The Bruce Weber Era: A Retrospective

When I wrote the Ron Zook version of this post, there were – for lack of a better term – shades of grey. What is Illinois football, after all? It’s hard to evaluate what success is, or should be for us. On some level, you can totally say “Who the hell are we to be firing someone who took us to back-to-back bowl games?” Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we’re not thinking that way. I’m glad we’re shooting higher. But we are nothing but consistently inconsistent. Who knows, maybe our ceiling is simply fits and starts with a BCS game thrown in every 7-10 years. If we improve upon what Ron Zook did, and in a sustained way, it’ll be a historically good time for football at Illinois.

Basketball is black and white. I could wax poetic about how we’re the best program to not win a title – a dubious honor, to be sure, but an honor, I suppose – but I won’t. SportsReference.com ranks every college basketball program since…ever, but they also use a simple rating system and a strength of schedule adjustment going back to 1979-80. Since that season, here are the top ten programs in college basketball:

1.       Duke

2.       North Carolina

3.       Kansas

4.       Kentucky

5.       Illinois

6.       Indiana

7.       Arizona

8.       Syracuse

9.       Louisville

10.   Oklahoma

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Lest you think that’s just one ranking system, there’s this. Also this. So when you’ve been six games under .500 in conference play since Dee Brown left, and you’ve got just two (2!) tournament wins since an appearance in the national championship game, things are not adequate. In fact, it now appears borderline insane that, for a good chunk of this season, there was substantial debate about whether said inadequacy existed at all. There can be no doubt that the Illinois program is worse off than it was nine years ago when Bruce Weber took the helm, even if those nine years included the program’s highest peak. Everyone, from the AD down to the casual fan, is totally justified in expecting more out of this program. As Captain Jack Ross said, these are the facts, and they are undisputed.

So because of that, it feels unnecessary to go season-by-season, peeling away the layers like we did with the puzzling onion that is our football program. All you really need to know are those numbers above (okay, I can’t help but add that we also experienced the worst season in the history of the program and what I would call the worst single loss in the history of the program). If you’re a marquee program, and I think we are, you don’t need to read tea leaves to see underperformance. It should be evident. And it is.

I covered Illinois basketball from 2004-2008, so I got a chance to get to know Bruce Weber a little. I can confidently say he doesn’t have a mean-spirited bone in his body. Few people love basketball or want to win more. When he talks about how bad Meyers Leonard’s body language is after the Purdue game, he believes he’s paying him the compliment of being honest, because that’s what a good coach and temporary dad (what college coaches essentially are) owe their kids. When he goes on ESPN 1000 and says Demetri McCamey is getting bad advice from his family and friends, he thinks he’s being honest and open with the fans and media in a market that is vital to him. When he says he’s hoping for some “help” from the Big Ten to convince the NCAA Selection Committee that we were somehow jobbed at Minnesota, he thinks he’s doing his job as a coach in doing whatever it takes to get us into the tournament. When he says Robbie Hummel and Lewis Jackson are “players” and that we need “players,” I’m certain he’s being complimentary of them and their coach.

But those things I know don’t matter, because perception is reality in college basketball. And respectively, in those situations he’s publicly calling a college sophomore (and his best player) immature; he’s throwing not just a player but a player’s inner circle to the wolves on the radio in their hometown; he’s desperately asking for the conference to help right a wrong of his own making; he’s making it sound like he wishes he had other players, not his own (setting aside for a second that both Hummel and Jackson would’ve given appendages to play at Illinois and we didn’t seriously consider them).

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen/heard the “concession speech” that was the Purdue postgame. This felt like a resignation speech at the time and feels the same way now:

This was kind of everything in a nutshell. He’s honest to a fault again, first about his players, then about himself. To the former, that’s still unacceptable. When you’re rolling through the conference on your way to a number 1 seed, then it’s folksy to talk about how Dee Brown couldn’t go left. Pretty much any other time, but especially when your season is collapsing all around you, it’s not okay to do that. When things are going bad, you build a fortress around your team and let them know you’ve got their back. You don’t start pushing guys off the ramparts.

To the latter, it’s sad that Bruce thinks he needed to win a certain way to keep fans happy, because I just don’t think that’s the case. If we were consistently winning games playing awkward Bo Ryan basketball, nobody would care. But the fact that he saw two paths – one that involved chasing the best players available and one that involved getting his type of guys for his type of system – and ultimately chose to try to split it down the middle (taking the best players he could get and trying to shoehorn them into his approach)….tells me he was never fully confident and secure in what he was doing at Illinois. You can’t have that. You can’t have a coach that is liable to coach scared because he doesn’t believe in what he’s doing, and that’s what we had for the last 3-4 years. He admits as much in the clip above.

So whoever our next coach is, whatever style he wants to play and whatever types of players he wants to recruit, I just hope that he goes all-in with it. Coaching in the Big Ten, or any major conference, is hard enough. If you don’t trust yourself, it’s impossible.

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