By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) After Wednesday night’s 67-62 loss to Purdue at home, Illinois head coach Bruce Weber sounded like a man prepared to lose his job.
And that’s because barring an unexpected run deep into the NCAA Tournament, Weber will likely be looking for a new job at the end of the season.
According to multiple sources, key Illini boosters have made it clear to Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas that Weber’s $3.9 million buyout should not stand in the way of making a change. A similar situation played out in the fall when head football coach Ron Zook was fired with a $2.6 million buyout.
Thomas was willing to eat Zook’s buyout and considering the pressure from boosters to fire Weber, it will take a miracle for Weber’s situation to play out differently.
During the Big Ten Tournament last March, the same sources said Illinois was prepared to fire Weber if the Illini did not make the NCAA Tournament. Such a scenario was unlikely however, as Illinois’ bubble situation was not nearly as dire as it is this season. Illinois lost to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals and still safely made the NCAA field as a No. 9 seed.
That, coupled with a first-round win over UNLV, made it easy for then-Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther to give Weber another year. The decision was even easier to make considering it was likely he would be stepping down as AD when his contract was up in the summer.
Enter new AD Mike Thomas, who walked into Champaign with the same mounting pressure from boosters regarding both Weber and Zook.
Zook’s fate was sealed when he lost six straight games following a 6-0 start to the season. And now Weber is headed down a similar road.
After a win over Ohio State Jan. 10, Illinois was 15-3 overall and atop the Big Ten with a 4-1 conference record. Since then, the Illini are just 1-7 and have lost four in a row.
So no one should be surprised that Weber sounded like a defeated man after losing to Purdue Wednesday night.
“It’s just sad. I feel really bad for my staff. They worked so hard. Countless hours. Preparation,” Weber said. “The sad thing about the whole thing, and I guess it’s my fault, instead of creating toughness and developing a team, I coached not to lose all year. And that’s really sad to be honest.”
Evidence of coaching “not to lose” played out Wednesday night with 5:08 remaining and the Illini down 60-58. Illinois was on a 7-2 run with Joseph Bertrand throwing down a thunderous dunk and adding a put-back jumper on back-to-back possessions to pull the Illini within two. Despite some noticeably empty seats, Assembly Hall was the loudest it had been all night and the Boilermakers were suddenly on their heels.
And then Weber called timeout.
The momentum was halted and the crowd silenced by their own head coach.
Purdue finished the game on a 7-4 run that included Brandon Paul hoisting an ill-advised 3-pointer out of a timeout with 11 seconds left.
“You have to develop a culture and the last three years all I did was worry about winning instead of developing a culture of toughness. And that’s my fault,” Weber said. “The kids, we’re always mollycoddling them.”
Unfortunately for Bruce, few will be mollycoddling him in Champaign over the next month. The writing is on the wall: He needs a miracle NCAA Tournament run or else.
Adam is the Sports Content Producer for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the White Sox, Blackhawks and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.