Illini Basketball

A Final Act of Trailblazing

Retired U of I professor Steve Douglas died Tuesday morning, about 20 minutes after downing a physician-administered cocktail of  digoxin, morphine, diazepam, phenobarbital, and amitriptyline. He was 83.

Douglas had been hospitalized for three weeks as doctors tried to determine what types of cancer were spreading through his torso. But after consulting with his family, he invoked his right-to-die under California’s End of Life Option Act. Daughters Kate and Liz Douglas were with their dad in his Marina del Rey home, as was his wife Vianne Weintraub. Daughter Lauren Douglas joined them from Seattle, via Zoom.

Douglas was an associate professor of political science in the spring of 1974 when Women’s Athletic Director Karol Kahrs chose him to be head coach of the inaugural Illini Women’s Basketball team.

They’re all so young! (pic from

He was paid $1,000 for the season.*  Douglas earned the WBB job for two reasons: He’d coached the women’s national team in Malaysia, and he was team captain for Tex Winter’s top-ranked Kansas State Wildcats, playing in the 1958, ’59 and ’60 seasons.

His tenure as a WBB coach was always meant to be brief. After two seasons coaching the women, Douglas handed the job off to a full-time coach and returned his focus to Malaysian and Indonesian political studies — and raising three daughters, while their mom, Sara Umberger Douglas, earned a PhD of her own in 1983. Her dissertation, Labor’s New Voice: Unions and the Mass Media, was published in 1986, and she accepted a tenure-track position in the college eventually known as ACES.

Kate, Lauren, Liz & Steve in 2018

Stephen Arneal Douglas was born September 2, 1938, in Hastings, Nebraska. His parents, Louis H. Douglas and Mary Alice (Burton) Douglas, were both teachers, coaches and athletes. Mary was also a pilot, and her son’s biggest fan as he grew into an elite athlete. Lou Douglas accepted a job in the political science department at Kansas State, after spending a year in the Philippines, learning about its political systems. He became known as an early advocate for civil rights.

 Steve Douglas graduated high school in Manhattan, KS, and then stayed in town for college, and basketball. At the time, Kansas State was among the best basketball programs in the nation. Head coach Tex Winter is still remembered for his Triangle Offense, which he later taught to Michael Jordan and the NBA Champion Chicago Bulls. Douglas played alongside lifelong friend Bill Guthridge, who eventually became head men’s coach for the North Carolina Tarheels.

Steve & Lauren Douglas with the Guthridge family

Upon graduation from KSU, Steve Douglas enrolled in graduate school at UIUC, then married his sweetheart Sara Umberger in the summer of 1961. They lived in Indonesia in the early sixties while he studied political systems of the South Pacific, and she managed the Ford Foundation’s Jakarta guest house and taught English at the Indonesian American Friendship Institute. They returned to Urbana, where he earned his PhD and became a tenured professor of Political Science, and began a family. Daughter Kate arrived in 1966. Liz followed in 1968, and Lauren in 1973. 

Kate, Sara, Liz, Lauren & Steve

Steve Douglas’s dissertation was titled Political Socialization in Indonesia. Over his career he continued to study, and eventually meet with, the dictator Suharto. According to his daughters, he was never granted an interview for publication purposes. But in 2003, Douglas published an article Suharto: A political biography. That same year, Sara died of complications stemming from her treatment for thymic carcinoma.  Since her death, the family has been quiet about it. But in the wake of Steve’s passing, they’ve opted for transparency.

Mom died due to precautionary treatment after becoming cancer-free due to successful surgical removal of her tumor. It is abundantly clear that the precautionary treatment was executed incorrectly. 

We should have spoken honestly about the cause of Mom’s death from the beginning, but we’ve been perpetuating the glossed-over version for over 18 years.  I think at the time we (Dad especially) had no interest in making Mom the poster child for medical errors.

I’m sure there is no one left at Carle who was involved or even aware of her case so long ago, so this is not at all about blame, I just thought we were going for honesty in this article, especially regarding how our parents died.  Thanks to Dad’s handling of the situation, hopefully the errors were never repeated by Carle.  I’m sure we will never know because these things are not spoken of accurately.

Liz Douglas

In recent years, Steve Douglas suffered from rheumatoid lung disease. He took Prednisone to control it. An unfortunate side-effect was a weakening of his bones, which caused spinal problems. As he reached his 80s, his height dropped from 6’5″ to 5’11”.

In dealing with his ultimate illness, Steve Douglas was as patient and deferential as ever. But inevitably, he put his metaphorical foot, very gently, down.

His exact words to the attending doctor at UCLA (who couldn’t promise anything but more waiting and more tests) were, “Is there a way to bow out gracefully?” and from that time on he was very consistent and clear about that being his preference. We were advised that it could take a few weeks for the whole process. But because he was clear, we were too, and we all got things moving fast. It was empowering and it was a relief for all of us.

Kate Douglas

When he wasn’t advocating for himself, Kate says he spent a lot of time napping, or resting awake with his eyes closed. “That wasn’t unusual those last days.” Liz captured this photo, taken at the house.

“The hospice company provided the hospital bed,” added Kate.

With him is Lauren, who couldn’t sleep, and arguably hasn’t since. “I was also sitting next to him one of those last days.” she says. “And Dad was speaking so softly and I thought he said, ‘You’re breaking my heart.’ But he’d said, ‘You’re breaking my arm.’ ‘Oops. I’m sorry, Dad.'”

After retiring from the Political Science department, Steve Douglas moved to southern California. He married Vianne Weintraub in 2008. She survives.

Lauren didn’t attempt to sum up her father’s life during a phone call Wednesday night, but she offered an observation: “A lot of people have used the word generous.”

Steve Douglas, wife Vianne and family on vacation, Cancun 2019

* Kahrs, director of women’s sports for the U of I Athletic Association, had a budget of $82,535 for the year, and it had to cover all the women’s sports. That’s according to former Illinois Sports Information Director Mike Pearson, who published a pair of stories earlier this month to chronicle the early days of Illini women’s athletics.

Those articles are here: