By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) A total of 4,729 nights have passed since the first one of April back in 1999, but few of them since – journalistically, at least – have stuck out in mind quite the same way that evening did.
After all, unless you’re an O’Hare cabbie, it’s not every day that your phone rings at 9:30 p.m. and it’s a guy that you’ve never met calling you from an airport payphone with his bags sitting at his side.
But that’s just what happened 13 years ago when a dog-tired college basketball coach who didn’t know me from a bump on the court was kind enough to return a call while hopping from plane to plane on a whirlwind recruiting trip.
And the name of that April Fool’s Day caller?
Back in ’99, I was a 22-year-old sports writer in Ottawa, Ill., working on a story about college basketball recruiting. Weber, meanwhile, had just wrapped up his first year as head coach at Southern Illinois University.
The previous fall, Weber had signed a local player in Plano’s Brad Korn, making the Salukis’ head man a natural source. As it turned out, when he made it a point to call back a rookie reporter from a little newspaper in a town more than 300 miles from Carbondale the first chance that he got, I discovered that the little-known Weber was a naturally good guy, as well.
After that 10-minute conversation, I became something of a Bruce Weber fan. And over the next few years, my admiration only increased as I watched his SIU teams – in person, three times – scratch and claw their way into the upper echelon of college hoops.
Four years after I grilled Weber over the phone, he was hired to succeed Bill Self in Champaign. At that time, I wrote in a column that, “With Weber, Illinois AD Ron Guenther made the right choice – no matter what some media mopes might try to tell you.”
Nine years later, I still feel that way. Despite what happened at the tail end of his Illini tenure, Weber was the right man at the right time for Illinois in 2003 (see: the 37-2 national runner-up campaign of two years later).
Weber was a good hire, and he is a good man. Over the past few years, as his program began suffering one unexpected setback after another, I’ve defended him as much as anyone in the media. To Illini fans, I preached patience, repeatedly stressing my opinion that Weber deserved a legitimate to chance to dig himself out of a hole that while only partly his own making was his full responsibility.
Weber got his chance, but he wasn’t able to fix Illinois. And after missing the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five years, it was time for the Illini program to move on, no matter how much of a class act the coach is. And during his emotional farewell press conference last Friday, Weber again proved he very much is that.
I only wish that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo could have been so classy when he was asked during the Big Ten Tournament about Weber’s dismissal. However, instead of making a brief statement in support of his friend, Izzo opted on Friday to instead unspool an inappropriate – and inaccurate – rant against Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas.
“I’m sick about it,” Izzo said when asked by a reporter about Weber’s firing. “I’m sick about it. And I’m sick about it – and make sure you understand the reason why … We have to understand that we blame kids for a lot of things. Kids have changed. Now we have administrators that are pulling the rug under ourselves in the middle of January when you’re 16 and 6 or 7 or whatever it was, and we publicly talk about – we’ll make decisions at the end of the year.
“… I feel bad for the Illini Nation because somebody’s – somebody pulled the rug out from under them. I feel bad for those players that have been there that, in my estimation, weren’t given a fair chance back about the middle of January, whenever that famous statement was made.
“But if you look at that team from that statement, it went directly down. And I feel worse for Bruce because we lost a good soldier.”
Now, while Izzo may have masterful timing on the court, he sure could use some practice off it. Because, it wasn’t mid-January when Thomas said that he would evaluate Weber’s job status at the end of the season. It was Feb. 11, and at that time the Illini train had already veered well off the track, having lost five of its previous six games (the lone victory being a 42-41 decision over Izzo’s Spartans).
Later that afternoon on Feb. 11, the Illini would fall to Michigan and would lose six of their final seven games down the stretch, playing about the same after Thomas’ “vote of no-confidence” as they had before it.
Mike Thomas didn’t sink the Illini. The Illini sunk themselves.
During his tirade, however, Izzo made it sound as if Thomas completely threw Weber under a bus, sabotaging the season. But all the AD actually stated was this: “As I’ve always said, I will assess the situation at the end of the season no different than I do with the other 18 sports, no different than I did for the football program.
“I need to look at the total body of work and all of the things that come into play as far as making those decisions. Because those are important decisions and they affect a lot of people. I’ll tell you this: No one wants to win more than I do. I’m here to win championships.”
Now, I’d hardly call that “pulling the rug” out from beneath someone. But even if Thomas had, Illinois’ rug isn’t one that Michigan State’s coach has any right to comment on.
After all, Tom Izzo doesn’t work for the University of Illinois, and his comments about the way a rival school manages its personnel were wildly out of place (not to mention wildly inaccurate). Enough so, that I think Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany should have publicly rebuked Izzo for his statements.
Now, I still greatly respect the way that Izzo runs his program at MSU, and we both have something in common: a healthy admiration for Bruce Weber. But, going forward, I’d suggest that the Spartans’ coach focus on minding his own school’s basketball business.
And leave Illinois’ basketball business to Illinois.
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.