By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) My second year at the University of Illinois was Lou Henson’s last.
In 1996, when I was a sophomore and shouting myself hoarse at the likes of Michigan’s Robert “Tractor” Traylor and Iowa’s Jess Settles from seats on Assembly Hall’s floor, Henson was coaching a lackluster Illinois basketball team to a ninth-place finish in the Big Ten and a first-round loss to Alabama in the NIT.
Before the final game of his Illini tenure, Henson had already announced that he would retire after 21 seasons in Champaign. The man credited with rescuing Illinois basketball from its 1970s doldrums wasn’t fired by athletic director Ron Guenther, but it’s widely assumed that the university politely nudged Henson toward the exit door.
And what ultimately greased the skids for Henson’s departure was that in the six seasons after Final Four star Kendall Gill’s graduation – let’s call it A.G., “After Gill” – Illinois posted records of just 21-10, 13-15, 19-13, 17-11, 19-12 and 18-13, won only one NCAA Tournament game and compiled a positively pedestrian Big Ten record of 56-52.
It should, because in the six years after Dee Brown’s departure from Champaign, the Illini A.D. (“After Dee”) have just one NCAA Tourney victory and a Big Ten record of 49-49 heading into tonight’s 7 p.m. game against the Indiana Hoosiers in Bloomington, Ind.
As a result, the drums in Champaign are beating at a fever pitch as much of Illini Nation demands the head of coach Bruce Weber. And from this vantage point, it appears increasingly likely that Weber will be shown the door by new Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas at season’s end. Such an outcome might actually provide both frustrated Illini fans and the frazzled Weber with equal senses of relief.
With such angry storm clouds swirling about Champaign, Chicago Sun-Times Illini beat writer Herb Gould was asked this week by Jeff Rabjohns of the Indiana fan site Peegs.com about the current situation surrounding Weber at Illinois.
“The bar is set pretty high at Illinois basketball in the minds of fans. It’s similar to Indiana in that regard,” Gould explained. “They have a pretty good tradition and they expect to be more competitive than they have been the last few years. The thing that sticks in everybody’s craw is, they’re basically a .500 team in the Big Ten the past six years. Is that good enough at Illinois? I think a big chunk of the fan base will say no.”
As it should. But what a big chunk of the Illinois fan base often fails to acknowledge is that Illinois basketball isn’t quite the elite program that many like to imagine it to be.
Throughout much of its history, the program has instead been merely average-to-good, rather than great-to-spectacular. For example, the Illini hoops program was in a very similar state to its current one when Henson retired. And that was just 16 years ago.
After Lou left town, Lon Kruger came on board from Florida and spent four seasons laying the groundwork for the celebrated Bill Self, who raised Illinois another notch during his three seasons. Weber, of course, then took the program to within one win of the national championship summit before the Illini then slid back down the hill.
Many Illinois fans seem to believe that the “glory years” of Self’s three seasons and Weber’s first two is the Illini’s birthright rather than something of an aberration for a program that’s generally regarded as the best to never have won an NCAA title.
And while Illinois is a very good program, the fact is that it’s never been a championship one. It’s still trying to get there.
Now, certainly Illinois needs to do everything it can to achieve that ultimate goal. And that very well may include firing Weber and hiring a new coach. But, as the Illini move forward this season it’s also wise to remember that the grass isn’t automatically greener with a new coach. There is no simple magic bullet solution for the Illini.
If there were, Assembly Hall in Champaign would have as many championship banners hanging from its rafters as the other Assembly Hall over in Indiana does.
To that point, Champaign News-Gazette Illini beat writer Paul Klee cautioned Illini fans on Wednesday by writing, “If it were to reach the point [at Illinois] where you make a [coaching] change – and that’s still an if – you better nail the hire.
“Because if you remove Bruce Weber – a great human that happens to be highly respected in the coaching fraternity – you better not whiff. It can always get worse. Ask Indiana (post-Mike Davis), N.C. State and Wake Forest, among others.”
And, yes, as Weber critics would rightfully say, things can certainly get far better, too.
But just don’t make the assumption that, without Bruce Weber, they automatically will. Illinois basketball is a curiously tough nut to crack.
For any coach.
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.