Every reporter has an agenda, or edge - call it what you will; but this is something I do not understand. Why all the negative karma lately surrounding the Illinois basketball program? Just about every major and local paper in the state has a take on men's basketball this season at the University of Illinois.
We've read everything: Weber can't recruit; it's time for a change; he doesn't get along with Chicago Public League coaches; he can't control his players' actions off the court; he's not good enough to make Illinois elite; and he needs to hire better assistants.
This isn't to "defy" what everyone else has written, but enough is enough. Bill Self's recruits or not, Weber was the man that led them to the national title game back in 2005. He's the same guy that wouldn't turn down an interview for anyone. Weber is the same coach that would NEVER turn down an opportunity to sign a little girl's autograph. He's the same guy that could have turned on Chicago Public League player Luther Head when his future looked bleak, but never batted an eye to help the kid. Now Head is one of the all-time greats in Illinois basketball history.
Let's talk about some of Self's former players. This is no disrespect to either of these two young men, so please don't put your own spin on this - but what two players on this year's team took more heat than anyone? Junior Brian Randle and senior Rich McBride – two of Self's recruits. Now I'm not naïve enough to sit here and say Self can't recruit because he's proven that he can, but according to Illini fans and alums, if Randle and McBride would have lived up to just half of their billings the Illini would have beaten Virginia Tech last Friday night.
Recruiting is hard and I know first-hand Weber and his staff work hard at that job. I call recruits on a daily basis and some have told me they were contacted by the staff before Weber met with the press right after basketball games. They work just as hard as the next guy. Don't just "blame" Weber for losing some of the state's best recruits. There's no right way to do it – just work. Let's look at KU's Sherron Collins. Illinois went after that kid with everything they had legally, and may have lost other recruits along the way. If he hadn't gone after him, then you would have heard an uproar that he didn't pursue Collins hard enough. Where will that get him in the eyes of fans and boosters? Can you imagine how he feels knowing he put in the effort to land a 5-star recruit only to lose him and the other player that had to wait. Really, I think this year's team was missing that kind of star player and Weber still managed to win 23 games. How he did that I'll never know. That was one of the worst scoring teams I've witnessed in a long time.
Weber adjusted to what he had. In years past they ran the ball down opponents' guts. This year he didn't have that kind of team, so they guarded and took what the defense gave them.
I'm not about to sit here and show you what Weber's winning percentage is and what he's done against this team vs. another, but take your personal feelings out of the equation. Bottom line - the guy can coach. I really think all this negativity started with the loss of former recruit Eric Gordon. Remember that Bruce Weber was the same man that got him to commit in the first place, and for whatever reason he left. I know for a fact his leaving had nothing to do with Weber.
When I've dealt with Weber he has always been a gentleman. Not once have I ever called a recruit and been told, "I can't stand the guy. He's boring. He's not a good coach." AD Run Guenther knew what he was getting when he hired Weber - and that's an honest man that knows the game. Recruiting is an all-year job and they know how important it is. Drive by the basketball office late at night and I can assure you that when most of the fans are sleeping, the coaches are there trying to find the next Luther Head.
Last fall I was in Champaign and spoke with former Illini Deron Williams about Weber. There was a period of time when people felt Williams didn't like Weber. That's the farthest thing from the truth. Deron told me he likes Weber and feels he's a good coach even though he and his system were new to all the players. FYI: Williams still comes back to visit and play with his former teammates.
Never once did I say the man was perfect, but I think it's safe to point out that in 2005 he won nine different national Coach of the Year awards. I don't think he's forgotten how to do it in just two years.