And what ensued over the next 10 games was nothing short of awful --
Illinois lost nine of those 10, and the reality of change was
becoming more and more inevitable with each loss. It's hard to
pinpoint the low point of this run: Was it the blowout loss at
Nebraska? Was it the postgame press conference after Purdue? The
three home losses down the stretch? The joy felt by so many after
Brandon Paul's 43-point explosion against Ohio State in mid-January
was nowhere to be found. And Thursday and Friday were both days that
will not soon be forgotten.
I want to do a couple of things this
morning as we begin to stroll into this interim period for Illini
hoops. First, I want to pay tribute to Bruce Weber and his nine
years in Champaign-Urbana. And second, I want to look to the future
and offer some opinions about what lies ahead for Illini nation.
The Bruce Weber era
I've been amazed and saddened by the amount of hate and vitriol
being directed at coach Bruce Weber. The message boards are full of
hate that is usually reserved for serial killers and enemies of the
state. After Tom Izzo used part of his postgame press conference to
defend Weber and question the decision to fire his friend, many
Illini fans have now turned on Izzo. "How dare someone say such
positive things about Bruce Weber" is the essence of their comments.
At church on Sunday morning, smiles were all around when the topic
of the Weber firing was raised. And while I believe this decision
had to be made, I just don't get the hate.
Consider for a moment the following:
In 2004, Bruce
Weber led Illinois to their first outright Big Ten title in 52
years, a statistic that still is hard to comprehend.
Weber was at the
helm as Illinois made their only appearance in a national title
game during the magical season of 2005. Illini fans will never
forget wins that year against Wake Forest, at Wisconsin, at
Michigan State and the Elite Eight comeback against Arizona.
Weber has always
done things the right way -- he's as clean as it gets. I realize
many of the haters could care less about this -- but it matters.
Weber did an
incredible job helping former Illini reconnect with the U of I.
Again, I know many say "who cares," but I can promise you this
point of emphasis will not soon be forgotten.
Weber became a
model for community involvement and fundraising for cancer
education -- and that didn't always play well with each and
Weber embraced the university community
and offered regular support for the other coaches and their
So, you may wonder, what is the point of all of this? Am I saying
Weber should NOT have been let go? No, this divorce had become
inevitable. I started hearing rumblings back in the summer (prior to
the hiring of A.D. Mike Thomas) that change was coming to the two
revenue sports at Illinois -- a mandate from the highest levels of
leadership at the university. And even in late November, prior to
the wins over Gonzaga and Ohio State, key alums were convinced Weber
had to win big this season to save his job. No, it was pretty clear
Bruce Weber would no longer be at Illinois.
But here is what I am saying: Can we take time and appreciate the
many positives Bruce Weber's nine years brought to Illinois? Can we
thank a good man for nine good years of service to the school we
cheer for? Can we just stop already with the hate?
Maybe I'm too close to the situation, but I will miss Bruce
Weber. I'll miss seeing his wife, Megan, at the games and exchanging
pleasantries. I love the fact his daughters LOVE Illinois
And this isn't and shouldn't be life and death. This is
basketball. Too many Illini fans have lost perspective, and it
really speaks poorly of the state of college athletics. If it is
your opinion he needed to go, please be happy Weber is no longer the
coach of your team. Let's just do it with class and appreciation.
It's the end of an era. Thanks, Bruce Weber, for being a man of
integrity. Thanks, Bruce Weber, for helping Illinois achieve what
had not taken place for five decades (outright Big Ten title) -- or
forever (NCAA title game appearance). And thanks for saying what you
mean, and meaning what you say. I for one will miss your open and
honest outlook and approach. And my guess is you will find success
in the years to come -- probably sooner than later.
[to top of second column]
Mike Thomas is on the spot. I would not want his job over the
next 12-18 months. Not only does he need to find $7.1 million in
buyout money for Ron Zook, Jolette Law and Bruce Weber over the next
three years, he needs to hire a men's basketball coach who will be
significantly better than Weber, and someone our fickle fan base
will embrace. And he also needs to begin bringing in up to $150
million to begin the renovation of the Assembly Hall.
Thomas' hiring of football coach Tim Beckman was underwhelming in
many circles and even led two members of the board of trustees to
vote no on the hire solely because Beckman was not an
African-American (their words, not mine). Thomas works at a
university where the president seems in a battle with the UIUC
chancellor, and a couple hundred faculty members would like to see
Hogan leave. Does Mike Thomas need to hit a home run? You better
Most experts believe VCU coach Shaka Smart will be Thomas' first
choice. Thomas and Smart worked together for a time at Akron
University, and the 33-year-old coach has VCU experiencing success
in ways never seen before -- a Final Four appearance last season and
a return trip to the Big Dance this year. My guess is Smart says
thanks, but no thanks, and holds out for a job like UCLA or possibly
Kentucky should John Calipari return to the NBA later this spring
(as many feel will happen). I really hope Shaka Smart comes to
Illinois -- I think he is the real deal, Lucille. Just don't see it
Alabama's Anthony Grant and South Florida's Stan Heath are being
thrown around as Thomas targets as well, and former Chicago Bull
Reggie Theus (who coached at New Mexico State and in the NBA for a
time) seems to be getting a look as well. Flying Illini legend Steve
Bardo went on the record saying a Theus hire would be a real
positive for Illinois. Personally, I'm not excited about Grant,
Heath or Theus, but time will tell if any of this speculation has
any truth to it whatsoever.
One name being thrown around in the media room at Indy that no
one has written about is Mike Brey of Notre Dame. A disciple of Duke
coach Mike Krzyewski, Brey has steadied the Fighting Irish and won
many games in the very difficult Big East Conference. When I first
heard this name, my initial reaction was thanks, but no thanks.
However, this hire would feel a lot like the Lon Kruger hire in
1996, and Brey might be a sleeper for Thomas.
There are 15 to 20 other names being speculated about out there,
from Stanford's Johnny Dawkins to Washington's Lorenzo Romar to
Butler's Brad Stevens (I was told this weekend there is ZERO chance
Stevens leaves Butler for Illinois) to Cincinnati's Mick Cronin
(Mike Thomas hired him at Cincinnati).
Who will the next coach be at Illinois? I have no idea -- and
neither does anyone else, except Mike Thomas.
Time will tell the story if this change proves to be a positive
move, or if we are getting ready to experience what Iowa and
Michigan and Missouri did when parting company with longtime
coaches, only to long for the "good old days" within a couple of
years. Heck, Iowa STILL hasn't recovered from pushing Dr. Tom Davis
out, and they are already on their third coach during the post-Davis
My guess is three things are just about assured: First, Illinois
will hire a young coach (45 or younger is my guess) who will
hopefully resonate with the passionate Illini fan base. Second,
Illinois will hire an African-American coach to lead their men's
basketball program. I've heard this mandate is real and the board of
trustees will not approve another Tim Beckman-type hire. And this
would be a positive move for the University of Illinois -- hiring a
minority to lead the men's basketball team for the first time in its
history. And third and finally, at some point in the next couple of
years, you will have Illini fans complaining about this coach in one
way or another. After all, this is Illini basketball we are talking
[By GREG TAYLOR]