Sunday, March 20, 2011
For Bruce Weber, its not about beating Kansas, its about beating Bill Self
April 21, 2003. My junior year at Memorial High School, I was in Lawrence, Kansas, taking my first college visit at the University of Kansas. It was a jubilant day on the KU campus, not because I was there, but because it also happened to be the very day that Bill Self left a jilted Illinois to become the head basketball coach of the Kansas Jayhawks. Nine days later Bruce Weber was named as Self’s replacement, but he has never been fully embraced, because the Illini faithful have not been able to let go of Self. On Sunday, Weber has the chance to beat the coach that his team’s fans would rather have, and he knows it.
In three years at Illinois, Self won 78 games, two Big Ten titles, and advanced in the NCAA Tournament as far as the Elite Eight, which came in his first year, after taking Tulsa there the season before. He was loved in Champaign, and they were crushed when he left. Just 40 at the time, he was the man they wanted to sit on their bench for decades like Harry Coombes and Lou Henson had, only more successful.
Weber was a logical replacement. A Midwest guy who was an assistant for Gene Keady at Purdue for almost 20 years. He left Purdue in 1998 to take over at Southern Illinois in Carbondale, just 175 miles from Champaign, where he won over 100 games in five seasons. He won conference titles his final two campaigns, and upset Texas Tech and Georgia en-route to a Sweet 16 appearance in 2002, but the Illinois fans didn’t want Weber, they wanted Self.
Early on, it was a struggle early on for Weber in his first season at Illinois. All the talk was about Self, and it had become a distraction, so how do you get rid of a distraction you ask? You kill it, you bury it, and that was what Weber did. He held a Bill Self mock funeral; in essence saying that Bill Self is gone, I’m here, let’s move on together.
In their first seasons at their new schools, both Weber and Self enjoyed a great deal of success. Weber won the Big Ten and reached the Sweet 16, while Self once again got to the Elite Eight. The next year, Illinois almost ran the table and won a National Championship, losing just its final regular season game, and the championship game. Self’s Jayhawks were stunned by Bucknell in the first round that year, and by Bradley a year later, and it looked like Weber had gotten the Illini faithful to forget about the guy who preceded him. That didn’t last long.
For Weber, things started to go downhill before the 2006-07 season when Eric Gordon de-committed from Illinois and signed with conference rival Indiana. That season Illinois was the last team to make the tournament, losing in the first round, while Self guided Kansas to another Elite Eight. Then disaster struck.
Self one-upped Weber’s 2005 dream season three years later with a national championship, something that even Roy Williams couldn’t do at Kansas, in fact he beat Williams in the Final Four. That same season Illinois finished under .500, 9th in the Big Ten, and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years. 2009 saw an upset to Western Kentucky in the first round, and last year they missed the tournament again. All this while Self has put together one of the nation’s best programs. Kansas has won at least a share of the Big 12 seven straight years, and the Jayhawks have a 162-21 record the last five. It has reminded people in Illinois what might have been if he hadn’t left for Kansas eight years ago.
On Friday Illinois did something it hadn’t done in five years when ity won an NCAA Tournament game. Now on Sunday Weber has a chance to show the supporters of his program that there is no reason to miss the days of Bill Self. A win could very well put the fans at ease that the program is in great shape with Weber at the helm, that they don’t need that guy who came before him and left them in the dust.
Illinois beating Kansas gets the Illini to the Sweet 16 in San Antonio next week, but in the mid of Bruce Weber, beating Bill Self forever puts a close to the Bill Self era in Champaign, and the Illinois faithful can embrace their current coach the way they embraced their former coach.