By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Bruce Weber isn’t on the sidelines in Champaign any longer.
But that hardly means the guy can’t still stir up the Illini faithful.
Last Wednesday, the University of Illinois’ former basketball coach was on ESPN radio to talk hoops with hosts Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo. The topic at hand was Weber’s current Kansas State Wildcats, but as the interview unfolded, Van Pelt eventually steered the conversation in a more dicey direction – one that led back to Illinois.
Weber was asked about his feelings last March after he was fired following a tailspin during which the Illini lost 9 of their last 10 games to finish the season 17-15 and out of the postseason. Never one to carry his emotions anywhere but on his sleeve, Weber naturally answered.
“It was hard, there’s no doubt,” he said. “You give your heart and soul to [a] school and you’re there for nine years. We did some things no one else had done in the history of the school. We won the first outright Big Ten championship [in] 52 years, never got to the national championship game [before]. I think if you go over it, it’s probably one of the best runs, if not the best nine-year run, in the history of the school. You know, but things happen, and I was very fortunate to get K-State. It’s a good fit. It’s a great opportunity. I hope I can stay here a while and finish my career.”
Weber is certainly off to a promising start in Manhattan. His 11th-ranked Wildcats tied former Illini coach Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks for the Big 12 crown on Saturday, one year to the day after he was fired by Illinois. On Sunday, Weber added Big 12 Coach of the Year honors.
Despite his success this season, it was time for Illinois to move on from Weber last year. And it was also time for Weber to move on from Illinois. I’d like to think that the majority Illini fans can be happy today for Bruce, a good man and an excellent coach who just didn’t have the wherewithal to right the Illini’s ship once it begin listing in choppy waters.
But, last week, many Illini fans were anything but happy with Weber’s radio comment about his nine-year run being perhaps “the best nine-year run in the history of the school.” Message boards and Twitter blew a fuse with retorts such as, “He had one NCAA Tourney victory in his last six seasons!”
Such fan complaints seemed reasonable to me. But now that passions have cooled a bit, I wanted to take a deeper – and detached – look at Weber’s claim. To do so, I compared his nine-year run against the two previous nine-year eras at Illinois to really see if Bruce’s might really be “the best” in the history of the school.
Turns out, the answer is yes … and no. And, well, maybe.
To see how I came to that conclusion (or lack thereof), let’s go to the numbers. First off, we’ll look at Weber’s nine seasons at Illinois from 2003-04 to 2011-12, during which he went 210-101 overall (.675) and 89-65 in the Big Ten (.578) while winning two outright conference championships. Weber also qualified for six NCAA Tournaments and reached two Sweet Sixteens, one Elite Eight, one Final Four and one national championship game. In total, he won nine NCAA Tournament games at Illinois.
The previous nine Illini seasons from 1994-95 to 2002-03 featured three Illinois coaches, with three years of Bill Self, four years of Lon Kruger and two years of Lou Henson. During that time span, Illinois went 196-97 overall (.669) and 90-60 in the Big Ten (.600) while winning three co-conference championships, qualifying for seven NCAA Tournaments and reaching two Sweet Sixteens and one Elite Eight. In total, that trio also notched nine NCAA Tourney victories.
Finally, flash back to the nine prior seasons from 1985-86 to 1993-94, all coached by Henson. You’ll find an overall record of 190-11 (.655) and a Big Ten mark of 112-68 (.622) with zero conference championships, two Sweet Sixteens, one Elite Eight and one Final Four. During that time, Henson recorded seven NCAA Tourney wins.
Now, of course, one could juggle the start dates of “nine-year runs” throughout the past three decades to end up with slightly different numbers than the ones above. But, by comparing these three consecutive nine-year windows, we find that Weber’s featured the best overall winning percentage (.675/.669/.655) but the worst in the Big Ten (.578/.600/.622). The middle era featured three conference championships to Weber’s two, but both of Bruce’s were outright.
Weber went to the same number of Sweet Sixteens, Elite Eights and Final Fours as Henson did in the first era, but Bruce was the only one to reach the title game. And, finally, Weber’s nine NCAA Tournament wins were the same number that Illinois won during the middle era, but five of Bruce’s came in just one season.
So is Weber’s “nine-year run” the best that Illinois has seen? In some ways, yes, it was. But in others, no, it was not. Fact is, with such extreme highs (2005 Final Four) and shocking lows (three seasons missing the NCAA Tourney; the first Illini hoops coach fired in nearly 40 years), it’s difficult to gauge the totality of Weber’s time at Illinois.
Instead, it’s probably best to look at it in pieces.
And be glad that both Illinois and Weber have picked up theirs and appear to have moved forward in positive direction. The rest is history.
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.