Wisch: There’s No ‘Magic Bullet’ Hire For Illini Basketball

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.

Sound familiar?

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.

davewisch Wisch: There’s No ‘Magic Bullet’ Hire For Illini Basketball

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. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    Agreed Dave…for all those who howl for BW’s scalp, be careful what you wish for.

    • Voice of Reason

      Yes, lets not try because it might not get better. Just keep the status quo of sub .500 B1G basketball because the next coach MIGHT not be better.

  • Ridiculous Ness

    Boy, some of the Illini writers sure do live in a black and white world. Just because we don’t want to be .500 in the Big Ten doesn’t mean that we expect to be in the Final Four every year too.

    • Voice of Reason

      Correct. And why should we not aim to compete for B1G championships? No one thinks we’re Duke or Kentucky here.

      We’re sub .500 in the B1G and have won ONE tournament game in the past 6 years.

    • IMPE

      Right. Major strawman there.

  • IMPE

    Given that you’re using the late Henson years as a starting point, you’ve reached a curious conclusion. Lon Kruger followed Henson, and made the program better. Bill Self followed Kruger, and made the program better yet.

    And Weber’s post-Dee years mirror Henson’s late career, but Henson’s program had been sent into decline by probation. There is no such reason for the post-Dee decline under Weber. This staff just hasn’t gotten the job done.

    Henson himself had made the program much better before the probation era. Three consecutive coaches — Henson, Kruger, Self — left the program better than they found it. Make if four, if you want to include Gene Bartow’s single year that raised the talent level over what he inherited from Harv Schmidt.

    If Weber were to go now, he would be the first Illinois coach in 37 years to leave the program in worse shape than he found it. There is no reason to fear a change.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      The late Henson? Uh, Lou is still with us, IMPE.

      Even if the Intramural Physical Education Building (IMPE) no longer is.

      I find it amazing that you think Weber hasn’t dealt with enormous setbacks that neither Kruger, nor Self experienced. Starting with the Eric Gordon debacle, followed by the Jamar Smith incident and then the Jereme Richmond saga, Weber hasn’t been able to catch a break since Dee graduated, nor has he been able to dig himself out of that hole. That former wasn’t his fault, the latter on the other hand is on him.

      And where have I ever said that Illinois should fear change, or not make such a change. If it’s merited at the end of the season, a change should be made. .500 in the Big Ten over six years does not cut it at all. Just like it didn’t cut it for Henson.

      But what happened, impact-wise on the program, in the early ’90s with the recruiting sanctions and Lack of Institutional Control placed on Illinois isn’t all that dissimilar to the recruiting effects of the Eric Gordon and Jamar Smith issues that Weber dealt with back-to-back. Clearly, the situations are apples and orange, but for the effects that they had on UI basketball, they ended up tasting quite similar. Not identical, mind you, but similar.

      • Dave Wischnowsky

        My apologies, IMPE. As I’m trying to juggle feedback on here, Twitter and Facebook, don’t get a chance to read things as intently as I’d like. I misread and now understand you were talking about Henson’s latter years.

        And, Sharpie, nowhere am I saying that the UI shouldn’t try for those things. But I just would like to see Illinois fans in the future be a little less dramatic and a little more realistic about the program. Look, I hope to see the next coach be the one to push Illinois over the hump, but it isn’t going to be easy to do.

        People love to romanticize Bill Self’s time at Illinois, for example, but the reality of his tenure is that he went from the Round of 8 to the Round of 16 to the Round of 32 in his three years. And his best season was achieved with (cough, cough) “someone else’s recruits.” It’s hard to win at Illinois. If it wasn’t, the program would have championships by now.

        And I think a big reason why it’s so hard is because of the complexities of Chicago’s recruiting scene. You’re expected to recruit it, you’re expected to get the top guys and then you’re expected to win with them. All of those things, for many reasons, don’t mesh all that well together. Illinois is a tricky nut to crack. And many fans — again, not all of them — refuse to acknowledge realities. They just demand excellence, no excuses, even though consistent excellence has never been the norm.

      • Sharpie


        1. Try reading the comment again. IMPE didn’t say Henson is dead.

        2. Correct, things may not improve with a new coach. But we will never know if the DIA doesn’t try. Hiring a new coach would jolt instant life back into this lifeless program. Half empty Assembly Hall, living on the bubble, mediocre recruiting, poor use of personnell, etc. These are things that are a given with Weber. It may get worse with a new coach, but not much worse. We are already half way to the bottom of the Big Ten.

  • Voice of Reason

    There seems to be this pervasive thought that Illini fans are out of touch for wanting Weber gone and think the program is “elite”. This is not the case. No Illini fan thinks we are an elite program on the level of Duke, Kentucky, etc.

    Look at a variety of numbers and it is clear that this is a top 15-20 program historically. It’s not a pipedream to say so. Weber’s results since the last of Self’s players left is woefully subpar. The last stretch we had like this was due to probabtion.

    It is abundantly clear that Weber can’t build a team to be anything but bubble-worthy. Of course we know that the next coach could fail. We also know that this coach can’t succeed with his own players.

    Enough is enough.

  • Jeremy

    Let’s be clear about something. We Illinois fans don’t expect to be in the Final 4 every year and contend for Titles, but we should be making Sweet 16 runs every year. That’s who we are. We aren’t a Top 10 program, but we sure as heck are a Top 20 program. Weber struggles just to get into the tourney. That’s why people are ticked off.

    • IMPE

      Let’s be equally clear that we don’t expect to actually reach the Sweet 16 every year, just to have a team with a legitimate shot at it. Starting in 1981, when Henson made the tournament for the first time, and ending in Dee’s final year in 2006, Illinois was a 4 seed or higher — the top 16 seeds — in 13 of its 21 NCAA appearances. Since Dee, with Weber playiing with his own recruits, Illinois does not have any such seed.

  • Jeff

    Even if all Illinois fans only had the expectation of making the tournament every year, Weber would be failing to meet those expectations. This is not a case of a coach struggling to meet unreasonable expectations. This is a case of a coach falling so far below them that it has created the illusion that the “bar” is lower than where it actually should be.

  • Baberaham Lincoln

    Question for Illini fans. If you fire Bruce Weber, who do you expect to hire as a replacement?

    • Phil in Beverly

      Of course, want and expect are 2 different things…

      Questions need to be asked about what would make the “perfect” candidate for the job. Do you want someone who really knows X’s and O’s or do you want someone who can really recruit? Do you want a disciplinarian or do you want a “player’s coach”? I could go on and on.

      My personal plan of attack:

      I know everyone is on the Brad Stevens bandwagon, and for good reason. He’s had 2 30+ win seasons at Butler and he’s very early in his coaching career. The argument can be made however that Stevens was winning with Todd Lickliter’s recruits, which brings us back to the main root of why Bruce Weber is now on the chopping block, because Butler’s floating around .500 this year. And even though contracts in college sports mean absolutely nothing, he’s under contract until 2021-22. I don’t know if he plans on leaving any time soon. He would not be my first choice.

      Another way to go could be older coaches who have had sustained success at mid-majors. Examples include Stew Morrill of Utah State (who, up until this season most likely, hasn’t had a season with less than 23 wins since 1998-99) and Phil Martelli of St. Joe’s. It isn’t likely that you’re going to pull either of them away from their current jobs, however, it’s worth putting a feeler out for them.

      The other route, the route with lots of inherent risk, is those coaches that were at big programs but have fallen to mid-majors. (WARNING: Two of the names I’m going to mention will make most of Illini nation want to burn me at the stake.) Those in this category include Rick Majerus of St. Louis, Steve Alford of New Mexico (formerly of Iowa), and Steve Fisher at SDSU (architect of the Fab 5 at Michigan). These names would certainly make a splash, and the competitive spirit of the Big “10” may be just enough to lure them in. Also, I know that his tenure with the Bulls was sub-par to put it lightly, but Tim Floyd is out there in El Paso. I would take Fisher over the other 3, personally.

      If you want to make heads turn, aim high and go for a name that everyone knows. I have no knowledge of whether the new athletics administration at Illinois is going to be willing to do that, so I’m not sure who exactly to expect. Pretty sure if you’re thinking of another MVC coach such as Gregg Marshall of Wichita State or Ben Jacobson of Northern Iowa, you’re going to whiff. I exclude Greg McDermott from this list. He won’t leave Creighton due to his son playing there, and you don’t want him anyway.

      I REALLY like the way Shaka Smart does things at VCU, and I would go after him first, but he was also turning down interviews last year from bigger programs. I expect the worst, so if they go after someone that I’ve never heard of, so be it. It’s not my head on the chopping block.

  • MB

    Weber isn’t getting the job done. That much is clear and really cannot be argued. “BUT WAIT! It might get even worse! We can’t put ourselves in a position to improve!” That’s what you’re going with?

    Ridiculous argument. Weber needs to go. Apathy is quickly setting in and will only get worse if he is retained.

    If you botch the hire and end are still mediocre. Look for the next guy. It’s really that simple.

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  • KBS

    So if you have never achieved excellence you should just give up and accept mediocrity? No one cares if Weber is a good interview. I don’t need you to tell me that Illinois is not elite I have been watching them fail for 40 years. The issue is not whether they are elite, they can’t even measure up to Wisconsin. Self would have stayed if he was paid enough. Illinois football and basketball are the most underachieving major college sports programs in the country.

  • Markie Maypo

    Ok, JUST because Illinois isn’t or hasn’t been an “elite” program, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to MAKE it one! There is nothing Kansas, Kentucky, or Duke have that Illinois can’t be! Remember, before Coach K (can’t spell his last name) got to Duke, THEY weren’t a school with a “great basketball lineage” either. They CREATED one. Illinois should have the same goal.

    It’s sad, to me, because I REALLY like Bruce Weber. As a person, and I do think he’s a good coach. He just can’t handle the ego’s that come with “top talent” players. Bruce just isn’t getting the job done.

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  • The Gipper

    Even if we all thought that Bruce was the best coach in the world, it would still be time for him to move on. He has completely lost his team, and his fanbase. Bringing him back another year would virtually insure an empty cupboard or whomever Illinois’ next coach may be.

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