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Weber a decent guy and coach. Is it too much to ask for more?

The Bruce Weber era at the University of Illinois is over.  He finished his career at Illinois with a 210-101 record and a Big Ten record of 89-65.  His career includes a national runner-up and two Big Ten titles.  This does not look like the record of a former coach, but a closer look reveals the problem.  Dee Brown and James Augustine graduated in 2006 with the most wins of any starters in Illinois basketball.  Since then, the Illini have been 50-56 in the Big Ten and 1-3 in the NCAA tournament (they will presumably not make the tournament this year).

Weber seemed to be a decent guy.  All accounts show that he ran a clean program in terms of NCAA rules.  With a few notable exceptions, e.g. Jamar Smith and Jereme Richmond, his players have seemed to be decent guys too.  Weber always seemed like an honest, hard-working, straight-shooter.  He went to Wisconsin-Milwaukee and coached at Purdue and Southern Illinois.  He is a Midwestern guy with a Midwestern ethic.  He brought no glitz or glamour.  His voice was always horse and his smile and orange blazer were always endearing.

The consensus opinion of Weber was that he was a good coach and a bad recruiter.  The problem was that he was a decent recruiter, and only a decent coach.  Close watchers of Illini basketball were frustrated by their lack of improvement.  Guys like Demetri McCamey and Brian Randle had loads of talent, but seemed to make the same mistakes as seniors as they did as sophomores.  The team seemed to constantly struggle against zone defenses. The easy basket on an in-bounds play or well drawn-up quick shot were rare.  Basketball “experts” seemed to talk about Weber’s great motion offense.  To me, his motion offense seemed too often to entail passing the ball around the perimeter for 30 seconds and then chucking up a three.  When it was Head, Williams, and Brown doing the chucking, it worked brilliantly.

Illinois remains the best program in college basketball to never win a title.  Over the last couple of seasons, it grew more obvious to me that Weber was not the man that would end that streak.  That said, I take no joy from the firing of Bruce Weber.  I also don’t worry much about him.  He has been compensated very well at Illinois, and he will surely be on a coaching staff somewhere very soon.  In the end, I will remember Weber as a decent guy and a decent coach that ran a decent program for awhile.

Is it too much to ask for more?  In the current climate of NCAA sports, I’m not sure it is possible to be clean and win championships.  A recent sports radio program asked Illinois fans, “Do you want a coach that is willing to cheat to win a championship?” In other words, do you want a temporary banner?

My answer is a resounding “no.”  Am I being naive in thinking it’s still possible to win at Illinois without cheating?  I really don’t think I am.  I guess I just want to believe that it is possible to win and be (relatively) clean. Part of the problem is that the NCAA’s rule book is ridiculously long, and sometimes illogical. I’m sure that there are small-scale rules violations all the time. The real systemic problem seems to be the AAU coaches and the pseudo-agents that HS kids get when they are in 9th grade or earlier. When coaches get enmeshed with these shady characters, that is when the real muck gets stirred.

I would not want a guy like John Caliparri to be the coach at the U of I. I just couldn’t cheer for the guy because all of the banners he wins are temporary. I believe that it is still possible to put together a solid basketball program without getting all of the 5-star recruits and getting involved in all that comes with them. Teach good, fundamental basketball to hard-working athletes and I believe you can have a consistent sweet 16 program, and break through every once in awhile.

Is that too much to ask for?

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(BTW, if you do a Bruce Weber image search on google, it would be a good idea to include something like “coach” or “basketball,” or you will be quite surprised.)

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What’s Guenther’s legacy?

So the news today in Illini Nation is that Ron Guenther has retired.  After 19 years of service as the  athletic director at the University of Illinois, he will step down on June 30.  As a huge Illini fan, I have mixed feelings.  I think Guenther has run a pretty good program.  They have had spots of success in many sports, and there has no been no major controversies surrounding their coaches. There was the Jamar Smith incident, but that seemed to be more of an isolated case than a part of a program-wide problem.

My first reaction to Guenther is that he ran a clean department that had excellence in non-revenue sports.  Under his watch the Illini became the only school outside of Florida, California and Texas to win an Men’s Tennis national championship.  I think that is pretty cool.  There also seemed to be a steady flow of national champions in track and field, wrestling and gymnastics.  The volleyball and soccer programs seem strong as well.  Most ignore these achievements, but I think it is a source of pride that Illini athletics seems to be pretty well-rounded.

Under his tenure Memorial Stadium underwent major renovations.  The entire football experience has been improved (although the ILL-INI chant is not as cool with the new alignment of the students).   Before the economy went belly-up, there were plans to renovate the Assembly Hall, and the practice facilities – which play a major part in recruitment – have also been improved.

On the field three seasons stand out: the 2001 Sugar Bowl football team, the 2005 Final Four basketball team and the 2008 Rose Bowl football team.  All three provided great memories and lasting records, but ended up falling short of championships.  And in the end, I feel like that is going to be the most enduring feeling over Guenther’s tenure – coming up short.

The football and men’s basketball programs have been frustrating to follow over the last 19 years.  They show signs of improvement and glimmers of excellence, only to slip back into maddening mediocrity.  Bruce Weber and Ron Zook seem like decent guys, and I appreciate their character, but I think the University of Illinois deserves better than decent.  It should be possible to have both character and championships.  While the athletic department seems to have character, the Illini don’t have enough championships.  Is it too much to want both? 

Maybe in the current climate of college athletics it is too much to ask for.  I’m glad the Illini didn’t run out and hire Tom Caliparri or Kelvin Sampson.  But it would be nice to hire a college basketball coach that knows how to beat a zone defense.  It would be nice to have football coaches that help players get better over four years instead of recruiting high school all-stars that never reach their potential.

There are some Illini fans that are celebrating today.  I’m not one of them.  I believe that Ron Guenther is a decent guy and ran a decent program.  I just think the Illini deserve better.

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The Best College Basketball Program Without a Championship

It really isn’t even much a debate.  I’ve decided what the best college basketball program is that never won a national championship. And the winner is…

Seriously, it’s not even really close.  In almost any way that you judge this, Illinois is the best overall basketball program to never win a national championship.  Not only do they have the best program, but might have had two of the best teams to not win chamionships.

I’m not really sure how I feel about this.  As a huge Illini fan, it’s not exactly something to be excited about.  The Illini are sort of the “Crash Davis” of college basketball.  Crash Davis, of course, is the fictional character in the movie “Bull Durham” that broke the record for most career home runs in the minor leagues.  On the one hand, it’s pretty cool to have hit more home runs than any one else.  On the other hand, he did it in the minors.  For Illinois, it is pretty cool to stack up the accolades, the Final Fours, the All-Americans, Big Ten Championships, and then realize that they were never the last team standing.  Ever.

Consider the following:

  • Illinois has 38 all-time NCAA tournament victories.  That is 18th all-time.  Every team in the top 20, other than the Illini, have a national championship.
  • Their 67 tournament games ranks 16th.  Again, all the teams in front of them have won a title.
  • 1,630 all-time victories is 13th all-time.  Penn, St. John’s, and Temple have more wins without a title.  Of those three, only St. John’s has a higher winning percentage.
  • 17 Big Ten Championships.  Purdue, Indiana and Ohio State have more.  Purdue has never won a national championship, and could be in this discussion, but their NCAA past isn’t strong enough.
  • 5 Final Four appearances.  That is tied for 14th all time.  Every team with more appearances has won a national championship.  The other teams with 5 Final Fours are Houston and Georgetown.  Georgetown won it in 1984.  Houston has never won a title.  But Houston had basically one great team in the early 80’s with Drexler and Olajuwon.  They went to three straight Final Fours from 1982-84, and all five were under the same coach.  Illinois’s Final Fours came in four different decades and were under three different coaches.  Plus, Houston hasn’t won an NCAA game since 1984.
  • 10 Sweet 16 appearances in four different decades – the 50s, 60s, 80s, and 2000s.
  • 6 consensu All-Americans
  • 1 title lost because of some of their best players, the original “Whiz Kids” enlisted to fight in World War II.
  • 47 Illini that played in the NBA, including guys with pretty good careers, like: Deron Williams, Kendal Gill, Nick Anderson, Nick Weatherspoon, Eddie Johnson, Johnny “Red” Kerr, and Hall of Famer Andy Phillip.
  • The website The Bleacher Report is the only other site I have seen that covered this topic.  They picked Memphis.  The author does not give a very good reason.  His reasoning: Memphis has three final fours and two national championship games, one dating back to 1973.  Nevermind the fact that one of those Final Fours has since been forfeited, but Illinois has more Final Fours, plus their three third place finishes date back to the post-war era.  We’re talking 60 years of being almost great.  Plus, he gives them extra credit for being in a non-power conference.  Not sure why that is a plus. I’ll take Illinois’s 17 Big Ten titles.
  • A year later the same website ranked the top 20 basketball programs of all time.  Guess who was the highest ranked program sans championship?  I’ll give you a clue, they wear orange and blue.  Illinois was ranked #17.  The only other team in the top twenty without a title was No. 20 Temple.
  • Sports Reference came out with a formula just a few weeks ago.  It is purely mathematical, using scores from all games.  Top Five: 1. Duke, 2. North Carolina, 3. Kansas, 4. Kentucky, 5. Illinois.  This is an objective figure.  No weight given to championships or NCAA tournaments or prestige.  It is purely about the scores of games, and Illinois came out 5th all-time.

I’m not sure what all of this proves.  That last figure actually depressed me a little.  What if those guys on the Whiz Kids stuck around and won a national championship and then enlisted?  What if Kentucky wasn’t allowed to play their regional finals at home in the 80s? What if Nick Anderson had boxed out and kept Michigan from putting back the game-winner in Seatle?  What if James Augustine hadn’t gotten into such ridiculous foul trouble?   How many championship banners could be hanging in the Assembly Hall?

There are some other good programs that have never won titles.  Memphis, Houston, Missouri, Purdue, Iowa, Temple, Kansas State could all make an argument.  None of them have the same resume – especially the prolonged “excellence.”  I guess I can take comfort in the fact that Phil Mickelson held the title, “Best Golfer without a Major” for years before finally breaking through with multiple championships.  Maybe the Illini can follow Lefty’s footsteps.  I fear, however, they’ll need a better plan against zone defenses and a stronger inside presence first.


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A letter to Dick Vitale, clown prince of college basketball

Dick Vitale, in all his Dukie glory

Dear Dick,

Let me just say that at one time I was a big fan.  I loved your excitement.  I loved the exuberance you brought to broadcasting.  I loved the “Better get a TO, baby.”  I loved it when you shouted “Slam bam jam!”  But somewhere along the way, you went from being a broadcaster into a character.  I’m not sure when it happened, but you went from being a sincerely excited fan of college basketball that just happened to have a mic, and turned into a caricature of yourself.  You and John Madden actually have a lot in common in this regard.  Maybe it was the fame.  Maybe it was when ESPN and CBS turned March Madness into a billion dollar extravaganza.  I can’t pinpoint the moment you jumped the shark, but in my mind it coincides with the moment you became Duke’s press agent.

Everyone knows it.  You are a Duke shill.  Your devotion to all things ACC, and Duke in particular is nauseating.  I used to love Duke too.  I became a college basketball fan watching Johnny Dawkins against Pervis Ellison in the Final Four.  I remember watching Laettner’s shot in my basement.  I loved watching Bobby Hurley upset UNLV (though looking back now I believe a lot of the Duke love at the time was as much about race and culture as it was about basketball).  Duke is a great program.  There are a lot of Duke haters out there, and much of it is jealousy.  They have won a lot of games, been to a lot of Final Fours, and they seem to do it with class.  But your devotion to all things Coach K has reached its limit, and it became so clear in the last couple of weeks.

A few weeks ago Illinois upset Michigan State on their home floor.  The Spartans are the class of the Big Ten.  At the time they were ranked No. 5 in the nation.  Illinois was unranked, facing a difficult stretch of their schedule, and in desperate need of a signature win to help their NCAA tournament resume.  In addition to this, it was College Game Day’s game of the week. The Game Day crew had been there all day.  It was the first time that Game Day had been to Champaign.  So you and Digger and two other ACC guys had worked the students and fans into a lather since 9 a.m.  When the Illini won, the student section stormed the court to celebrate.

Was it necesarry?  Who cares?  It was fun.  It was exciting.  It was a big win for the Illini, and storming the court is something unique to college basketball.  It is a part of what makes college basketball special.  Yet you, the clown prince of college basketball, got on your high horse and admonished the Illini fans for celebrating too much.  Aren’t you the guy that has become a millionaire for over-the-top celebrations?  Your point was that the Illini were too good to celebrate beating Michigan State.  They should act like it was no big deal – even though your network was saying all day and all week that it was a huge deal.  The Illini fans should have shown more restraint.  OK, fine.  Illinois should expect to win at home.  I’ll give you that, Dickie V.

But then a couple of nights ago Maryland beat Duke.  Duke was ranked No. 4.  Maryland was ranked No. 23.  After the win, the student section stormed the court (they then went outside and rioted, literally).  Where was your admonishment?  Where was your righteous indignation?  Why shouldn’t Maryland show some restraint?  I didn’t watch the game, but I’m pretty sure you weren’t ripping the Terrapin fans – for doing the same thing as the Illini fans just a couple of weeks before.  What was the difference?  It was because in your eyes, beating Duke is something special. 

Apparantly, rushing the court is always justified when beating the great and mighty Blue Devils.  They have, after all, been to one Final Four and won one national championship since 2000.  But wait, that is the exact same resume Maryland has, and Maryland did it more recently then Duke.  And Michigan State has won one national championship and been to four Final Fours since 2000.  Yet somehow Maryland, a ranked team and probably a lock for the NCAA tournament, beating No. 4 Duke is cause for riotous celebration.  But when Illinois, an unranked bubble team,  rushes the court after beating No. 5 Michigan State, they should show restraint.

Come on, Dick.  We all know you are on Duke’s payroll.  We know that ESPN coddles the Big East and ACC, but this is ridiculous.  Next time you are about to start screaming about how great the Dukies are, maybe you should get a T.O., baby.


The Fat Pastor


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“Not in Illinois”

My favorite commercial of all time:

In case the link above doesn’t work, here is a description:

A policeman is writing a ticket to a car.  There are North Carolina bumper stickers on it.  Cut to the policeman getting back in the car.  A voice from the point-of-view camera asks, “What did you get him for?”

The policeman responds, “Doing 36 in a 35.”  A Champaign County patch is seen on his arm.

“36 in a 35?  That’s a little harsh.”

The policeman responds, with jaw clenched, “Not in Illinois.”

The video cuts to clips from the final few seconds of the NCAA championship game between Illinois and North Carolina in 2005. 

So, is giving someone a ticket for going 36 in a 35 too harsh?  Not in Illinois.

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