By Dan Bernstein
Yesterday’s whipsawing stories about Matt Painter were typical of this time of year, when coaching vacancies in college basketball are opening and closing, and candidates are forced to tell half-truths and damn lies, even if only trying to extort an extra dollar or two to stay put.
That appears to be what happened with the Purdue coach, who did little to quell mounting certainty – including one done-deal report from St. Louis – that he was bolting for the Missouri job. If it was a bluff the whole time, it sure worked.
Painter got his money bumped and, presumably, other demands met. He seemed to play it just right, and is still able to talk about his happiness at Purdue with some degree of apparent sincerity, to the extent that we can ever believe anything from anyone in this silly business.
As I write this, today’s story involves whether Bruce Weber is going to leave Illinois for Oklahoma.
“Received interest calls from a few schools the last couple weeks,” Weber texted the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “Other than that, no real story or stories! Sorry!”
OK! Fine! Exclamation point!
But that’s not “I’m not going anywhere – I’m staying at Illinois.”
Late last night, the Norman (OK) Transcript reported “mutual interest” between Weber and OU, and today’s early smattering of Twitter posts provides little further news. By afternoon, there should be some clarity, one way or the other.
It would be easy to look at this like we did Painter’s dalliance with Mizzou, but the situations are vastly different. Weber has grown less comfortable in Champaign after his eighth season, and AD Ron Guenther’s contract expires this summer.
The arrow of the program is pointing sideways at best, now, with middling conference success, regional recruiting a tougher battle than ever, and the future of star freshman Jereme Richmond in question after a season of bad behavior, bad grades and bad blood. Restless natives are sounding more willing with each passing day to help Weber look around, and observers with close ties to the program are floating trial balloons (both publicly and privately) about where he could go.
What’s important to keep in mind is that a jump to Oklahoma could be the 54-year-old Weber’s last chance at a big-money contract. Increasingly, schools are looking to energetic youngsters to revitalize programs — VCU’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens will be next to cash in on the trend, either staying or fleeing.
The Sooners tried the wunderkind thing with Jeff Capel, and it’s over. Weber would be a clear departure from that, bringing the appearance of stability and experience, along with his six NCAA appearances while at Illinois.
He’d gain stability for himself, too. Without an extension in the works for Guenther, it looks like a new boss is coming, with his or her own ideas and preferences. It’s not getting any easier for him, on the court or in the office.
The grace periods afforded for major-program rebuilds are shorter than ever, but they still exist. The chance for one more lucrative challenge may be tempting.
Weber has never seemed to be the kind of slick, politicking coach always looking for the next big score. He’s no carpetbagger. It’s hard to envision him making such a bold move as is reported to be possible in the next day or two.
Still, no one could begrudge Weber for leaving for a new challenge at what could be just the right time for all involved.