By Joe Henricksen
We talk about teams, we talk about players and we talk about matchups throughout March. We often forget about the men directing these teams. Coaches are so often praised in the college game by fans and the media and branded as superstars with their big reputations, million-dollar contracts, designer suits and national exposure. In the high school game here in Illinois, coaches are often forgotten.
As I look at what has transpired these last couple of weeks on the state tournament trail, I am quickly drawn to the job many of these coaches have turned in. Sure, there are the legendary coaches like West Aurora's Gordie Kerkman and veteran elite coaches like Warren's Chuck Ramsey still playing, but there is a solid, up-and-coming young group of coaches who have their teams turning heads, including Schaumburg's Matt Walsh, Metea Valley's Bob Vozza and Marist's Gene Nolan.
You can't--and shouldn't--always measure a coach by championships won and perennial success. Sure, it's easy to say a coach is great as they win regional and sectional titles. And, yes, quality coaching does often translate to big-time success. But often it does take some people with true basketball knowledge to appreciate the talents of a coach when watching their teams play as they go a modest 15-10 or even a gut-through-it eight or nine-win season.
There is a common trend when watching Schaumburg, Metea Valley and Marist in the discipline they play with, how prepared their teams are and the composure they have playing under their respective coaches. But what is really interesting to watch when taking in any of those three coaches as they run their team is just how each one gets it done with a different, unique style.
It's not easy for a high school coach to create an identity in their program. It's not like college where you can recruit players to your system and build around the next great crop of talent you bring in. Walsh, Vozza and Nolan, all in different situations, have been able to accomplish that.
Even Simeon's Rob Smith is highly overlooked. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the naysayers will comment Smith has been blessed with coaching Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker (Yes, that is like hitting the coach/player lottery--twice) and all that Division I talent. They will say, "I could coach that team and win."
No, you couldn't.
On the floor, against quality competition, year after year, Simeon goes about it in a way others don't. Smith schedules the right way. He disciplines. He instills toughness and patience. He preaches team first. And in a culture that praises individual success, it's a difficult task to get every player on the same page, especially when dealing with the high-level talent Smith is blessed and fortunate to coach. Smith does that about as well as any coach in state history. Plus, his teams know how to handle themselves and the situation at crunch time, and that's a reflection of the man in charge.
Then there are the two coaches who the Hoops Report believes are clearly among the top five prep bosses in the state--Washington's Kevin Brown and Evanston's Mike Ellis. Many times when watching their teams, talking basketball with them or even watching them match wits with a few opposing coaches, it's like chess vs. checkers.
Ellis and Brown will X and O with anyone. Their teams are always prepared. And in addition to their programs winning, their players always seem to get better. That's an underrated quality of a high school coach.
The reason we're talking about the likes of Ellis and Brown, along with Vozza, Nolan and Walsh, is that today each one of these coaches have their teams still alive, playing in a sectional championship Friday night. But this is a group of coaches that need to be recognized for what they've done presently, but also in the recent past and going forward.
And one more coach ...
Say what you want about Illinois coach Bruce Weber--as many people have over his tenure at Illinois and, more specifically, the last month--but there isn't a head coach who works and gets out more, especially at the high-major level. I took in the Simeon-Young game with Weber Tuesday night, talked throughout the game and he was his typical, classy self. Whether it's the low-point of his coaching career (the past month) or at his very peak (2005 Final Four season), he's the exact same, genuine, down-to-earth guy.
We've had a few conversations the last few weeks during this tumultuous time, and each time you just walk away or hang up the phone with coach Weber wishing things could be different for a guy who does it the right way and is a great man. The high-major coaching profession is absolutely cutthroat, a win-or-else mantra with big dollars invested. College programs and administration can talk all they want about graduating players and staying out of trouble with compliance offices, but at the end of the day that really doesn't matter. It's about wins, competing for championships. This became a sudden-death season for Weber and, well, we know what transpired.
There are just two problems I have had through this dreadful Illinois basketball stretch the past two months.
The first problem was the firestorm and distraction Weber's boss, athletic director Mike Thomas, created with his midseason brief rant on the state of Weber and the program. The story went national. And with a team and season that was so fragile at that particular point, the roof caved in. Who knows what Illinois would have done down the stretch, but the team's state of mind, concentration level and focus was lost. The roster, especially with so many newcomers in their first year on campus, was greatly impacted. There was just no need for an impromptu state-of-the-union address with any reporter at that time from the athletic director. Go ahead and lay out the expectations for the program and the non-support for the coach when/if the season becomes a complete loss. You don't do it in the middle of the Big Ten season.
The second problem I have had over the past two months is just the venom and nastiness being thrown around by fans--and some media members--towards Weber. Sadly, the Chicago media cares about Illinois basketball on two occasions: when the Illini are winning big or when a coach is clearly on the hot seat. But the fans? Wow.
I love passionate fans, and I wish the University of Illinois actually had more in this state--like we see throughout places like Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin. But this isn't ideal passion; it's craziness when it comes to some of the verbiage being thrown around. Regardless of what has transpired over the past two months, the past three or four years, the fact remains that Weber has done things with this program no other coach has done in half a century. The 37 victories in 2004-2005 are the most in college basketball history for a single season. He won back-to-back outright Big Ten championships, the only coach in Illinois to do so in the past 60 years. Plus, as mentioned, he's done so in a way that is respected by everyone he's come in contact with--from the media to fellow Big Ten coaching colleagues, U.S. Baskeball to the local basketball people throughout Illinois.
Any coaching fallout is likely to get ugly, I realize that. But it's still a coach that accomplished big things at one point and should be appreciated for that.
Despite all the distractions he is facing and heat he is taking, Weber made it to Argo to take in the biggest game the state had to offer on Tuesday night. And as I sat with Weber, he was asked to take at least 25-30 pictures with fans--and he obliged without a hint of annoyance, asking the fans questions and making them feel comfortable.
Said at least two kids as they finished up, "Thanks, coach! We tried to get a picture with coach K but he blew us off."
At this point, now that the inevitable is here, why not show some compassion and thank the coach?
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