By Joe Henricksen
This is typically the time of year to celebrate the high school senior who signs the letter-of-intent or glamorize the recruiting class hauled in by a particular college basketball program. Today, it's time to salute Illinois coach Bruce Weber.
I remember a conversation I had with a respected Division I basketball coach over two years ago who was willing to bet me that Jereme Richmond would never sign with Illinois. And there were other doubters out there, including many in the media. Even the fans were skeptical (and some worse than skeptical) following the Eric Gordon saga, Derrick Rose fiasco and a couple of other recruiting misses, including the gut-wrenching loss of Evan Turner to Ohio State. A good friend of mine, a diehard Illini fan and Illinois graduate, told me he wouldn't bother getting excited until signing day. Even I had a timetable in place where Illinois had to have certain recruits in place by a certain time before things could have gotten ugly. Ironically, that timetable was the fall of 2007 and the dominoes started to fall (and they haven't stopped) with the commitments of D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul joining the already committed Jereme Richmond.
Now, after back-to-back terrific recruiting classes, it's time to get excited. And time to credit the man in charge.
The highly-regarded Richmond will sign this week with Illinois. While Tracy Webster, the former Illinois assistant coach, should get plenty of credit for helping secure the commitment three years ago, and current assistant Jerrance Howard should be applauded for helping keep Richmond committed, the bottom line is Weber has maintained his and the program's integrity, done things the right way, changed a few philosophies up and has hit it big.
In addition to Richmond, Weber found Robinson big man Meyers Leonard early on and locked up a player virtually few people in the business knew about before he became what he is today -- a top 50 player nationally with tremendous upside. Rich South's Crandall Head will also sign with Illinois. Though his star has faded somewhat, he's still an intriguing prospect with limitless physical abilities. And this class comes on the heels of last year's class of Richardson, Paul, Tyler Griffey and Joseph Bertrand.
There was certainly a point where there was some deserved pessimism by those who follow Illinois closely. No, they didn't truly capitalize as much they should have following the magical Final Four run during the 2004-2005 season. But that is now so Jon and Kate Gosselin -- old and done with. The program is on solid ground with a very bright future.
And much-deserved credit needs to go to Weber, who doesn't always get it -- mostly because he doesn't appear to be as hip or savvy as some others in the business. He's a blue-collar workhorse. While he lets his assistants do their jobs, he also has enough CEO in him to keep a pulse on things throughout the program.
The guy has won over 72 percent of his games at Illinois, with a Final Four appearance, two Big Ten titles and two runner-up finishes in his six years. He owns the highest winning percentage of any coach in Big Ten history who has coached at least six years in the conference. Plus, one of his great underrated abilities that often goes unnoticed is his knack for developing players, making them better and preparing them. By and large, the players that come into Illinois are taught and clearly get better during their careers. That can often get lost in the recruiting battles and conversations.
But the doubt surrounding him was always centered on his recruiting efforts and potential, with the perception being he just doesn't have the natural ability to recruit. But those on the outside are missing something.
"He is so honest and genuine," says Illini assistant coach Jerrance Howard of his boss. "He doesn't play games. The players and their families appreciate that. When he sits down in front of those kids and their parents, they see his sincerity. He's a man of his word."
And he works at it. Hard.
First, there may not be a high-major Division I head coach who puts in more time and effort into recruiting than Weber. No high-major head coach, at least here in the Midwest, is out and about more than Weber. He sees players, even cross-checking prospects much like a Major League Baseball scout would. While a few other high-major coaches are flying private jets and have personal drivers during the July evaluation period, Weber is taking red-eye commercial flights and punching in to the GPS in the rental car.
I remember the last day in Las Vegas in July. Most everyone had fled, especially the head coaches, by that point. But in a 14-and-under tournament game, involving prized Class of 2013 prospects Jabari Parker and Tommy Hamilton, there were only three coaches in the entire gym -- a couple of assistants and Bruce Weber, the only head coach in the building.
It's not as if Weber is this young pup, fresh and eager and just getting into the recruiting rat race. He's going on three decades of what really is the grunt work of a college coach -- evaluating and recruiting. Believe it or not, there truly are some coaches who don't put the time into it and generally have a distaste for it. But Weber is just a blue collar coach when it comes to recruiting.
Now he has built recruiting momentum. He has a pair of impressive back-to-back classes in the fold, plus Class of 2011 star Tracy Abrams of Mt. Carmel, the Hoops Report's No. 2 prospect in the class, and 6-9 Nnanna Egwu of St. Ignatius already committed. He's now knocking on the door with one of the nation's best players in the Class of 2011, Bradley Beal out of St. Louis. Where just two or three years ago when a top player was mentioned with Illinois it was an afterthought. Now there is a belief that, yes, they just might land him.
Kudos, Bruce Weber. Enjoy the week.