs to prove himself as he has answered all the concerns and faired well in direct comparison with Bill Self.

Thus, Illini fans can begin now to let go, little by little, of the pain of the recent past. We can now have a big party to celebrate all the good that Bill Self brought us and then let him do his thing elsewhere. He will do well at Kansas, and he will be a tough opponent when we play against him. If Illini fans have some extra incentive at that time, then let us hope we get our karmic balancing on the court. But Bill Self is now part of Illini legend and lore, and he provided us with much to enjoy.

I think we can now be big enough people to be both grateful for having him and thankful he left. After all, I no longer wish to trade Bruce Weber for Bill Self, and neither do most others. Bruce has proven that we are winners and a top program with him as the coach. We could ask for no more.

Go Illini!


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