For one coach, 1st title would end 2nd guessing

NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament

April 04, 2005|By David Steele

ST. LOUIS -- In another 15 years, Bruce Weber may be in the same frame of mind Roy Williams is in right now. The Illinois coach might have a dozen quips, barbs and anecdotes at the ready to answer the familiar refrain of questions about whether this Final Four trip, at long last, will result in his cutting down the nets instead of his frowning through a post-game interview in the losing locker room.

One day, that frowning coach might be Weber. That is, unless Weber's Illini beat Williams' North Carolina team tonight.

If he wins the national championship at the Edward Jones Dome -- in his second year at the head of a major program, and in his first trip to the Final Four -- Weber will be forever spared the questions Williams is facing for the fifth time in an otherwise illustrious 17-year career in charge of two legendary programs.

On the other hand, Williams gets to swallow hard and prepare himself for another year of what he often referred to yesterday as "that dadgum question." Which, really, can be asked in one word: When?

Or, to be particularly nasty: Why?

Weber has become the darling of this tournament, and much of America has adopted his team. The coach and his players exude a certain charm and appeal that could come from any number of sources, but might come just from being new and different. Williams and North Carolina, meanwhile, have become familiar sights around here, almost too familiar.

Weber's Illini are being positioned as the scrappy underdogs (by Vegas and everybody else), even though they were the last team in the country to lose a game and have been ranked No. 1 since early December. Meanwhile, Williams and his Heels are in a no-win situation: If they win, they should have because they're so talented, and if they lose, it's their fault for wasting all that talent.

Truth is, the two coaches share more similarities than differences. Both faced almost the exact same challenge at the exact same time, thanks to one of the most unusual games of coaching musical chairs in recent years. Williams was handed an ex-coach's players and all the resulting baggage, and so was Weber.

Both had to quickly herd their players back into the tent, put down various insurrections, soothe critics from inside and outside their programs, and max out the careers of players with national-title potential. They both pulled it off, to the delight of players who had to learn to trust their coach, who had to earn the coach's trust in return, and who now swear by their respective leaders.

In a sense, their tales of turmoil conquered and success attained cancel each other out. What's left is a young coach who has become the proverbial overnight sensation after 25 years of paying dues -- 18 as a loyal assistant to Gene Keady at Purdue, five as head man at mid-major Southern Illinois (with a Sweet 16 trip in 2002), and two at Illinois, where he has produced the greatest season in school history.

That's Weber -- and at age 48, a mere six years younger than Williams, he has banked nowhere near the amount of angst his counterpart has over the years.

"You know, you feel sorry for him in a way," Weber said, "but at the same time there's a lot of guys that never even get to the Final Four or to the championship game. So I'm sure he would love to win a championship. I would be happy for him if he did it." He paused to chuckle. "I'm not gonna be happy for him if he does it [tonight]."

Williams made it clear, as he has in past trips, that it would make him happy never to be asked about being "the best coach to never win a championship." To emphasize that, he pledged no allegiances to Phil Mickelson, the Boston Red Sox, or any other lovable losers or heartbreak kids.

He would dearly love to retire his annual statement of perspective gleaned from his experience as a North Carolina assistant in 1982, when the monkey still was perched on Dean Smith's back.

"I was so happy -- let me back up -- I was relieved when we won the national championship," Williams said, "and I said, `I'm so happy because it will shut those people up.' [Smith] said, `I'm not that much better a coach now than I was 2 1/2 hours ago."'

The point is that Williams won't become a genius tonight if he hadn't been one in leading Kansas to the final game twice, or even in rebuilding the wreckage of the Matt Doherty era at Carolina.

Nevertheless, he said, Williams will thoroughly enjoy a win tonight, for the obvious reasons, but also "so guys will ask me, `How many holes in one did you have this summer?' "

Tonight, Williams could transfer the monkey to Weber's back, for use at a later date.

Or Weber could politely decline and leave it where it's been for so long.

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