Illini basketball

Year Three: A History of Illini Basketball Coaches

Shouldn’t John Groce have captured a conference title by now? Why didn’t he sign five McDonald’s All-Americans in November?

It’s YEAR THREE for chrissakes! Is Illini Basketball in the wrong hands?

For perspective, let’s look at Year Three for every man who’s ever led the program. There are nine of them who made it to a third year.

  1. Ralph Jones
  2. J. Craig Ruby
  3. Doug Mills
  4. Harry Combes
  5. Harv Schmidt
  6. Lou Henson
  7. Lon Kruger
  8. Bill Self
  9. Bruce Weber

Who had the best Year Three?

That’s easy: Ralph Jones won Illinois’ only National Championship, going undefeated in his third year at the helm. That was 1915. James Naismith lived for another 24 years.

The Illini beat Purdue 27-to-8 that year. They trounced Indiana 20-to-4 in Bloomington. Whether you’d recognize those contests as basketball is questionable.

After 14 years in Champaign, Jones left for Lake Forest Academy. He also coached the Chicago Bears to an NFL Championship.

Who was average in Year Three?

Craig Ruby’s 14 years (1922-36) were still pretty early on in the game’s history. For what it’s worth, his second and second-to-last teams won the Big Ten. His third team finished 11-6 (8-4).

Doug Mills won the Big Ten in his first year. The 1936-37 season featured Harry Combes at forward. Combes then graduated, and Mills’s second year was his worst. That team finished 9-9 (4-8) even with Lou Boudreau as captain.

Mills won two more conference championships (1942, 1943). Year Three was a solid foundation for that rebuild. Mills’s third team finished 14-5 (8-4).

Harry Combes returned as head coach, succeeding Mills. He led the Illini to Final Fours in Year Two, Year Four and Year Five. Each of those teams finished with a top-5 ranking and five or fewer losses.

In Year Three, Combes’s team did not make the playoffs. They finished 14-8.

Harv Schmidt’s second team was his best, finishing 19-5 and ranked #20. His third team had a winning record of 15-9. The next year they finished below .500.

Schmidt’s last three teams were 14-10, 14-10 and 5-18.

Who had the worst Year Three?

That’s debatable. Lon Kruger’s and Lou Henson’s worst teams were Year Three, and they were pretty bad. Bill Self’s third team was pretty good, but arguably his worst.

The Self-analysis is somewhat subjective. 2002’s team won a share of the B1G Championship and made the Sweet Sixteen. The 2003 team achieved neither plateau, but won the B1G Tourament. They had fewer wins and fewer losses. The 2002 team faced three top-ten teams in the pre-conference season. The 2003 squad faced two top-20 teams in the pre-conference. 2002 lost 2-of-3. 2003 won both.

No matter how you slice it, Bill Self did best with Lon Kruger’s recruits. In his third year, he had legendary stars in place. But they were young. They were learning. Their best years were ahead of them. They didn’t advance to the second weekend of the NCAAs.

You’ll remember Kruger’s 3-13 B1G cellar-dwellers making a run to the BTT championship game, before Mo Pete and Mateen Cleaves slapped a sense of reality into them.

Nobody blamed Kruger for a lousy year. He’d won a championship in 1998 with Henson’s players. He had big name recruits coming in.

Lou Henson’s third team beat Bobby Knight’s 11th ranked Hoosiers, in Bloomington. The old saying for Ohio State football fans goes like this: “You can go winless all year, and then beat Michigan. That’s a good season.” It wasn’t a good season. Illinois finished 13-14 (7-11). Only the liar/cheater Bruce Pearl could produce a worse season, statistically speaking, for Henson. The 1992 Illini finished 13-15 (7-11) in the wake of Pearl’s storytelling.

Henson’s tenure is instructive. He’s talked about his first year on the job, when he and Tony Yates, Les Wothke and Mark Coomes canvassed the state, meeting with all the high school coaches who’d give them the time, and building relationships. Coomes moved on for a while, Mark Bial and Bill Molinari filled his spot as Yates and Wothke continued to make a case with recruits.

Despite all that legwork, Henson’s first three teams were lousy. 14-13 (7-11) in 1976, 16-14 (8-10) in 1977, and the awful Year Three.

His fourth team was undefeated, and had just beat the top-ranked eventual National Champion, when it lost its point guard. That team, minus Steve Lanter, was bad.

In Year Six, Henson had Derek Harper at the point. Eddie Johnson, Mark Smith and Derek Holcomb were seniors. That team made the NCAA tournament, beat Wyoming, and lost to Kansas State.

If social media existed in 1981, what would it have said of Lou Henson? His teams hovered around .500 for the fist three years, seemed great before collapsing in year four, made the NIT in year five, and then one-and-done in the tournament with two future NBA veterans in the line-up.

The next year, it was back to the NIT.

From a 2015 perspective, you’ve got to assume that Illinois Athletic Director Neale Stoner has seen enough at this point. He’s not the guy who hired Henson. He’s got a third year winner building the football program into a national powerhouse.

But Stoner, in 1982, knew what everyone knows today, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee & The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He knew who was coming in. Henson began landing top recruits from the time he arrived, but it wasn’t until his 6th or 7th year that recruiting became an unstoppable machine. That’s comparable to Groce’s early-going. Leron Black and Kendrick Nunn were the first high-profile recruits, but they weren’t surrounded by five-stars at all other positions.

When Henson finally got the engine firing on all cylinders, Illini basketball went on a 25-year Glory Daze. The Pearl Years and the post-Henson recruiting lag (Kruger’s Year Three) were the low points. Otherwise the Illini contended for championships and top recruits from 1984 through 2006, which was Bruce Weber’s Year Three.

Year Three is when Bruce Weber was exposed. Stunningly, he was allowed to tank the program for another six seasons. Year Three should have been all we needed to know.

Retaining Dee Brown, James Augustine, Warren Carter and Brian Randle from Bill Self’s recruiting efforts; Weber fielded a fairly good group in 2006. But the offense looked awful. The ball movement, which prompted gushing from John Wooden a year earlier, stagnated.  Dee spent most of 2006 dribbling, and then chucking a three-pointer as the shot clock expired.

When Dee was able to pass the ball, we saw Augustine burying jumpers from the short corner. Augustine didn’t shoot jumpers in his previous two years under Weber. Why not? Because he played the 5 in those years. Shaun Pruitt played the 5 in 2006, and Augustine played the 4. It was a rigid system, no matter what people say about the “freedom” that motion offense allows, in theory.

Weber’s rigidity gave way after the school record 19-loss season of 2008, his Year Five. Recruiting priorities changed. Weber played Mike Tisdale at the 5, but allowed him to shoot from deep.

John Groce’s Year Three seems unlikely to finish well.  His teams improve by March, but March is too late for Selection Committee purposes. As the losses accumulate, social media will grow increasingly impatient with Groce. His first three years are Henson-esque, but in a different era.

What does John Groce make of the Year Three doldrums? I asked him:


I want to talk about Year Three as a concept, because I’m looking at the record book and I see that Lon Kruger’s worst year was Year Three. Lou Henson’s worst year was Year Three. Arguably Bill Self too.




So just in general, what is it about the third year of program building, class balance, whatever, that makes the third year a challenge?


I don’t know, Rob.  That’s interesting. I think that’s pretty insightful.

You know, I don’t know. I heard Urban Meyer say the other day after the national semi-final that he thought this year might be a “void” year. I don’t know if I thought — from that standpoint — that I thought that.

I thought last year — I kinda knew when I took the job that we were going to be very new & young in our second year, and we were going to be a work-in-progress.

All of us as coaches, we want to be … we tend to be impatient. And want things now

But you know, for “Year Three,” I don’t know. I don’t know what that common denominator would be. Whether that just happens to be a pattern, or whether that just happens to be an outlier for us in our program’s development and growth. You know I do think we can play better than we’re playing right now. I do think we have a lot of veteran guys. But we have got to connect the dots. We have got to be more connected than what we are right now, as a group, at both ends of the floor.

But that’s interesting. I would not have known that had you not stated that.


Does it make you feel any better to know that?


Not really.

But it should.

And what about Illini fans? Should they feel relieved to know the history of Year Three? Well, sports fans are not the most rational bunch. But while they’re gathering their ropes, tar and feathers; maybe they’ll be relieved to remember what Kruger accomplished in Year Five (i.e. Bill Self first season). Maybe they’ll be relieved to remember what Self accomplished in Year Five (i.e. Bruce Weber’s second season).

Maybe they’ll recall what Henson built by the middle of Year Four, before Steve Lanter blew his knee out.

And there’s another lesson from the past, one that all Illini fans (and coaches) should keep in mind: Even the best teams can’t win with wings alone. Every team needs a point guard.