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TCR One-on-One: Former Illini Bill Cole

We caught up with the 6’9” Peoria native.

TCR’s relationship with Illinois legend Bill Cole started when our Mark Schaer wrote a ‘Remember Him?’ about Cole back in June.

Nearly seven months later, Schaer talked to Cole because why not?

The Champaign Room: How would you describe your four years at Illinois?

Bill Cole: It was kind of like a dream come true. I was a legacy. My dad played football there, and I grew up going to football and basketball games. My sister was a couple years older than me, and she was already there when I was recruited. When I committed to play, the basketball team was number one in the country and kicking ass. It was like getting to commit to my dream school.

By the time I got down there, in 2007, we were going through a transition period. We were not very good my freshman year, I think we finished 16-19. My sophomore year we were a five seed. I wasn’t playing much, but I would get in at the end of the games. I’d hit some garbage time threes. My junior year I really made my mark and started figuring out what to do to get on the floor. Everyone thinks they’re going to be the guy going in, and you either leave or transfer or find a way to get on the floor. I switched to more of a three guard. I was a tall wing/forward that unclogged me from being behind Mike Davis.

The rest is history. I made my niche on defense and hustle and being a three point shooter. For the longest time I was the highest offensive efficiency player in the country, probably because I wasn’t handling the ball very much. When I did I was trying to make good decisions.

Overall, it was just a dream come true, to be a Peoria kid going down 74 to play in front of my home state and the home stands.

TCR: What is your best memory of being on the basketball team?

BC: I’d say gamewise the easy one would be hosting College Gameday versus Michigan State and we ended up beating them. The crowd rushed the floor...it was a whirlwind. If I had to pick a single memory, it would be that one for sure. That was my junior year.

TCR: What was it like working under Coach Weber? What did he teach you, and what was his mentorship like?

BC: I love Coach Weber to this day. I thought he was a little awkward with the media, always has been, but I don’t know if the media or fans saw the side of him that we did. Playing for him, he would take a bullet for you. Everyone on the team felt like that — they loved playing for him.

Toward the end, I think it was mutually beneficial for the parties to go their separate ways. At that time, we were already starting to feel the pressure becuase he brought so much early success. He started on a high with the great teams he had. He had so many flukey things that happened that I look back on that doesn’t happen to other programs but happened to us. A couple years before me he had the car accident that knocked out Brian Carwell and Jamar Smith, his two best recruits. Then there was the Eric Gordon decommitment. That was my recruiting class. We had one of the highest-rated recruiting classes in the country. One thing here and there could’ve been different.

TCR: Your sophomore year team might be one of the better ones from recent memory, earning a 5-seed in the NCAA tourney. What was special about that season?

BC: That season was cool — I think one of my favorite seasons if I had to rank them. I didn’t play much but I had a role. If we were down by 10 I would try and make threes late in the game. It actually seemed like I couldn’t miss that season. I even got in the WKU game (in the NCAA tournament) and hit a three or two and then remember getting in the locker room, and even though it was a tough loss I felt good about it. I remember going down to the Vanderbilt game and getting one of our best wins of the season.

And of course there was Chester’s leadership. We still keep in touch to this day. I remember the first game I played in with Chester he went hard in my chest after my guy got an offensive board. And then there was Trent Meacham’s first year back coming back from Dayton as a local walk-on. I think he ended up earning a scholarship. Those are probably the highlights from my sophomore year.

TCR: You had a career game against Minnesota your junior year. Tell me what you remember about that game.

BC: That game and the Wisconsin or Iowa game really stick out. The Minnesota one will always stick out. Situations like that didn’t happen too often because it wasn’t my role. During the game, I could’ve thrown it over my shoulder and I felt like it would’ve gone in. They knew it was coming and I made the fifth one over like two people. The feeling where they couldn’t stop you was cool, even though it was short lived.

Junior year I was first or second in three point percentage in the conference. That really cemented what my niche was. Not only the guard that took charges and went hard but I could be a viable offensive threat.

TCR: You went and played professionally in England for a couple years. Tell me about that experience.

BC: It ended up actually being just one year. I signed with an agent while I was still at Illinois and we lost to Kansas, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. You just hope and pray you find a good situation. The agent called and said the Cheshire Jets were looking at me, which was a team in England. The NBA lockout was happening at the time. Metta World Peace was actually playing for the Jets that year, but the lockout got figured out so he went back to the NBA. I did end up stealing a couple of his shirts and stuff.

Overall, it was a really cool expereince. I picked that situation over some of the prestiguous leagues, and I had a really great season. I was Player of the Year as a forward. I tried to do my Illinois Basketball role, but the coach pulled me aside and said I needed to shoot every time I touched the ball or he would send me home. It took a couple of weeks to get back in the mindset of dominating the games, but it was fun and I had an awesome season. I got to see three or four Liverpool games. I lived in Chester, which is a really cool histroical city on the border of Wales — a Roman walled city. I’m bit into history, and that experience was cool.

I had tons and tons of offers the second year, and I don’t know what it was, but I felt like it was now or never to get a real job. I cut the whole overseas thing short, and many guys I played with are still over there having great success. I missed America when I was over there.

TCR: What do you do now?

BC: I’m a sales rep for Stryker Orthopedics. I sell knee and hip replacements in the Peoria area. My territory is western Illinois, about 10-15 hospitals. It’s cool becuase I get to go into surgery everyday. I was an economics major but I had the opportunity to start out and it just kinda stuck.

I’m invovled with the planning of surgeries; when a surgeon plans one, I am working with the office to make sure everything is correct for the day or surgery. I never thought I’d be doing it, but I think I’m good at it and I really like it.

TCR: How do you feel about the direction of the program under Coach Underwood, now that Bruce and also John Groce have been gone for some time?

BC: I go back to it being mutually beneficial for Bruce to eventually leave. Fans were ready to part ways. I never thought Groce was that guy, but I like Underwood now and what he’s doing. Their guards are excellent. Giorgi B, as just a freshman, has been really good and I think he can continue to improve. With Kipper at the four and Giorgi at the five they might take a few lumps, but if you want to look a few years in the future, the recruits are super impressive. Ayo is a beast.

Giorgi is one of my favorite players already.

Us too, Bill, us too.

Thanks to Bill for taking the time to talk to us! You can follow him on Twitter at @BuckWildBill33 for some great content on the Illini, life and what it’s like to be Bill Cole.

For vintage inspired, high quality, and well-designed University of Illinois apparel, check out Fourth and Kirby, and look for the TCR Collection while you’re at it!