In the climactic play of the Super Bowl, John Taylor cut down and across on a post pattern to get open for Joe Montana and give the San Francisco 49ers the go-ahead touchdown. It sounds simple, but it's not. The post pattern--in which a wide receiver runs straight down, shimmies to the outside with a delicacy that must not diminish his speed, and then cuts on a diagonal toward the goalpost--is one of the most difficult patterns for a defensive cornerback to defend in man-on-man coverage, but the offense must first establish that the defense is in that coverage. Safeties line up deep and in the middle of the field precisely to defend against the post pattern. The Niners made sure that the Cincinnati Bengals would be in single coverage--at least at first--by lining up Taylor and Jerry Rice side by side. Rice was having an incredible day, one that would eventually earn him Most Valuable Player honors, and it was guaranteed that he would receive most of the attention of the Bengals' defensive backs.
Now, the key to the play was that the Niners circled their running back out of the backfield to a position about halfway between Montana and where Taylor would eventually wind up. (That the Niners' running backs confused the sides of the field in lining up made no difference; in fact, if it had been Roger Craig and not Tony Rathman running this pattern the Bengals would have been even more certain to bite the bait, as they did anyway.) The running back here acts as a decoy, and he was effective in the role because Montana had been throwing to his backs on this circle pattern all game. Looking at the critical play again and again on replay, one sees the Bengals' safety standing almost exactly where the pass will eventually wind up, but he abandons this position and comes upfield in anticipation of the pass to running back Rathman. At that point, it was simply a matter of Montana leading Taylor correctly, and he must have done that a thousand times in practice.
That's how games are won between teams of similar or equal skills--with tactics, with planning, and with execution. In short, with good coaching. Tactics comes easy; every team has almost the same playbook. Execution is simple for a coach who's a good motivator. It's planning--luring the other team into doing something so that your team can do something else--that makes a brilliant coach, and this is where Mike Ditka has fallen short in recent years. It's where Don Zimmer falls short on a baseball field.
It's also a weakness Lou Henson shares with these regional counterparts of his. Henson is coach of the basketball team at the University of Illinois, the Fighting Illini. With his southern accent and his simple outlook on the game, one sometimes gets the impression that he approaches basketball the way a farmer approaches his crops: oh, he can plant seeds and lay the crops in a row, but sometimes, y'know, it just don't rain enough, or the birds is bad and eat the seeds, or ol' man weevil is mighty much a trouble. There are parts of the game of basketball that remain utterly foreign to Henson, and that's amazing, because he's been earning his living at the sport for most of his adult life.
Henson, however, is somehow (don't bother me now with questions, son; I'm writing) an excellent recruiter, and one thing that can be said about him is he teaches a good defense. This season's Fighting Illini are probably the most talented group of players he's ever had. Early last week, they made it to the top of the college hoop heap by being the only major team left undefeated across the nation. Of course, they lost their next game to some relatively weak competition at the University of Minnesota, but they had an immediate opportunity to redeem themselves as Bob Knight brought an Indiana team also ranked in the top 20 to Champaign-Urbana last Saturday.
The Illini are a team of amazingly talented, well-conditioned athletes; sometimes they appear to be brothers, as there isn't much difference in size between them and they almost all wear their hair in the short, Michael Jordanish fashion so popular these days with young basketball players. Oklahoma, too, has a team of similar-looking guys who all wear their hair in that same short style, but the Sooners are a looser, less regimented bunch; rather than brothers, they seem like buddies who played together in high school and stuck together afterward. What gives the Illini that sibling feel is that they share the same phobias and frustrations. The sins of the father are passed on to the sons, and the Illini have a dad with enough tics to run the Wrigley Building clock.
This tendency can give the Illini a pleasant, bumbling, idiotic appearance, but it can also frustrate a fan who watches good players go to seed. Henson can work wonders with a hard-working defensive-minded player like Kenny Norman, while looser, offensive talents play out their college careers in an ever-thickening fog. That's what happened to Efrem Winters, and it's where Marcus Liberty finds himself. Both are Public League stars whose quick-shooting release is (or was) their main attribute-- what put them among the top high school talents in the nation--but Henson reins that sort of thing in. He believes a basketball player shoots when he's sure he can make the shot, and then he crosses his eyes and hopes the fates are with him.
Most of the Illinois games on the Big Ten schedule are broadcast here on Channel 66 on something called the Raycom Network, which should be familiar to anyone who remembers the old Mizzou Sports TV feeds. The announcers for the games--I'm not making this up--are Dan Roan and Dick Martin, so that, when the camera cuts quickly from a bouncing cheerleader to some coed's tattooed applique of Chief Illiniwek, one fears the entire Orange Crush cheering section is about to yell, "Sock it to me!" These two fellows are not, of course, the Laugh-In hosts but commentators (it's Roan not Rowan). Roan should be familiar to the 20 people who watch the Channel Nine news--and to anyone who attended Illinois, as he was in Champaign before moving upstate--while Martin is a growling, gravelly-voiced play-by-play guy who is just homer enough to tell the listener where he stands without getting emotional (like Red Kerr or Crash Mengelt).
The Illini started slowly. Indiana scored the first five points of the game before I got back from the kitchen with beer and chips. The Illini took a short-lived 8 to 7 lead, but then Indiana ran off seven straight points and the game settled into its predictable pattern. It was familiar to anyone who's seen an Illinois game in the past ten years; what's frightening about this year's Illini is that while they are much more talented than past teams they fall into the same old bad habits. They settle, sometimes, into an offense that can only be described as a zone: as on defense, each player seizes a portion of the floor and sort of jumps up and down within it, flapping his arms. This doesn't do much to distress the opposing defense, and the Illini fell behind. When they did so, they'd scramble back by playing tough defense and sort of forcing the ball through the hoop ("One pass too many," the Boomer kept saying, a familiar refrain to anyone who's studied Henson's cautious coaching methods). Then they'd brick a few off the rim, and Indiana would run off two or three straight baskets. The first half ended after one of these unfortunate periods, and we were down 10 at 35-25.
What's frustrating about this is that the Illini are obviously capable of better. Of course, the recent loss of off guard Kendall Gill has hurt. Gill, the former Rich Central star from the southern suburbs, has long, thin arms that resemble those of the 70s NBA star guard Charlie Scott. Gill broke his foot during the game that clinched the Illini's number-one ranking, as they beat Georgia Tech. This has thrown the Illini off, but it's no excuse. Point guard Stephen Bardo remains to run what's called the offense, and the Illini still have their best weapon, Kenny Battle, a middle-sized but well-muscled player who resembles a small Kenny Norman, quicker and with a better shooting touch.
Battle, in fact, is the one who got the Illini going in the second half. Knight's Indiana team had run a fine, conditioned offense in the first half, but the Illini opened the second half by mixing up their defenses (Henson's forte as a tactician)--zone one time down the floor, man-to-man the next--and they threw the Hoosiers out of their rhythm. Battle hit his first couple of shots, and like that the Illini were off. It's the sort of deluge that has sent Dick Vitale screaming "The Flying Illini!" into the microphone when he covers them. Nick Anderson joined Battle in the rush, and they led the Illini through a second half in which they outscored Indiana by 20 points to win 75-65.
The Illini's hot-and-cold shooting is a common problem from way back, ten years or more, and one has to wonder about this tendency to rain jump shots out of the sky after a 20-minute drought. Is it a product of Henson's husbandry, or has his fatalism in fact been caused by erratic shooters from teams past? The thing about families is that one can never separate issues; but as we say in my household, "You don't learn it from strangers."
Dan Roan interviewed Henson after the game, and he asked what the difference was between the first and second halves. The first three words out of Henson's mouth were "I don't know."
That's the Illini. Very interesting, but stupid.