Wisch: Can Bruce Weber Learn Something From…Ron Zook?

By Dave Wischnowsky–

There was a fire in Champaign this week.

Early Wednesday, a blaze started in a building on Green Street – the main Campustown drag – and destroyed a couple of popular restaurants. Luckily no one was hurt. But as of Thursday, the cause of the fire was still undetermined.

You could pretty much say the same for the scene a mile south of Green Street at the University of Illinois, where critics continue to sift through the smoldering remains of the Fighting Illini’s disappointing 2010-11 basketball campaign.

The questions are plenty. The answers are few. And the future?

Well, it’s smoky.

The only thing we know for sure is that Quo won’t cut it as the status in Champaign for 2011-12. Even with his first NCAA Tournament victory since 2006 under his belt and an admirable showing against No. 1 seed Kansas in the Round of 32, Bruce Weber will likely still need oven mitts to touch his seat this fall.

If Illinois misses the NCAA Tournament next season – certainly a possibility if hot-headed rising sophomore Jereme Richmond isn’t on board (either figuratively or literally) – then it indeed could be Weber’s last rodeo at Assembly Hall.

My horse sense, though, says Illinois’ coach likely has two more seasons to re-establish himself in Champaign. But, nevertheless, things need to change for Weber & Co.

And change soon.

With four senior starters being replaced by at least six new faces – five freshmen and point guard Sam Maniscalco, a fifth-year transfer from Bradley – drastic change will happen on the court next season.

But the question that’s been begging me for weeks is whether the Illinois coaching roster should follow suit and undergo an extreme makeover itself. Should Weber replace one or more of his longtime assistant coaches to reenergize his program?

You know, like Ron Zook did with Illinois football.

Among many close followers of Illini basketball, the popular opinion this past season was that the players had largely tuned out the coaching staff. One insider I know told me during the year that he thought getting things back on track at Illinois could be as simple as Weber bringing in new assistants. Who knows, perhaps, it could be.
This week on the Illinois basketball fan board InsideIllini.com, a commenter posted a thread entitled: “A Petrino/Koenning Solution?”

He was referring to Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning, the new offensive and defensive coordinators that Illini football coach Ron Zook brought in last season after Illinois AD Ron Guenther mandated a change. The move worked as a moribund 3-9 football team was transformed into a much-improved 7-6 bowl-victorious one.

Now, basketball, of course, is not football. You don’t have offensive and defensive coordinators divvying up the play calls on the hardwood. Assistant coaches just do not have the same in-game impact.

And, while Zook might have been stripped of his play-calling power on the gridiron, you can be certain that Weber will be calling the shots on the court as long he’s head coach of the program.

But I don’t think that Weber necessarily needs coaching help, anyway – the man knows his X’s and O’s. However, I do think he could use motivational help. And I believe the right new assistant could potentially provide that with fresh blood and a fresh voice.

Both associate head coach Wayne McClain and assistant Jay Price have been with Weber since he arrived in Champaign eight years ago. And with college hoops jobs popping up across the country – including at Northern Illinois and Bradley – I was hoping that they might get a head coaching opportunity elsewhere to open a spot on the Illinois staff. But that outcome doesn’t look likely.

Back in February, during a Q & A with reporters, Guenther addressed the issue of Weber’s coaching staff and said he wouldn’t force changes, a la Zook. But he did acknowledge the topic could come up during his annual year-end evaluation of the program.

“You can’t be loyal to a fault,” Guenther said. “If he thought there has to be a staff change to make this click, I believe Bruce would do it.”

I don’t think there’s a whole lot that Bruce Weber can learn from Ron Zook about coaching, but in this case I think he perhaps could.

After all, Zook knows as well as anyone that sometimes to spark a program all you need is a good fire. Or two.

Do you agree with Dave? Post your comments below.

davewisch Wisch: Can Bruce Weber Learn Something From…Ron Zook?

Dave Wischnowsky

If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    Are either of these assistants key recruiters?

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      As former coach at Manual, Wayne has his Peoria connections, of course — but so does Peoria native Jerrance Howard. Price, I don’t know how much he brings to the recruiting table. I think Howard (in particular) and Weber (as the closer) really are the main recruiting cogs for Illinois.

      Wayne and Jay, no doubt bring plenty to the table in terms of scouting, game preparation, practice and game advice, but I just don’t think Weber can really simply stand pat at this point in his career at Illinois. Sometimes tough decisions need to be made, and this program clearly needs a jumpstart. A new voice on staff might help do it.

      • Larry Horse's Arse

        Thanks Dave.
        The “loyal to a fault” thought really resonates for me.
        I suspect that Bruce is that way because he was an Assistant for so long himself.

        Some fresh coaching talent would give him a shot at improving.

      • Dave Wischnowsky

        I think the “loyal to a fault” comment by Guenther is the most telling of anything in this situation. And I think you make a great point about Weber’s likely soft spot for assistants, considering that he spent 18 years as one on Keady’s staff.

        I don’t think Keady was ever on quite as hot a seat during his tenure at Purdue as Weber is at Illinois right now, though. Not until the very end for Keady, at least. Sending a longtime assistant on his way would surely be an extremely difficult thing for Weber to do, but difficult things come with the territory when you’re making $1.5M per year.

  • Makr, Sterling

    With this Senior class leaving, the future will DEFINITELY be better. They were all, talented and they underachieved. They never got better, they never learned anything, and they didn’t listen to coaching. Weber has a REALLY good group of kids for the next few seasons. They seem to have the mental makeup to succeed.

  • J-Dubya

    Isn’t there a prized recruit out there that has a high school coach that wants to work in college? Aren’t they usually a package deal?

    I would fire them both and advertise the coaching vacancies when I recruit top talent!

  • illini-reign

    continue to enjoy reading your material. True journalistic mastery! Go Illini

  • Mr. Pouty Pants

    I really hope that this new round of starters and incoming talent will be better than the outgoing class. I don’t remember exactly but I don’t think any of the exiting seniors were as highly ranked recruits as most of their replacements are. For whatever reason the two Mikes and D-mac didn’t respond to the coaching staff and never took that “next step.” Weber’s recruiting has been improving over the last few years and he has proved he is a good coach when the player buy in.

  • Cody

    Wayne McLain likely could have left for a head coaching gig any number of times in the past but he has stayed at Illinois and I gather that he would like to finish his career there.

    Jerrance Howard is deserving of the credit he receives for helping to revitalize recruiting in Champaign, but as an earlier poster rightly recognized, Bruce is the guy who has to close these kids. Many people thing JH should be the next head coach of the Illini, of become Associate Head coach and ‘retire’ McLain.

    For me the bug question is Jay Price. He has sought out head coaching jobs in the past, and there have bedpan rumors that he’s been unhappy since JH leapfrogged him in compensation. If you ask me, I think he’s the only person that Weber could consider not having on staff next year. McLain is respected throughout the state, and Jerrance in the young hotshot.

    Also from what I’ve heard from people near the program, JH needs a few more years as an assistant, because as phenomenal as he may be as a recruiter, his Xs and Os are a step or two behind the others.

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