Weber and Illinois ready to put year's worth of controversy in the past
PARK RIDGE, Ill. -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber took heat publicly for losing out on one-time committed, highly touted recruit Eric Gordon, who may end up being an All-American at Indiana by season's end.
Weber's program was sullied last season when a car accident off campus left one player with a guilty plea to a DUI and a jail sentence of 15 days, and another player in intensive care after the driver and teammate left the scene of the accident.
Weber lost two highly rated local recruits to other programs last fall. He also lost one of his top recruiting assistants to Kentucky in September.
All those factors have been cause for some restlessness in the Illini nation, despite Weber's on-court success and being just two-plus seasons removed from playing for the national title.
"We have a great state and great fans like a lot of places, but like Kentucky, it's hard to live up to everybody," Weber said. "Plus you have the big city [Chicago] and a pro mentality with three newspapers and lots of talk radio where everybody is an expert. I was at Purdue and in the Big Ten, but I never anticipated [this]. Until you live it, you don't understand it."
Yet, none of that can compel Weber to change who he is: the Ward Cleaver of college basketball, a respected, clean-cut Midwestern man who doesn't want to dip his foot into anything that has a hint of indiscretion.
"He's not going to pay kids to come to Illinois, he's not going to cut corners and give them some phony picture," said former Purdue coach Gene Keady of his former protégé. "He tells you the truth, is honest. And if you're honest, then people can trust you."
"He's not going to make it dirty," Illinois senior forward Brian Randle said. "His emphasis is on life lessons. You have to respect him. I respect him, as a coach, as a father, as a man, and the way he's handled things and our program."
Although there are temptations to cut corners on the recruiting scene to get ahead and quiet his critics, Weber said he's not going to do anything in recruiting to embarrass himself, his family or the university. Simply put, Weber doesn't want to get into the middle-man business of handlers to get to recruits.
He stays by the book and tells you honestly what your chances are when you come in. That might scare off a lot of recruits, but it's something he values in recruiting. He honestly gives you a reasonable and fair chance.
"He stays by the book and tells you honestly what your chances are when you come in," Illinois senior forward Shaun Pruitt said. "That might scare off a lot of recruits, but it's something he values in recruiting. There might be perks on the other side but at the same time, somebody might be lying to you about playing time to just get you to go there. He honestly gives you a reasonable and fair chance."
That's why the past two months of relative peace have been a relief for Weber after a run of negative news.
A year ago, Gordon snubbed Illinois (with whom he had verbally committed) and chose the hometown Hoosiers once Mike Davis was out and Kelvin Sampson was in. Then, Kansas and Oregon were able to nab high-profile Chicago-area products -- Chicago native Mario Little went from Chipola CC in Florida to Kansas and Michael Dunigan and Matthew Humphrey picked Oregon. Top Illini newcomer Quinton Watkins failed to qualify academically for this season.
And after this summer's evaluation period, assistant coach Tracy Webster left Illinois to join Kentucky. Webster, who once worked for Keady, left Weber and Keady peeved over the timing.
"He basically was recruiting for them and not for us," Weber said.
"There was definitely a self-esteem problem," Weber said of his staff. "The bad thing is that they worked very hard, involved with kids from the eighth grade on and then didn't get them and it takes your heart out."
One thing that is indisputable is Weber's squeaky-clean reputation among his fellow coaches.
While Sampson is being investigated by the NCAA for excessive phone calls to recruits for the second time in his career, Weber sails along without a hint of unethical behavior.
And the numbers don't lie about his success in four years at Illinois.
The Illini were tied with Florida and Duke, going into this season, with the most wins (112) the past four seasons. Illinois has the most Big Ten wins (48) during the same period. The 51-year old Weber has the most wins of any Big Ten coach ever in his first four seasons. Illinois has been in the top 10 in national attendance.
Yet all of the great overall numbers can't camouflage the problems -- beyond the recruiting -- of Illinois' 2006-07 season.
Freshman forward Richard Semrau had a life-threatening chest infection after five games. He had surgery to fix the infection, but he did not play the rest of the season.
Then in February, a nasty car accident involving teammates Jamar Smith and Brian Carlwell left both with concussions. Carlwell's concussion was severe enough that he spent several days in intensive care. Smith was charged with a DUI and leaving the scene of an accident after be believed Carlwell was dead. He is being forced to redshirt this season as a punitive measure for his role in the accident.
Neither player stepped onto the court after the accident last season. The Illini finished 5-3 without the two players and bowed out to Virginia Tech in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
"I never could have anticipated what we went through from the injuries to the car accident to the other freshman getting sick, to essentially two freshmen on the critical floor [of the hospital] with life-threatening things," Weber said. "You can't prepare yourself for that."
There are no signs that Weber has any internal pressure from the university. Still, the Illini staff needed a boost. Getting Chicago's Stan Simpson to sign a letter of intent on Wednesday was a nice start. Receiving commitments from Illinois players Joseph Bertrand, Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson for the class of 2009 was huge. So, too, was a commitment out of Jereme Richmond for 2010. They were in-state players the Illini needed for their self-confidence.
And now, one season removed from all that drama, the Illini have started a new campaign with an eight-point win over Northeastern. After besting Hawaii, 79-77, on Friday, they are ready to hit the national radar with the Maui Invitational, starting with a game Monday against Arizona State (11:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Right now, the NCAA Tournament is a questionable destination with Randle and Pruitt the only two players who can be counted on without hesitation. The rest of the players, notably Calvin Brock and Chester Frazier, are still unknown commodities.
Weber has no plans on leaving. He will gladly stay with the Illini nation for as long as they will have him. He's not someone who likes to make waves. And he doesn't chase or embrace chaos, either.
"I've got one of the best basketball jobs in the country and we can still have a program that goes back to the Final Four," Weber said. "And I'd like to win a national championship for them, but do it the right way. That's the most important thing to me."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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