By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) At 6 p.m. this evening, in the hopes of beating the Michigan State Spartans – and cancer – the University of Illinois will hold its first-ever “Operation Blue-Out” at Assembly Hall.
For the event benefitting Coaches vs. Cancer, all Illini fans planning to attend have been urged to wear blue and it’s a fitting color, I suppose. After all, with the team caught up in a three-game losing streak, the mood in Champaign is certainly a lot more blue than it is orange right now.
Bruce Weber’s included, I’d say.
After Saturday’s 77-72 overtime loss to Minnesota, Illinois’ embattled head coach suggested to reporters that he really can’t win, no matter what the scoreboard says at the end of a ballgame.
“They’re all hard to take,” Weber said after his Illini suffered their third straight defeat to fall to 15-6 overall, 4-4 in the Big Ten. “When we win it’s hard to take (because) we have to listen to the critiquing. What’s the difference?”
On Monday, during a media conference call discussing tonight’s game vs. MSU (17-4, 6-2), Weber added that you have to “believe in yourself, in the way you do things, do the right things and hope in the long run life treats you well.”
From tough losses on the court (the three straight narrow defeats) to tough losses off it (see: Jereme Richmond) to a cavalcade of previous setbacks and letdowns during the past several seasons, not a whole lot has treated Bruce Weber well of late. And last week, one downstate sports columnist wondered if Weber has simply had enough of the bright lights of a major conference.
“A thought occurred as the final seconds ticked off in Sunday’s 67-63 Wisconsin victory at Champaign,” Randy Kindred of the Bloomington Pantagraph wrote in a column published last Friday. “It was more a premonition, really. From a corner seat in a Bloomington living room, the vision had high-def clarity. There was a podium, microphone and a maroon and white backdrop.
“‘Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming today,’ a guy in a suit and maroon tie said. ‘It is my privilege to introduce, and welcome back, the next head basketball coach of the Southern Illinois Salukis… Mr. Bruce Weber.’ ”
Kindred went on to add, “Maybe it’s crazy. Often such things are. Yet, given the rampant fan unrest over Weber’s program at Illinois and Chris Lowery’s at SIU, is a Weber return to Carbondale totally out of the realm?”
Which got me wondering, well, is it?
A head coach returning to the college where he began his career isn’t unprecedented. In fact, college football shows two recent examples in NFL burnouts Mike Riley and Dennis Erickson.
Riley began his head coaching career at Oregon State from 1997-98 before leaving for the NFL, where he flopped in three seasons with the San Diego Chargers. In 2001, Riley was fired by S.D. He spent 2002 as an assistant with the New Orleans Saints before returning to Oregon State in ’03, where he’s since gone 64-49 and is under contract to coach the Beavers through 2019.
Meanwhile, Erickson, who went on to national championship glory at the University of Miami and NFL riches with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, began his coaching career at the University of Idaho from 1982-85. In 2006, after he had been fired by the Niners and took two years off from football, Erickson restarted his career back at Idaho. He spent the ’06 season coaching the Vandals to a 4-8 record before moving on to Arizona State, which fired him last month.
At Illinois, Weber is 208-92 overall, but that included an 89-16 mark during his first three seasons. And since Dee Brown graduated, Weber has gone only 48-48 in Big Ten games over the past six seasons.
As Kindred wrote, “You can only tread water so long, particularly in the social network age, before the higher ups throw it out and start anew.”
Down in Carbondale, Lowery, a former assistant to Weber at Illinois, has also struggled mightily of late, having gone just 66-82 at SIU during the past five seasons after a 78-25 record his first three years. His seat with the Salukis is at least as hot as his former boss’ in Champaign.
In his column, Kindred wrote that rumors of private donor buyouts have percolated in Champaign and Carbondale and “Likely, that’s what it would take.” Weber, 56, is signed through the 2014-15 season at $1.5 million per year, and Illinois already is buying out fired football coach Ron Zook ($2.6 million). Meanwhile, Lowery, 39, has two years left on a contract paying him $750,000 a year.
Kindred added that, “It’s a good bet Weber would be welcome in Carbondale should he get let go in Champaign. The paycheck would be a lot less, but so would the glare, the scrutiny.”
Last offseason, reports indicated that Oklahoma had interest in hiring Weber before former Illini coach Lon Kruger ultimately took the Sooners job (and perhaps Weber should have). And a few years ago, rumors swirled that Weber had been connected to the head coach opening at Arkansas, which was widely dismissed at the time. These days, though, I’m not so sure that wasn’t true.
The reality is, even if Weber isn’t fired by new Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas this offseason, he may still opt to grab a parachute and land elsewhere for 2012-13.
Now, I’m not so sure that spot would be back in Carbondale. And neither is Kindred, who wrote, “Chances are he would land elsewhere, either as a head coach or a top assistant. Could be he has no desire to go back, though the down-to-earth Weber and the Missouri Valley seemed an ideal fit.
“It’s just a thought … from one little corner of the world.”
And an interesting one, at that.
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. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.