After losing some outstanding senior recruits to Duke, Kansas and Indiana and failing to cash in on his Final Four appearance in 2005, Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber opted for a new recruiting strategy--and it appears to be paying off.
Weber still is counting on the loyalty of home-grown players but he is focusing on freshmen and sophomores, not seniors. He is building solid relationships from the grass-roots level and counting on his time-tested ability to evaluate talent to uncover future stars.
It is hard to find fault with his game plan. Juniors D.J. Richardson (Peoria Central), Joseph Bertrand (Sterling) and Brandon Paul (Warren) and sophomore Jereme Richmond (Waukegan) already have demonstrated that they rank among the state's most promising players, in any class.
The trick is to turn Richardson, Bertrand, Paul and Richmond into pied pipers who will persuade other standouts, from Illinois and beyond, to join Weber's program. Cazzie Russell did it at Michigan. Quinn Buckner did it at Indiana. And Mark Aguirre did it at DePaul.
Nobody did a better job of preaching Illinois Loyalty than Harry Combes. It was a different era, of course, a time before interstate highways, cell phones, Internet, McDonald's and Holiday Inn. Even the new-fangled television sets only came with black-and-white reception.
Combes was one of the most successful high school coaches in Illinois history. He posted a 254-46 record at Champaign, winning a state title in 1946. After finishing second in 1947, he succeeded Doug Mills as head coach at Illinois. He won three Big Ten titles in his first five years and had three third-place finishes in the NCAA tournament in a four-year period.
And he did it with home-grown talent. His 1948-49 team was captained by Centralia's legendary Dike Eddleman and included future NBA star Wally Osterkorn (Amundsen), Bill Erickson (Rockford East) and Don Sunderlage (Elgin). His 1950-51 team was captained by Sunderlage and included Ted Beach and Rod Fletcher (Champaign), Irv Bemoras (Marshall), Clive Follmer (Forrest) and Bob Peterson (Elgin). And his 1951-52 club was captained by Fletcher and included Peterson, Follmer, Bemoras, Johnny Kerr (Tilden) and Jim Bredar (Salem).
During the early 1950s, Combes dominated recruiting in Illinois, landing other outstanding players, including Max Hooper (Mount Vernon), Billy Ridley (Taylorville), Harv Schmidt (Kankakee), Paul and Phil Judson (Hebron), Bruce Brothers (Quincy), Bill Altenberger (East St. Louis), Ted Caiazza (Lyons), Don Ohl (Edwardsville) and Hiles Stout (Peoria Central).
Later, in 1956, Combes signed a blue-chip class that included Mannie Jackson and Govoner Vaughn (Edwardsville), Johnny Wessels (West Rockford), Ed Perry (Salem) and Al Gosnell (Lawrenceville).
Oh, Combes didn't get everybody. He still had to confront Iowa, Indiana, Kansas and Bradley, which were national powers in the 1950s. He lost Archie Dees (Mount Carmel) to Indiana, Bobby Joe Mason (Centralia) to Bradley, Tom Hawkins (Parker) to Notre Dame, Joe Ruklick (Princeton) to Northwestern and McKinley Davis and Carl Cain (Freeport) and Nolden Gentry (West Rockford) to Iowa.
But if Weber is as successful as Combes was at keeping a majority of Illinois high school stars at home, he won't have to worry about what Kelvin Sampson is doing at Indiana.