Tate: For me, it's hard to boo Bill Self

Tate: For me, it's hard to boo Bill Self

We can grumble and we can fume ... but Bill Self remains an integral part of Illini heritage ... just like other mobile coaches like John Mackovic, Gene Bartow and Lon Kruger.

Sure, some would have booed him if he had been introduced at Saturday's reunion game because, well ... he left too much turmoil in his sudden departure, he successfully recruited Illinois prospects at Kansas, and most recently his Jayhawks eliminated the UI from the NCAA tournament.


But he was the man of the hour here Friday night, arriving at Bielfeldt with jeans and several days growth of beard, and fitting seamlessly into the crowd like he always does.

"He gets personal with his people, and he takes over every room he enters," said UI recruiter Jerrance Howard, a squad member on Self's 2001 and 2002 Big Ten champions. Counting those two, Self has won conference championships in 11 of the last 13 years at Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas.

"He was able to manage different personalities," said Robert Archibald, who played little in two previous years under Kruger but came of age under Self.

Archibald will be returning to play this season in Spain where he has spent most of his recent years.

"It is easier to push yourself when the coach points out that it makes a difference," Archibald said. "He might say that Cory (Bradford) got an open three because I got down the floor quick. Coach saw those things."

It was, in fact, almost as though Self had a photographic memory. He could watch five players up and down the court multiple times and recall exactly who did what and why it worked or didn't work. He was unique that way.

And his former assistant coach, Rob Judson, noted Friday:

"In that first summer he won the guys over with his personality. And his high-low system with Brian Cook fit those teams perfectly."

A team player

Self wasn't afraid of your boos. He's heard them before. But as much as he enjoyed Friday's affair — with Cook and Bradford and Deron Williams and all the guys — he elected not to stay because he "wanted Saturday's spotlight to be on the players."

He is much like Tiger Woods. Even leaders on the course don't get much attention when Woods is out there, even if he's not breaking par. Self will return home today with his memories, and reminders of events that made his stay in Illinois so successful.

"For me, I think the rally at Minnesota (67-66) in my second year was No. 1," he recalled. "I still have a picture in my office of Frank Williams making that winning basket, and all those fans in shock. That was awesome.

"Then there were the three wins over Missouri in St. Louis (he loved "kicking their butt"), the 'Paint the Hall Orange' game, and our comeback from 12 down against Wisconsin (68-67) at home that first year."

Earlier, the Illini rallied from a 21-point deficit to beat Seton Hall in overtime, and that first Self production reached No. 3 in the nation prior to a late-season 63-61 loss to Ohio State.

Luck of the draw

In a pattern that extends to the present time, Self productions have always had a better relationship with Lady Luck during the regular season than in the NCAA tournament ... with the exception of Kansas' title run in 2008.

For all his 78 victories at Illinois, the unique nature of his three NCAA losses made them especially hurtful.

— In 2001, Frank Williams racked 30 as Self's 13-3 Big Ten co-champs thumped Kansas 80-64 in the 2001 Sweet 16, only to be whistled into oblivion in an 87-81 loss to Lute Olson's Arizona Wildcats. Six Illini fouled out as Arizona made 43 of a record-setting 56 free throws.

— Meeting a Collison-Hinrich-Gooden Jayhawk powerhouse in the same round of 16 a year later, Illini deadeyes Cook (6 of 17) and Frank Williams (6 of 18) contributed to the UI's awful 38 percent shooting. Cook missed a trey with 22 seconds left that would have put Illinois ahead in an 83-79 loss.

— Self's last UI game was a 68-60 stunner. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey made a radical decision to single-guard Cook, a season-long 20-point scorer who went 6 for 23 while the erratic Irish, a mere 3 for 13 on treys in the setup 70-69 win against Milwaukee, nailed 13 of 24 against Illinois with 6-8 Maryland transfer Dan Miller nailing his first five.

Such is the crapshoot nature of postseason play. Self led Illinois into the tournament each year and, with hopes high, each finale had a sting to it.

On the positive side, Illinois grew into an established member of the national elite with two Big Ten titles and a near miss in 2003 as Wisconsin's Devin Harris converted a free throw in the final second for an early-March 60-59 outcome in Madison. But for that last second Illinois might have won five straight Big Ten titles.

The UI's final rankings under Self were Nos. 4, 13 and 11, and led to rankings of Nos. 13, 1 and 13 in the next three seasons under Bruce Weber.

You won't see me booing the central figure who made that happen.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached via email at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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IlliniOllie wrote on August 06, 2011 at 8:08 am

Why would fans boo Bill Self? He was directly responsible for the best season in Illinois history, not to mention responsible for some of the most beloved players in Illinois history (on a par with the '89 team).

It's not Bill Self's fault that the last five years of Illinois basketball have been underwhelming. I wonder if Bill Self left because he didn't want to get booed... or if Bill Self left because he didn't want to embarrass Bruce Weber.

JimOATSfan wrote on August 06, 2011 at 10:08 am

Thanks Coach Self ! Feel welcome to return to Illinois one day, if circumstances allow. Go Illini!