The Bruce Weber era at the University of Illinois is over. He finished his career at Illinois with a 210-101 record and a Big Ten record of 89-65. His career includes a national runner-up and two Big Ten titles. This does not look like the record of a former coach, but a closer look reveals the problem. Dee Brown and James Augustine graduated in 2006 with the most wins of any starters in Illinois basketball. Since then, the Illini have been 50-56 in the Big Ten and 1-3 in the NCAA tournament (they will presumably not make the tournament this year).
Weber seemed to be a decent guy. All accounts show that he ran a clean program in terms of NCAA rules. With a few notable exceptions, e.g. Jamar Smith and Jereme Richmond, his players have seemed to be decent guys too. Weber always seemed like an honest, hard-working, straight-shooter. He went to Wisconsin-Milwaukee and coached at Purdue and Southern Illinois. He is a Midwestern guy with a Midwestern ethic. He brought no glitz or glamour. His voice was always horse and his smile and orange blazer were always endearing.
The consensus opinion of Weber was that he was a good coach and a bad recruiter. The problem was that he was a decent recruiter, and only a decent coach. Close watchers of Illini basketball were frustrated by their lack of improvement. Guys like Demetri McCamey and Brian Randle had loads of talent, but seemed to make the same mistakes as seniors as they did as sophomores. The team seemed to constantly struggle against zone defenses. The easy basket on an in-bounds play or well drawn-up quick shot were rare. Basketball “experts” seemed to talk about Weber’s great motion offense. To me, his motion offense seemed too often to entail passing the ball around the perimeter for 30 seconds and then chucking up a three. When it was Head, Williams, and Brown doing the chucking, it worked brilliantly.
Illinois remains the best program in college basketball to never win a title. Over the last couple of seasons, it grew more obvious to me that Weber was not the man that would end that streak. That said, I take no joy from the firing of Bruce Weber. I also don’t worry much about him. He has been compensated very well at Illinois, and he will surely be on a coaching staff somewhere very soon. In the end, I will remember Weber as a decent guy and a decent coach that ran a decent program for awhile.
Is it too much to ask for more? In the current climate of NCAA sports, I’m not sure it is possible to be clean and win championships. A recent sports radio program asked Illinois fans, “Do you want a coach that is willing to cheat to win a championship?” In other words, do you want a temporary banner?
My answer is a resounding “no.” Am I being naive in thinking it’s still possible to win at Illinois without cheating? I really don’t think I am. I guess I just want to believe that it is possible to win and be (relatively) clean. Part of the problem is that the NCAA’s rule book is ridiculously long, and sometimes illogical. I’m sure that there are small-scale rules violations all the time. The real systemic problem seems to be the AAU coaches and the pseudo-agents that HS kids get when they are in 9th grade or earlier. When coaches get enmeshed with these shady characters, that is when the real muck gets stirred.
I would not want a guy like John Caliparri to be the coach at the U of I. I just couldn’t cheer for the guy because all of the banners he wins are temporary. I believe that it is still possible to put together a solid basketball program without getting all of the 5-star recruits and getting involved in all that comes with them. Teach good, fundamental basketball to hard-working athletes and I believe you can have a consistent sweet 16 program, and break through every once in awhile.
Is that too much to ask for?
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(BTW, if you do a Bruce Weber image search on google, it would be a good idea to include something like “coach” or “basketball,” or you will be quite surprised.)