Through the Trifocals

Voters will soon be deciding who is Big 10 and National Coach of the Year. Illinisports says there is one coach who deserves these honors above all others...Bruce Weber.

Those who vote for Coach of the Year honors, both for the Big 10 and nationally, should have no trouble choosing the best coach. Bruce Weber has led the Fighting Illini to an unbeaten season and the unanimous #1 ranking in the country, so he should be voted as best coach. But somehow, I have a hunch it won't be that much a no-brainer for some voters.

There will be some who take the Illini's accomplishments for granted. They will rationalize that we had a favorable early schedule, that we played in a conference that was down this year, that we had upperclass stars who should be easy to coach, or that we somehow have been the beneficiary of an extraordinary amount of good fortune. None of these explanations is completely inaccurate, so Bruce Weber will have some detractors and other coaches will have their backers.

Certainly, on the national level, Al Skinner of Boston College has done a wonderful job with an overachieving unit and deserves recognition. And individual conferences can brag about the accomplishments of underdogs like Dan Monson at Minnesota and Seth Greenberg at Virginia Tech. Truly, there are some fine coaches in the country, and it is a shame that all cannot be recognized.

But at the same time, there are some coaches who will be propped up for Coach of the Year simply because they have name recognition. For example, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke is an outstanding coach, but he reminds me of Gladstone Gander of the old Donald Duck comic books. Gander would just walk down the street and money would fall into his hand. If he needed a job, someone would offer it to him with no effort on his part. If he wanted something, he got it.

Krzyzewski has amazing serendipity to go along with his abilities, so he is said to be a legitimate candidate for National COY honors. His supporters claim he has done wonders with a limited team. Sure, he lost Luol Deng and Shaun Livingston to the pro draft. So what? He still has McDonald's All-Americans patroling his bench in addition to several starters. How are you overachieving when you have that much talent? Give those players to Bruce Weber and see how well they can play before making comparisons, but that will not happen. Somehow, Coach K will get votes simply because it is his destiny to have good things fall into his lap.

In contrast, Bruce Weber is a blue-collar worker who would rather win than be in the limelight. He played a secondary role all those years behind Gene Keady, so personal ambition was not his primary concern. He wanted to be a head coach, but winning was good in and of itself. When he did get a head job, and his former boss had to get along without him, people outside of Purdue began to realize Weber's enormous potential as a coach.

But even when Weber won two conference championships at Southern Illinois and an undisputed Big 10 conference championship in his first year at Illinois, many people still overlooked him when considering top coaches. He was even excluded in one national list of "upcoming coaching stars" prior to the start of this season. The way he is perceived nationally reminds me of Lou Henson, the Rodney Dangerfield of college coaches who never got the respect he deserved. Coach Weber has to EARN what he gets in life; he doesn't have it handed to him on a silver platter.

The 2004-2005 version of the Fighting Illini is special for many reasons. We have four seniors (two of whom are in their fifth year) who have stuck with the program and continued to improve each year. We have three juniors, all of whom may eventually be good enough to play in the NBA. We have some good young depth that can serve as competition during practice for the veterans. We have won enough in the past to gain significant confidence levels, but we have lost just enough to make us hungry for more success this year. And we have had so much good fortune regarding injuries, eligibility, game and travel conditions, fan support, etc. to make one believe in Destiny.

But despite so many things in our favor, it has been Bruce Weber who has been at the heart of our progression from a good team with national aspirations to a dominant team with a chance to go undefeated for a whole season. When we talk about team chemistry, it is the coaching staff that serves as the substrate from which a positive chemical reaction can result. The Illini have a great chance to win a National Championship. If so, it is their TEAM that is the Most Valuable Player, not one or two individuals. And that Team is inspired and integrated into a cohesive whole by its head coach.

Weber is the glue that holds everthing else together. He is the driving force for making it possible for 13 individuals to blend together as one organism, like the cells of one brain. The potential for a great team was already building on campus when Bruce Weber arrived from Carbondale less than 2 years ago. But who could guarantee that his energy would combine with that of his players in such a compatible way? A positive result was far from certain when he first replaced a predecessor who was much respected by Illini players.

For most coaches entering that situation, replacing a coaching star would be difficult at best. There was every reason to predict tension, dissention and even a fracturous splitting into separate subgroups of incompatible biomass. Bill Self was certainly no legend at Illinois, but most fans were desperate to retain him when he was approached by Kansas. And the players saw him as a buddy or father figure who was the key to helping them fulfill their NBA aspirations. Bruce Weber might have been walking into a firestorm.

Much credit must be given to individual Illini players for their willingness to adapt, over time, to the severe changes that occurred. Weber wanted to use a different offense than Self, and even the defensive side of the ball required major adjustment even though both coaches preached strong defense.

The players must have been shocked when Coach Weber walked in the first day and told them their previous system was beatable. He didn't just insist on his own methods, he proceeded to demonstrate how limiting their predecessor's offense really was. More than one player probably resented this at first, but Weber was ultimately able to prove his point. Now, of course, the players all agree they have more options and are harder to defend than before Weber arrived.

You see, Weber has a trait that is often overlooked by the outside world. He is a real leader, not just someone who wants to be in charge of his own basketball program. He has a confidence level that permits him to approach young men who have already experienced a great deal of success and challenge them to become even better. He felt immediately comfortable in the new role of head coach at an elite high major college program, enough to look potential stars in the eyes and not feel intimidated.

Some coaches might have just tried to maintain the status quo and wait until his own recruits could take over the program. They would have feared a mutiny with any major changes. Other coaches might have tried to force their dominant will onto the players, making them submit just for the sake of propping up the coach's ego. Both approaches would have failed miserably.

Weber had the confidence, not arrogance, to lead an experienced team into battle. He didn't use that confidence to prove his leadership, but to improve their games and help the team. He walked up to Dee Brown, the charismatic "poster child" already revered by Illini fans, and with love in his heart told him he was good, but he must make improvements if he wants to play in the NBA.

Dee was already comfortable with the old system and his old ways. But Weber talked to him about using his left hand more. And he told him he must learn to penetrate and either dish to an open man or pull up for a quick leaner rather than rely strictly on three-pointers and layups. Dee was reluctant to change at first, but his game flourished once he bought into the new system and new coach. Not every coach could have generated this positive a response.

Weber had the confidence to look boldly at ultimate goals for his new team. He circled the dates for the 2005 National Championship games in St. Louis on the calendar two years ago. He had a plan, and he believed this team could achieve that goal. At first, the players were disappointed there was no similar goal for 2004, but Weber knew that much growth was necessary before we had the maturity to face severe obstacles with confidence and win. His vision from two years ago is coming into clearer and clearer focus for the players and fans alike as each day passes. But he saw it then and has worked for it every day since.

All coaches say their ultimate goal is a National Championship. But Weber believed it, and his players believe it as well. Perhaps the players would have this goal regardless of their coach, but who could have expected our record to be 28-0 at this writing? We have developed enough maturity and quality to win every game, home or away, regardless of the challenge. Few if any who desire a National Championship expect to go unbeaten along the way. But Weber and his assistants have done much to make this possible.

What has amazed me more than anything is Weber's attitude about winning and being proclaimed #1 in the country. Most coaches would say, "We would rather not be ranked #1 until the end of the season. Being ranked #1 puts a big target on our backs, and everyone becomes inspired to knock us off. We would rather sneak up on people."

What does Weber say? To paraphrase, "Let's enjoy this. It doesn't come along very often, so we should embrace it and appreciate it for what it is. Everyone will be out to get us, but that will just give us extra incentive to grow and improve. Our opponents can help make us the best we can be."

Each game is a new obstacle for a team with an unbeaten record, and yet Bruce Weber has found ways to challenge his players and keep them focused on their short-term and long-term goals. He has helped keep them on an even keel, keeping them motivated against lesser opponents and guarding against let-downs after big wins. We have only come out flat in a couple of games all year, a tribute to his consistency and cleverness.

And the team has remained amazingly relaxed and fun-loving despite all the seeming pressures of being a marked team. While I doubt Weber participates in or even understands all the game-playing and teasing that goes on between players, he allows time for fun. He trusts his players to become focused when they need to, so he allows them time to let off steam and relax. He even laughs along with them, as if they are just a bunch of kids out for a romp at the playground. Worry about a possible loss? Not this bunch.

Some coaches would become increasingly demonstrative and controlling as an unbeaten season continues, once they begin to imagine all the personal rewards they might attain with continued success. They might become insufferable, leading to increased pressure, decreased fun, increased muscle tightness and ultimately failure. Not Weber. This is a loose group to begin with, so he allows them to be themselves rather than mold them into some predetermined ideal. If you ask me, that is a remarkable statement about Weber because it demonstrates he knows when NOT to work so hard to win. Sometimes, it is what you don't do that is just as important as what you do.

This man Weber knows how to win! Why bother winning unless you can enjoy it? This attitude is proof to me that Weber is meant to win big throughout his career as a head coach. How can any star baskeball player who sincerely desires to win championships not want to play for Bruce Weber? And what better way to get public exposure for your game than winning big in front of a national audience? Our present players are not lottery picks or predicted for NBA superstardom, but four or possibly all five of our starters will get the chance to play pro ball somewhere. Their reputations and therefore future earning potential are enhanced because they are winners. Everybody loves winners!

Truly, a winner is someone who is unafraid of losing. While most coaches get more conservative and uptight emotionally during close, pressurized games, Weber keeps his wits about him and derives ways to counter and defeat his opponents' strategies. He finds weaknesses and exploits them, even under duress late in the game. He doesn't go into the equivalent of football's "prevent defense" to keep from losing. Rather, he attacks with new plays and increased vigor.

He has even trained his team to counterpunch an opponent's success. I love watching how often the Illini end up with a secondary fast break basket on an opponent's made basket. After awhile, it becomes emotionally disturbing for the opponent to make a basket. They become so fearful of getting back on defense to counter our fast break, they become less relaxed on their shots on the offensive end. If they miss, they can get back quicker. Most players don't consciously think this, but there is no doubt we plant that fear in the back of their minds, to fester and cause a tightening during close games.

And speaking of demoralizing the opposition, what better way to do that than unselfish team play? On one possession against Northwestern, the Illini made 15 passes (counting the inbounds pass) before Dee Brown nailed a three pointer. That is nearly one pass every 2 seconds. We made the Wildcats defend all positions on the floor, back and forth, back and forth. By the time Dee got the ball the last time, no Northwestern player had the energy or confidence to challenge him. And the look on Wildcat faces after the made basket was clear...they were now a beaten team just begging for the final horn to end the game.

There is no doubt the Illini are, to a man, unselfish to a fault. We recruited players with that potential to begin with. After all, who could possibly prefer a selfish player over an unselfish one? But all players must balance their individual abilities and motivations with team needs, and this can be a challenge even for the most unselfish players.

Coach Weber and his assistants Jay Price, Wayne McClain, Tracy Webster and Gary Nottingham have taught and rewarded unselfishness. They have made it seem so valuable that players actually call their teammates out in practice and games if they begin to behave in a fashion unconducive to team needs. Unselfishness means victories and championships. It is our greatest weapon, and it cannot be defended if continued throughout the game. This togetherness and unselfishness starts with the head coach.

To be a leader, a coach must be unselfish in his dealings with his players, the fans, the alumni and the media. This can be a real juggling act at times. He must make sure the players have sufficient access to the media, but he must also care enough about them to guard their right to privacy. He must do the same with the needs of the fans. Weber encourages the players to cater to the needs of the fans, for autographs and the like. But he knows when to call a moratorium if the players need more time to be with family or to study.

Bruce Weber was once quoted to the effect that a good leader is one who never gives up on himself nor on any of those he leads. In other words, a leader works side-by-side with his followers, making sure that neither side gives up or settles for limited results. No better example of this is Weber's work with Luther Head last year.

Luther made some mistakes, and some might have given up on him. At one point, Luther even volunteered to quit the team, willing to give up on himself. But Weber believes in rehabilitation. He insisted that Luther live up to his financial and legal obligations, but he also proved conclusively that he would continue to work with Luther as long as he was willing to work on improving himself. Fortunately, Luther Head wanted to make the necessary changes, and look at him now. Some may vote for him as Player of the Year in the Big 10, he will be graduating, and he now has pro possibilities. None of this was likely if Weber had not been such a caring and committed leader.

Bruce Weber is excellent in the X's and O's, and is midgame adjustments are becoming legendary for the frequency of their success. But his value to the Illini goes far beyond that. Those who look only at the exterior of a man may miss out on the true quality that lies within. Yes, he may look to some like a laborer off a Milwaukee bottling plant assembly line. Yes, he has a scratchy voice and is sometimes too honest for some people to understand or appreciate. No, he is not the smooth-talking politician who hypnotizes his audience with his vibrato and legerdemain to disguise his hollow interior.

Like the sculptor who carves away what doesn't belong to find the object of his art hidden within, look inside Bruce Weber and you find a superstar. See the bright light of clarity and knowingness within his sharp mind. Feel the heart of pure gold that surrounds, warms and uplifts his personal universe. Hear the sound of confidence and inner peace as he describes his plans for his team. Sense his pride in his team and his gratitude for his position within his profession. Look inside and you find a self-actualized coach.

Should Bruce Weber be named Big 10 Coach of the Year? Yes, of course. Should Bruce Weber be named National Coach of the Year? Indubitably! Who could have possibly done more? Whether he wins these awards or not, he certainly deserves them.

In my mind, perhaps an even better name of recognition is possible. For one, I will just call him "THE COACH."

Go Illini!!!

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