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Weber a bright spot in dark week for U of I

For seven years both during and after college, I was a sports writer.

So I figured now that I’m back in the newspaper game, I might as prove my sportswriting chops early — and defend my the coach that U of I is lucky to have (even some people may never see it).

And with that, it’s on to the second installment of my Wisch List column from the Saturday, June 6 edition of the Kankakee Daily Journal

Weber a bright spot in dark week for U of I

The WISCH LIST

June 6, 2009

When it comes to tarnished Land of Lincoln icons, I swear (you know, kind of like her) that even Patti Blagojevich had a better week than my alma mater.

And she swallowed a dead tarantula on TV.

Over the past several days, the University of Illinois has had it pretty rough, absorbing blow after well-deserved blow from the Chicago Tribune’s investigative series that exposed a secret and preferential admissions process for high school students lucky enough to have political connections.

Because of this self-made mess, you can’t say right now that U of I exactly stands for University of Integrity.

But, thankfully, the school’s basketball coach still stands for something.

Largely lost this week in the shroud of scandal that blanketed the state’s flagship university was that Illini hoops coach Bruce Weber quietly had one of his brightest weeks ever.

All because the spotlight from yet another education-related controversy – this one involving Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose – wasn’t also shining on Champaign.

In case you somehow missed it, Rose – recently named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year – has been accused by the NCAA of knowingly allowing an impostor to take the SAT for him so he could qualify for admission to the University of Memphis where, as a freshman in 2008, he led the Tigers to within a whisker of a national championship before jumping to the NBA.

Additional published reports also claim that during high school at Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy a grade was changed from a D to a C for Rose’s collegiate transcript and that his older brother, Reggie, received more than $2,200 in illegal benefits from the University of Memphis.

On Tuesday, Memphis responded to the allegations with the claim that it had found “insufficient evidence” to reach the same conclusion as the NCAA that Rose did not take the SAT himself.

Although the university also couldn’t prove that Rose did take the exam. And it acknowledged that a forensic document examiner hired by the NCAA did determine that the student in question (identified in media reports as Rose) “probably did not write the questioned hand printing or cursive writing on the exam form.”

Maybe he just drank too much caffeine that morning.

Now, I’m not here today to debate whether we should care about the high school academics of an athlete who’s now making millions of dollars (although we should), or if Derrick deserves to be labeled as the shadiest Rose since Pete (he at least has a better haircut).

Rather, I’m just glad none of this nonsense is the University of Illinois’ problem.

And for that I thank Bruce Weber.

Two years ago, Weber was slammed in many circles of Illini Nation for failing to hang on to prized recruit Eric Gordon (who at the last minute was lured to Indiana by coach Kelvin Sampson) and his inability to reel in Rose (who opted to instead play for John Calipari at Memphis).

Bruce Weber can’t recruit, they said.

(Perhaps you said.)

To which I’ll say, thank goodness.

Because, if being able to “recruit” meant that Weber needed to do what it took to haul in the likes of Gordon and Rose, then I don’t want that guy as my basketball coach.

Yes, the Hoosiers got Gordon – and along with him a boatload of sanctions after IU fired Sampson following a slew of recruiting tactics either illegal (impermissible phone calls) or unethical (giving associates of the Gordon family jobs on the IU basketball staff). Today, the Hoosiers program is in shambles as new coach Tom Crean continues to pick up the pieces.

Now, first-year Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who took over when Calipari bolted for the head job at Kentucky in April, may find himself dealing with a similarly sorry situation.

We’ll see what happens. But we already know what didn’t happen on Weber’s watch.

“We understood what was going on (with Rose) all along,” University of Illinois athletics director Ron Guenther told the Champaign News-Gazette last weekend. “The sport of men’s basketball has issues that the NCAA has been trying to address. There are many tentacles to the problem, so there is no magic bullet to solve it. It has been a focal point for discussions in this conference for more than 10 years. We’ve had task forces looking into the AAU, the shoe money, the agent.

“One of the reasons I feel so strong about Bruce Weber and his staff is that I know they’re going to do it the right way. Nothing that has happened in the Rose case has been a surprise to me.”

Me neither.

Although I’ve always been surprised – and disappointed – by Illinois fans that have simply failed to see what they have in a coach with Bruce Weber.

Sure, without Gordon or Rose, Illinois suffered through a brutal 16-19 season two years ago. But thanks to Weber’s coaching, the program bounced back strong this past season and with back-to-back blockbuster recruiting classes the future of Illini hoops couldn’t be brighter.

So, while Illinois basketball may have given up some wins because it failed to reel in Gordon and Rose, it didn’t give up its integrity.

And, in my book, that counts for a lot.

You might even say that Bruce Weber passed a big test.

And did it all on his own.

Imagine that.