Bernstein: Illinois Basketball Must Decide What It Is

By Dan Bernstein- Senior Columnist

(CBS) Don’t even bother looking outward for a new coach until you’ve looked inward.

If this pathetic, blubbering mess of failure and self-flagellation is to be somehow disinfected, it will take some real soul-searching before a reconstruction plan can be created.

Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas and the vocal, moneyed boosters need to make some difficult decisions before they embark on a search for the next man to helm their basketball team, and whoever it is will need a clear picture of his bosses’ expectations, lest he end up the next casualty of a program caught in between.

The Illini have to be sure if they are a national power pursuing the best talent, restocking each year as some bail for the NBA, or a glorified mid-major that wins with the experience and guile of coached-up seniors and the occasional, lucky late-bloomer.

They also have to be sure what their relationship is with the city of Chicago. Are they in or out for all of the city’s best players, every single year, or can they expand their base sufficiently to make that nasty world less important?

The critical first step is determining if they want to cheat. If they are indeed ready to play the big-boy recruiting game, then hire somebody who knows how to do it intelligently. There will be some odd line-items in the budget – “Travel Expenses” may go up, for instance – but things have to be done, and the best players come at a cost. This is the hold-the-nose, I-don’t-want-to-hear-about-it route that many ADs choose, and it wins.

Just make sure the banners for the conference titles and Final Fours are stuck up there with Velcro, because they may come down later, after the money is made. This is the high-risk, high stakes table, and it takes brains, guts, financial commitment and discretion.

Hand-in-hand with that call is answering the Chicago question. If they can fly around the world to lure McDonald’s All-Americans and foreign talent, it allows for less time locally among the oily street-agents, AAU pimps, and loose-lipped bag-men that make for some sleepless nights. Pipelines opened elsewhere – and I don’t mean Peoria – can lessen the desperation level of the Illini’s work in the city.

If you want to stay “clean,” the hire has to be perfect. Bruce Weber himself was seen as this option, remember, a coach who would get the most out of whatever he had, even if he wasn’t the most dynamic procurer of talent. The latter has proven true (not one of his recruits has played a minute in the NBA), but the former has not. The equation broke for him, but that is no reason to think the idea is any less viable now with the right guy.

What’s troubling, though, is what already appeared to happen with the football program. Thomas talked a big game about the type of candidates he was targeting, and ended up getting used for leverage by anybody that anyone had heard of. The eventual hire of obvious fall-back Tim Beckman was a deflating head-scratcher, reinforcing the school’s brand as something other than premium.

And it’s all the more reason why this opportunity must be seized.

Illinois must know what it is, what it wants to be, what it can be, and how. If they try to be all things to all their fans, they end up being nothing to anyone, and right back where they are now – bemoaning their collective fate and losing ugly Big Ten games.

Time to stop crying. The most important things Illinois needs right now are clear eyes.

bernstein 90x130 Bernstein: Illinois Basketball Must Decide What It Is

Dan Bernstein

Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM. Read more of Bernstein’s columns here. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.
Listen to The Boers and Bernstein Show podcasts >>

More from Dan Bernstein
  • John

    If the goal of the article was to say nothing……success!

  • Baberaham Lincoln

    Illini basketball is a middle of the pack top 25-45 program, with potential to be a top 15-25 program with the right hire.

    Not sure if Illini fans will accept that as Brad Stevens, Buzz Williams, etc. will not be interested in the position.

    Hopefully for the Illini, Jim Calhoun doesn’t leave anytime soon or Shaka Smart doesn’t get a better offer.

    • Danielo

      Stevens and Williams would both be home run hires for the Illini; I agree that Williams probably feels just fine where he is, but I think Brad Stevens could be had for the right price (though I don’t think Illinois would offer that kinda loot).

      The AD doesn’t wanna look silly again; I’m guessin his main targets right now are young, up-and-coming mid-major guys who would be blown away by the mere thought of coaching in the B10, and therefore not ballsy, rich, or shrewd enough to “play the game” with Mike Thomas. This would’ve been the PERFECT storm for Stevens to be hired a couple years ago, but that ship has probably sailed.

      My prediction: STEVE PROHM, Murray State

  • hawks in DC

    Woo Dan, you don’t like college basketball. I don’t blame you.

  • hawks in DC

    Wow Dan, you don’t like college basketball. I don’t blame you.

  • Schmutzie

    If putting an NCAA Tournament team on the floor year-in and year-out is the priority, and that means bending rules and recruiting players who would otherwise have no business walking around the campus in Champaign, then by all means fire Weber pony up a couple of million dollars a year for a hotshot new coach. I’m still suffering from Penn State syndrome. I’ve seen what happens when institutional principles are compromised for athletic success. Illinois does not need a Top 10 basketball program at our state University. Doesn’t need a National Champ on the football field either. Let’s face it….it’s just college sports, and compromising on principles isn’t worth the price.

    • Larry Horse's Arse

      Excellent comment Schmutzie.

    • Baberaham Lincoln

      Being a team that finishes in the top half of the Big Ten every year needs to bend the rules?

      Come on, Schmutzie… let’s not get too dramatic. A coach can come into Champaign and cleanly put the Illini in the tournament 7 out of 8 years.

      • Baberaham Lincoln

        You did say making the NCAA Tournament year in and year out. If you finish in the top half of the B1G, you’re dancing.

        That’s all I meant.

        You don’t need to cheat to finish in the top half.

      • Schmutzie

        I didn’t say anything about finishing in the top half of the B1G. I said a Top 10, NCAA Tourney team year-in and year-out. Also mentioned a National Champ football team. C’mon Baber, let’s not put words in my keyboard. Clearly you feel strongly about the necessity for Illinois to have a nationally powerful athletic program. I don’t. Middle of the pack is just fine. It’s just college sports. Nothing worth getting dirty over.

  • motto

    Wow, Good point Dan. Acknowledging that the real winning programs in college basketball mostly cheat is a good one. You really can’t have an intelligent discussion about college hoops without recognizing this elephant in the living room.

  • Danielo

    I heard it mentioned the other day on the show that perhaps the “farm-town” culture of Champaign is detracting from the recruiting angle, and a comparison to Indiana was brought up. They, too, were a rural area-school that quickly sunk to the bottom of the Big Ten’s basketball standings during a time in which they certainly didn’t have the excuse of being a “football school”. IU got out of their rut by hiring a brilliant coach who “gets it” in Tom Crean.

    Illinois finds itself in a similar situation, and they also have the benefit of at least LOOKING like a clean program. Remember, IU hired Crean after the Kelvin Sampson debacle, which gave them no choice but to hire a coach with a clean image; one could argue that they lucked out by getting a guy who was both clean AND “in-the-know”/ connected. I’m not sure that type of coach will be available this summer.

  • Keith

    One of your best and most honest pieces of literature Dan. You could be a national talent if you stayed like this. That being said, does Illinois want to cheat. That is it. I am an Illini fan and want a new direction, but lets dont kid ourselves. Bruce does things the right way, has the respect of all coaches, etc.
    Location is of little importance. If Champaign was magicallly in Manhattan it would not matter. Luring recruits is all about playing the game. College campus and atmosphere’s at big schools are all vey similar outside of climate. Why do kids chose to go to Nebraska or Okalahoma for Football. Have you been to Lincoln? Why isnt UCLA a dominant program year in and year out, have u been there?
    BBALL – Syracause a bore of a place, same with Lexington Kentucky, Memphis much better, Lawrence Kansas total boredom, but see a trend. Some decide to cheat and that is what it is all about.
    Great article Dan and I hope you expose the hypocrits who still think Rose took the ACT or that coach K plays by the rules

    • Danielo

      I think the main reason schools like Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas are able to have so much success in recruiting is because they have no professional teams. For some guys, they’d rather spend 4 years being the biggest celebrity in a 500-mile radius while playing for Kansas (not as boring as you think; they were rated in Playboy’s “Top-5 Party Schools” not even 5 years ago) instead of 4 years without even being recognized at a southern cal Chipotle while starting for UCLA…

      Unfortunately, U of I lacks on both fronts, as they can’t offer big-city appeal, OR the instant star-making machine. I think I’ve figured this out!


    Shackled again!
    Injustice. . .thy name is Moderation!

    Ummmm, I can live with mid-major.

  • Big Ten Morning Five: 02.20.12 Edition « Rush The Court

    […] for Weber on the Illinois sidelines, but if there is a new search for a coach, some introspection should be in order. There are reasons why a quality Big Ten program is struggling, and not all of them have to do with […]

  • Finga Pointa

    I saw we blame The Boosters for not being boosty enough.

  • ChiefIllini

    Why don’t we get all of our State Senators who now give free 4 year scholarships to the University of Illinois to their deserving friends and relatives, and force them to start giving scholarships to the best high school basketball and football players that money can buy! We could end up with 100+ scholarships that could not be counted against athletic scholarships! I’m sure based on their past record the University would not mind, and it would be the Illinois way!

  • Jim

    Silly article by a guy who disdains college hoops without understanding it.

  • Top 5 Things Illini Nation will miss about Bruce Weber | Chicago Sports Guru

    […] As the Illinois program enters a crossroads, it’s time for you the Illini fan to think about where they’re going, and where you want them to go. A great read about this from CBS 2 Dan Bernstein: […]


    I can’t wrap my head around the idea that all these programs, including Florida, can’t break even.
    Where is the money going?

  • Rusty

    Dan, I do believe that Illinois can get its mojo back by hiring a dynamic coach while bending but not breaking the rules. Hopefully Mr. Thomas can find that person.

  • Chicago News Stories for Feb 20 2012 : Travel tips, hotels, restaurants, jobs and news | Travel 2 Chicago

    […] and often Sunday afternoon as the Wolves prevailed 6-3 before 10,731 fans at the Allstate Arena.Bernstein: Illinois Basketball Must Decide What It IsIf this pathetic, blubbering mess of failure and self-flagellation is to be somehow disinfected, it […]

  • Mark Brown

    Dan, I’m afraid unfortunetly your right on. I watched Kansas comeback yesterday against Mizzou. Those guys Bill Self has down there are all studs. They all are huge with NBA bodies already, and are as athletic as hell. You can’t even count on half a hand, since the 2005 run any Illinois players like that. Last time I checked, Lawrence, Kansas doesn’t have that many buildings much bigger than Champaign. So gee, I wonder how Self gets those guys to come there? Results are happening at other schools with less resources than Illinois. I’m just getting sick of seeing it happen everywhere else but here! Great article!

blog comments powered by Disqus
Daily Weather Reports Delivered To You!SIGN UP NOW: Get daily weather reports every morning from meteorologist Steve Baskerville!
CBS Sports Radio RoundupGet your latest sports talk from across the country.

Listen Live