It’s been a rough stretch for Illini fans. Usually we’re buoyed by (often misplaced) optimism this time of year. It’s tournament time and you have some talent; with a little luck and some inspired play you make a run. Or not. The last five-six years it’s been not. Not enough wins, not enough recruits, not enough March success.
That’s why Bruce Weber was fired on Friday. It wasn’t the epic collapse (10 of the last 12 losses), so no – don’t blame AD Mike Thomas for not giving the cliched ‘Vote of Confidence’ a month ago. This is what Tom Izzo did in a post-game rant, also on Friday. If you care to look, you’ll see that his rant was eerily similar in theme to his response to Tom Lickliter’s firing by Iowa two years earlier. Izzo and Weber have been close for years, so we’ll forgive him the reaction, but the truth is the Weber-led Illini are much less a threat to Michigan State’s perch atop the conference than some of the alternatives.
I watched Bruce’s statement on Friday. It made me sad. Sad because a hard-working guy who has class and treats people the right way could not attain the level of success needed. It’s a pretty damning commentary on the state of college hoops that a guy like Bruce Weber gets sacked while a guy like John Calipari not only gets a pass for his indiscretions, he thrives.
The dominoes are falling now, and we have to hope this doesn’t turn into a 2-3 year swoon like they’ve experienced in Iowa and Indiana. Meyers Leonard, the best hope for a decent season next year, all but announced he would be turning pro after the loss to the Hawkeyes in the Big 10 Tourney. Media types and other guys-in-the-know have commented that contacts are being made with current Illini players – just to gauge interest in possible transfers. The team was so dispirited by the last month they took a vote and let it be known they did not want to play in the NIT. No worries there, because the NIT did not select the Illini. But think about that – a team so beaten down they voted not to play…
The Chicago Media, always eager to pile it on with the state school has been typically brutal. Then yesterday we hear a typically ignorant Chicago Democrat is questioning the fiscal soundness of buy-outs for recently fired coaches, egged on by Tribune reporter who should know better. This story pisses me off a lot more than our inability to avoid long scoring droughts.
- The U of I’s Athletics budget is fully self-funded by tickets sales, media deals, and donor contributions. Tax payer dollars do not, do not, DO NOT have anything to do with the hirings, firings, and salaries of coaches.
- U of I Athletics have operated in the black for more than a decade, while building new facilities and adding teams. This is called expanding. State government could learn a lot from this example.
- The deadbeat Democrat-controlled state government currently owes the U of I tens of millions if not hundreds of millions in funding. The day they make good on those debts is the day they earn the right to speak about finances at the U of I.
From mad back to sad… Sadly, AD Mike Thomas is learning the hard way about Illinois politics and how it might affect his bottom line. Namely, when two black U of I Trustees (Democrats from Chicago, natch) voted against the recent hiring of football coach Tim Beckman, stating racial reasons, it was a shot across the bow. This was a clear shot across the bow, adding more pressure to the basketball hire. If Thomas doesn’t hire a black guy to replace Weber, it’s likely trouble. And that’s a shame. Like most Illini fans, I could care less about racial politics; I want the best coach available.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Mike Thomas named Jerrance Howard as the interim head coach. He’s vital for stability and avoiding mass defections, and he’s the lead state recruiter, a guy the next coach will certainly want to keep on board. The fact is, Bruce Weber did fail to capitalize on the success of the 04-05 season, and it is time for him to go. This is an opportunity to revitalize a program that could be (should be?) in the top ten.
It would seem that Mike Thomas knows this, where his predecessor seemed unwilling or unable to understand. Thomas’s purported willingness to spend money to get his guy for the football post (even though it didn’t happen), should be seen as a good sign. His ambitions for the renovation of the Assembly Hall, the way he talks about competing for championships – all good. If former AD Ron Guenther had been more willing (or able) to spend money, who knows where we might be…
And the coach to do it just might be out there. There’s a lot of talent coming through Illinois the next several years, and a dynamic, charismatic leader could really make it rain. Instead of a prolonged swoon, we could be right back in the mix with one big recruiting haul. You give the Chicago media someone they can back. You change the style of play and get the Orange train rolling again. But we may need to go a little unconventional, take a chance on someone who lacks experience but could be the next star in college coaching. Is that guy out there?
Some of us think so. Maybe, just maybe, the Illini can end this month on a much better note.