By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) To mangle Chuck Dickens, here in Illini Nation it’s the worst of times and it’s the best of times.
The worst, of course, because the Illini football and basketball programs have each taken promising seasons only to (Oliver) twist them into a mangled mess.
But for many Illini fans this time is also the best, because the coaches – Ron Zook and Bruce Weber – who have frustrated them for so long are either already out the door (in the case of Zook) or have a hand on the knob (in the case of Weber).
At Division I schools, it’s not common for both the football and men’s basketball coaches to be fired in the same academic year. But it does occasionally happen, most recently according to STATS LLC at Army when football coach Stan Brock and basketball coach Jim Crews were fired in 2008-09.
And, with Illini hoops caught in a tailspin, it appears that the same will soon happen at Illinois.
But it shouldn’t happen just yet.
That’s because Bruce Weber should be allowed to finish this season, both because he deserves it and also because the Illinois basketball program deserves it, too.
Whatever you might say about Bruce Weber, you can’t say that he hasn’t given his all to the University of Illinois over the past eight years. You can’t say that he hasn’t represented the school with pride. And you can’t say he hasn’t kept his program’s nose spotlessly clean.
Bruce Weber has been a class act for Illinois. He’s a good man in a business that doesn’t have a whole lot of them. And because of all of that, he deserves to leave the Illini program with dignity, even if this painful season continues its downward spiral into oblivion.
For Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas to fire Weber now in the hopes of “salvaging” this season or simply from frustration at how far Illini basketball has fallen would be folly. The stigma such a move would place on the program would far outweigh any slim chance that Weber’s absence would somehow inspire Brandon Paul to suddenly start taking care of the ball.
Beyond that, keep in mind the rest of the college basketball world is watching what’s going on at Illinois and with Thomas, its first-year AD. Bruce Weber is highly respected in the coaching fraternity, and if he were to be disrespected in Champaign, potential successors surely would notice.
When the Illinois basketball job does open up, as appears almost certain at this point, it’s likely to be the best available one on the market. But back in 2003 you could have said the same about Nebraska football.
And that year the Huskers didn’t end up getting a hot coach after they fired Frank Solich. Rather, they ended up getting Bill Callahan, an ill-tempered ill fit who had just been fired as head coach of the Oakland Raiders.
I think a big reason why a football glamor program such as Nebraska was forced to settle for a guy like Callahan was because of the way that athletic director Steve Pederson had treated Solich. Despite a nine-win season (10 after the Huskers won their bowl game), Pederson canned the classy Solich, angering many people and confusing even more.
“After winning nine games, this doesn’t happen,” an emotional Nebraska split end Ross Pilkington said at the time.
Coaches across the country noticed what happened to Solich in Lincoln. And no matter how good the Nebraska job might have been, I think a great many of them didn’t want to deal with an AD that hadn’t treated a respected coach with respect.
End result: Callahan was hired and then fired just four years later after a 27-22 record and a lot of bad feelings. Pederson, for his part, lost his job that same 2007 season.
Now, that situation, of course, is Nebraska apples to Illinois oranges. Weber will not be getting fired following a strong season, but rather he may be let go after a very disappointing one.
Nevertheless, if Illinois wants to attract the kind of top-flight successor that it should be able to attract, it would be wise for Mike Thomas to treat the school’s classy current coach with class.
All the way to the bitter end.
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.