Bruce Weber has made Illinois the big one in the Big Ten
Interview by Kevin Newell
|Courtesy of the University of Illinois|
WEBER: My two brothers and two sisters helped fill our little house in Milwaukee, WI. Since our mom and dad both worked, we were definitely not poor, but definitely not rich either.
Sports really were a major focus in our house. All three boys played baseball, basketball, and football growing up. In high school, my oldest brother, Ron, played football. My younger brother, David, and myself just got into baseball and basketball.
My dad told all of us that we had to be teachers and coaches. He was pretty adamant about it, and that’s what we all are.
Ron has been a high school coach up in Waupaca, WI, for pretty close to 30 years.
David is the head coach at Glenwood North High in Chicago, who won the State AA title this year. My older sister was also a teacher and coached a little bit. Now she’s a counselor.
My younger sister was also in education, but was killed in a car accident her senior year of college.
COACH: What sports did you play at Milwaukee-Marshall H.S?
WEBER: I played three years of baseball and two years of basketball. I was a catcher in baseball, like my brother, David. There was a stretch there, I think for six or seven years, where one of us was the starting catcher at our high school. In basketball, I was a pretty solid point guard, but more cerebral than athletic.
COACH: You began your coaching career as a volunteer assistant coach at Madison H.S. in Milwaukee, followed by a varsity assistant job at Marquette University H.S. Describe your experience at the scholastic level?
WEBER: During my last couple of years of college at Wisconsin-Milwaukee I did a lot volunteer coaching. The Milwaukee public school system had a big summer program and a lot of recreation centers. All of my family, including my father, were involved in those programs and working with kids.
When my older brother became a high school coach, I got to know some people and started running summer high school camps. A guy by the name of Tom Desotell, who’s now the head coach at Sheboygan North H.S., let me help out coaching the JV as a volunteer assistant. I did some scouting, outdoor practice, whatever I could do just to get involved.
The following year, I actually got a real job as a full-time assistant at Milwaukee-Marquette University H.S. Paul Nowak was the coach there. Tom Desotell became a legend in Wisconsin high school basketball and Paul Nowak won a bunch of state championships. So I was extremely lucky to have had a very good background with some elite coaches.
When I decided to become a college coach, I applied pretty much everywhere in the country, hoping I’d catch on as a grad assistant some place. I think I was pretty naïve about what Division I basketball was at the time. I just lucked out.
Bob Gottlieb, who was the head coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was recruiting my younger brother. He hired an assistant named Jay Williams, who was a grad assistant for Coach Keady at Western Kentucky.
So we got to talking and he put in a good word for me. I had already applied to Western Kentucky’s grad school and had been accepted. It was late in the year, July or early August, and they needed somebody. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It was just a crazy circumstance being able to latch on with Coach Keady.
COACH: You served under Gene Keady at Western Kentucky for one season and Purdue for 19 years. What did you learn from him?
WEBER: He is just great at dealing with people and is a tremendous motivator. Any coach who’s gone against him will always tell you that he gets the most out of his talent.
We consistently overachieved. One year we were picked tenth in the Big Ten and won the conference.
Rarely did we ever get picked above fourth, fifth, or sixth and we were always competing for a championship. We won six Big Ten championships in that stretch, more than anyone else, by far. So we had a lot of success.
There’s no doubt I learned a lot from him: How he dealt with kids, how he motivated them, the little things he did with drills to get the kids to raise their level. I have used that in all of my coaching and all of my philosophies.
I’ve taken some of his stuff and mixed it with my personality. He is also a very good defensive coach. And defense is always our foundation. We then mix in a little bit of a fast-paced offense.
We call it pressure basketball: Pressure defense and pressure offense. And I think it has been pretty effective. We had good players at Southern Illinois and good players now at Illinois. And we are able to play that style and be pretty consistent.
COACH: You grew up in Milwaukee during the Al McGuire era at Marquette. How did Coach McGuire influence you?
WEBER: I was a major Marquette Warriors fan at that time. Al would have open practices on Friday and Saturday nights. I didn’t understand it as a kid, but he was just trying to keep his kids from going out as long as he could and keep them tired.
And he also wanted to simulate game situations. Because if you were going to play on Saturday night at 7 or 8 o’clock, he’d hold practice at that time. It was just amazing how he dealt with his players. I think he was a much better X’s and O’s guy than he ever let on or anyone ever gave him credit for.
His strength was a lot like Coach Keady’s in dealing with kids, relating to them, and getting the most out of them. He was very demanding, just like Coach Keady. The thing I learned from both of them is that you get out of your kids what you expect. If you expect excellence you get excellence; if you expect mediocrity, you get mediocrity.
COACH: Who are some of your other coaching mentors?
WEBER: Well, the high school guys I mentioned: Tom Desotell and definitely Paul Nowak. Tom was actually a JV coach and there was a head coach there by the name of Ray Roczak, who has since passed away.
COACH: Other than your parents, who are the most influential people in your life?
WEBER: I’d have to say Coach Keady.
COACH: You are a coach who obviously paid your dues and waited your turn to become a head coach at the Division I level. How did you prepare yourself during that time and did you ever lose faith in your belief that one day you’d make it to a head coaching position? What drove you?
WEBER: I really enjoyed my time at Purdue. You know, everyone always says ’You have to get a head job, you got to get a head job.’ But, I mean, I enjoyed being an assistant. We always had success.
Coach Keady gave me a lot of responsibility. You name it, I did it. I ran the camps, the recruiting, the travel plans, and the tickets. Almost every aspect of the program.
So it seemed like I never had time to think about networking and doing some of the things to get a head job, and that was probably one of my faults. We had a great place to live, a great place to raise our family. During the summers, Coach Keady was involved with USA Basketball and I had a chance to run the team trials in Colorado Springs for the Pan Am Games. I also helped him at the World University practices.
There were just so many different things that kept me busy and happy. I interviewed at quite a few places and it almost became a negative that I was at one place that long. It didn’t make sense to me. Our business is so transient. Guys are losing their jobs, moving to another place, and I always thought it was a positive to be in one place because we were winning and we were doing well and other guys were losing their jobs or getting pushed out.
But I guess the administrative guys at other schools were always thinking, ’Why has he been there so long? Something’s got to be wrong.’ I guess in the long run patience is so important in coaching that Coach Keady always said take a job and treat it like you’re going to be there the rest of your life. And that’s what I tried to do in my approach to it.
COACH: What kind of advice would you offer to up-and-coming assistant coaches who may find themselves in a similar situation?
WEBER: First, you should be happy. There are not many college coaches. If you look at it, there are 300 some schools in Division I and there is only one head coach at each place. You should feel proud that you are a Division I coach. Even if you’re at the lower levels, there still are not that many jobs. There are tons of high school coaches who would love to be in your footsteps.
So, instead of all this worrying about what is on the other side of the mountain, enjoy what you have now and if you go at it, and work at it hard, and have success, good things will happen. I’m living proof of that.
When Coach Keady retired, I think a lot of people just assumed I would get the Purdue job. But the athletic director at the time was new and he basically said I had to go out and prove myself. So I pushed a little harder to get a head job.
Jim Hart, the former quarterback for the St. Louis Cardinals, was the AD at Southern Illinois at that time, and he knew Coach Keady from some committees. He and Coach spoke on the phone and then Jim and I hit it off pretty well. I got a lucky break taking over Southern and we re-energized it. It had had some success in the past, but was down for a little bit. We were able to get some pretty good players and make a nice run and eventually get to the Sweet Sixteen.
COACH: What did you learn about yourself as a coach during that period? Did you really feel like you were prepared for the head coaching position?
WEBER: I think once I got there, I realized all the experience that I had as an assistant for Coach Keady had made it so much easier for me as a head coach, because I knew how to react to different situations that occurred.
It just seemed history continuing to repeat itself. So I’d always be able to look back and say: ’I’ve been through this. I’ve watched Coach Keady. This is how he handled it. Was it good? Was it bad?’ And then we could make a decision.
So there is no doubt, when I was a young assistant, I thought, ’Oh, I’m ready to be a head coach,’ and I probably could’ve handled it. But all the experience that I had over the years definitely helped me become more ready to start a program, deal with people, and deal with all the problems. We always talk about a mini-crisis every day. And every day there is a mini-crisis that you have to deal with. We were able to do that because of the experiences I had.
COACH: You came to Illinois with a stellar team already in place. What did you do in order to expedite and enhance the transition from Bill Self to yourself?
WEBER: Well, it was very difficult, to be honest. They had had success. Bill had very good charisma. He had a good relationship with the players. Now, we’re coming in there saying we’re going to do conditioning this way, weights this way, we’re going to change the system, we’re going to run motion, we’re going to be more aggressive, pressuring the basketball.
It took some time and we had to deal with some problems on and off the court. But the kids began to believe that I kind of knew something and maybe my way was okay. So slowly but surely we were able to gain the kids’ trust.
COACH: What in your coaching career prepared you for the media circus that surrounded the 2004-05 season? How did you relay that to your players to avoid not getting caught up in the hype, so as to detract from their focus and play?
WEBER: We always try to talk to our kids about learning from other people, watching other people, and learning from other people’s failures and their successes. You watch other people and learn how they dealt with it.
I tried to communicate that. I would get on the phone and ask people who had seasons like ours how they dealt with it. The thing Coach Keady always taught me was to be very honest with the media. I always watched him and how he dealt with them. He was honest, but strong and direct.
The thing that really helped me was when we were at Southern Illinois and made that run to the Sweet Sixteen. For about a three- week period, we became a little bit of a national story. So I had at least an idea of what to expect having already experienced something similar.
I remember after the first weekend in the NCAA’s, we beat Texas Tech with Coach Knight and then we beat Georgia and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. That Monday I did like 19 radio shows in one day. All that stuff kind of helped me prepare myself and then I tried to help prepare the kids.
We had our ups and downs with the media this year. It became such a circus at times. I think our sports and information directors did a good job of helping us and limiting things, but sometimes it was overwhelming, there’s no doubt.
COACH: Your teams have been known for their fundamentally sound defensive play. Is that something you emphasize in practice? What kind of defense do you run?
WEBER: When I was at Southern Illinois we were really struggling at the beginning. I just kind of sat back and asked myself, ’What did we do at Western? What did we do at Purdue when we got there?’ Coach Keady always said you have a chance if you guard, so I told the kids we are not very talented but I know we can guard. And if you guard and play with a big heart and play together, you have a chance.
That’s kind of how we established the program. Then, when you add other kids, more talented kids to it, then you can expand upon that and be more aggressive, which we’ve done with the Illinois connection.
We play all man-to-man. We played one possession of zone in two years at Illinois and that was at a time-out and one of the coaches said, ’Hey, let’s just trick them and play zone.’ The other team got a dunk and that was the last time we tried to trick anybody.
When we went to the Sweet Sixteen at Southern, maybe we played a couple of possessions that year of Triangle and 2 as a change or something. But for the most part, it’s just straight man-to-man. It’s pressure. We’ve taken some of the stuff from Purdue and from [Jerry] Tarkanian when he had his great teams at UNLV.
There is another coach who had a big influence on Coach Keady, and consequently myself.
I mean Bud Presley. He was a JUCO coach at Menlo (CA) College and he did a great job with defense. We’ve kind of taken all of those things and combined it while looking for new, little things. We try to disrupt what you do on offense. That’s kind of our focus: make you do something that you’re not used to doing.
COACH: Describe your offensive philosophy?
WEBER: We run motion. We want to make it difficult for you to run your stuff and we want to make it difficult for you to guard us. We push it at people.
Everyone always talks about running and gunning. We always talk about running and scoring. I don’t want to just gun it, I want to make sure it goes in and that means a good shot.
So we put pressure on you right away. If we don’t get anything, we try to get good movement. Then, we have some quick hitters, of course. We try to get it to somebody who is hot or somebody who’s having a big game. You have to have some plays to make sure he gets the ball at the right time.
COACH: How will the new NBA labor agreement barring players until their 19th birthday affect your recruiting and the college game overall?
WEBER: I don’t think it will, to be honest. You’re going to continue to recruit the top kids. I think there are a lot of kids who think they’re ready for the NBA or somebody told them they’re ready. They are a limited group. If you recruit five or six kids that might make that transition after one year, then you put yourself in a bind. I think you have to have a mixture of guys who are solid college players, guys who are developers, and then if you can sprinkle in your NBA-type players, your lottery type players, that’s when you have a chance to have the great season like we had this year.
COACH: What is your greatest coaching attribute?
WEBER: I think it’s how I deal with the kids. I try to treat them as men and teach them to deal with freedom on the court to make decisions, and then also freedom off the court. I try to teach them to grow up and be responsible, and I think if you do that and they learn to deal with freedom like our team this year, they will make great decisions.
COACH: What part of coaching do you enjoy most: practice, recruiting, game preparation, or in-game decision making?
WEBER: I think practice and individual workouts and the development of the kids and watching them grow. I think if you don’t enjoy that – that’s the majority of your time – then you’re in trouble.
COACH: What is your definition of mental toughness?
WEBER: It’s having the confidence that when it comes to a difficult situation or a difficult part of the game, that you don’t give in, that you play to win.
We talk a lot about that: not watching the scoreboard, don’t worry about losing. Just play to win, play the way you always do, the way you’ve been taught. I think a kid with mental toughness has that confidence that he’ll do that no matter what the situation.
COACH: Name your biggest pet peeve when it comes to players?
WEBER: I think probably in this day and age players aren’t patient. Everybody wants instant gratification. Sometimes it takes a while. My kid, Luther Head, just got drafted. As a freshman he played a little bit, didn’t start. His sophomore year he started a little bit, got hurt, and didn’t play. In his junior year, all of a sudden he became a pretty good player and fought through some problems off the court.
He had a breakout year in his senior season and now he’s a draft choice. There are the LeBron James’ and a few guys like that, but there are other guys you can develop, who can work at their game, and can improve.
COACH: What is the most important aspect of a player-coach relationship?
WEBER: I don’t think there is a doubt. It’s trust and mutual respect. You have to be there for the kids. You have to realize they’re kids. One of the things I learned from Coach Keady, as a young coach, is he’d get mad at them and then have them in his office two hours later laughing with them.
It always amazed me. He would tell me, ’They’re kids. They make mistakes. You have to be there for them. That’s why they call you coach and they’re players; you are supposed to be there to help them.’
COACH: Looking back in retrospect, was your coaching journey all worth while and why?
WEBER: Oh, there is no doubt. I loved all aspects of it. From Western Kentucky, just having that first opportunity and going to the NCAA Tournament that year. I have so many great memories. Not only the championships and the NCAA rings and all that, but now all the kids that are older. Now they have kids. They came to our Final Four games. To see those guys be successful in life, it’s great.
I didn’t think it could get better after Purdue, but then at Southern it was unbelievable. We had the great run and re-energized the program and captured people’s hearts. It was tough leaving there. I thought ’Man can anything be better?’ And then we had the run this year.
It’s not only the success and the wins and losses and championships. It’s watching the kids develop and going on to be successful. That’s the thing you’re most proud of.