Klee: Embattled Weber takes blame
CHAMPAIGN — In tracing through the errors that ultimately will lead to the end of the Bruce Weber era at Illinois, the most important one is the most unfortunate.
He tried to be something other than himself.
Whether it was helping Purdue to six Big Ten titles or SIU to the Sweet 16, Weber had a tried-and-true formula for success. Work harder than the competition. Recruit blue-collar kids that do the same and believe in the system. Win games.
On Wednesday at the Assembly Hall, the kind of players he used to recruit beat the kinds of players he's had so much trouble getting through to.
Robbie Hummel and Lewis Jackson willed Purdue to a 67-62 win that could be the dagger in the Illini's season. Illinois has lost seven of eight and is on pace to miss the NCAA tournament for the third time in five years.
Weber summed it up — not just Wednesday night's defeat, but the majority of the six seasons A.D. (After Dee) — with this: "You're trying to please everyone instead of pleasing yourself. That's my fault in hindsight."
Along the way at Illinois (16-10, 5-8 Big Ten), he strayed from his proven recipe. He tried to recruit the blue-chips instead of the blue-collars. He didn't win at SIU with EJ Gordon and Derrick Rose, two of the future NBA guards he pursued. He won with Darren Brooks and Kent Williams, Big Ten-caliber studs who hated losing more than they loved winning.
The frustrations came boiling over in Wednesday's postgame news conference after his former program beat his current program for the seventh straight time. Weber said he erred by not benching Meyers Leonard earlier this season when the sophomore showed poor "body language" on the court. He said the staff didn't challenge Brandon Paul enough, either.
"We're not doing him justice if we don't make him change," Weber said of Leonard, who had nine points and 12 rebounds. "The sad thing about the whole thing — and I guess it's my fault — instead of creating toughness and developing a team, I coached not to lose all year. And that's really sad, to be honest."
All of what he vented was what he's believed for several years but was hesitant to say publicly. And the honesty flowed in a self-critiquing tell-all that will be lambasted on airwaves today. Many of the players he's recruited to Illinois haven't fit the profile of the players he succeeded with. The same discipline that worked for decades isn't accepted anymore. And he went right along with it, instead of sticking by his own rules.
"It comes down to myself and the staff. If they're not doing it, I guess they're not instructing them well enough," he said. "It's all just little things."
Weber wore the orange blazer he sported at the highest point in his career — the NCAA championship game in 2005. Wednesday's affair felt like the lowest point — a loss to his former team, on the UI's homecourt, that could shove the Illini off the NCAA tournament bubble.
"A road win at Ohio State or Wisconsin is practically a necessity (for an at-large berth)," Yahoo! Sports bracketologist Brad Evans said after the game. "And that's assuming the Illini can defeat Nebraska in Lincoln and win their (two) home games."
Fittingly, the type of player that shares the attributes of Weber's better players almost saved the day. Hard-nosed Tracy Abrams scored a career-high 22 points in a show of great will; not simply for a freshman but for anyone.
"It's a constant fight: Who's stronger, who's tougher?" Abrams said.
"The problem is he's our leader (as a freshman). That's the problem," Weber said. "He's the one talking after the game in the locker room."
These bright lights seemed to change Weber, too. One of the funniest men you'll meet is afraid to crack a joke at speaking functions anymore, or drink a Miller Light in public, for fear of a cell-phone camera taking it to the Internet. Most of all, however, he seemed to bend for others, when his way worked in the past.
"That's my fault (for using less discipline). You've got to develop a culture," Weber said. "I think the last three years all I worried about was winning instead of developing a culture and a toughness. And that's my fault. And it's sometimes the kids. We're always kind of mollycoddling them. Sooner or later if you're a player, you're a player.
"Robbie Hummel's a player. (D.J.) Byrd's a player. They go make plays. Lewis Jackson makes plays."
In a twist of irony, two tough guys that wanted to attend Illinois — but didn't receive sincere scholarship offers — did in the Illini on Wednesday. Hummel and Jackson combined for 31 points for Purdue (17-9, 7-6) and pumped their fists as they walked down the tunnel.
"It's special," Jackson said. "I got bragging rights in my career. I'm (3 for 4) here, 7-2 (overall) so it's great to have bragging rights."