Last week, in the midst of the Bruce Weber fracas -- after the disconcerting radio appearance from athletic director Mike Thomas, and after Weber's somewhat strange postgame news conference in which he admitted he had "coached not to lose" in lieu of building a "culture of toughness" -- CBS's Gary Parrish related a story of his time spent with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo as an example of the respect Weber commands among his Big Ten peers:
Weber did not have a private plane. He instead had a 3:45 a.m. wakeup call that would allow him to grab a commercial flight and take a more inconvenient route to the exact same place we were going, and when Izzo heard this he invited Weber to travel with us. Later, I asked Izzo why he offered a lift to Weber considering the plane was in essence an advantage in a recruiting battle for multiple prospects between Michigan State and Illinois. "I wouldn't do it for anybody," Izzo answered. "But if you lose a kid to Bruce you know it wasn't underhanded. You know he's going to do things the right way."
Clearly, there is a lot of respect here. It should be no surprise, then, to see Izzo go public in defense of the beleaguered Illinois coach during an appearance on Chicago Tribune Live Monday:
“I think he is a phenomenal coach,” Izzo said. “Look at his record, look at what he has done there over the years compared to anyone else who’s been there, and they’d have to agree. They had a tough year, like I did last year.” [...]
“I’ve been disappointed. I love Illinois. I think the fan base, they’ve always been great, but you get a new AD in there,” Izzo said. “A week ago, talk about not giving him a very good (sic)… if you are going to get rid of a guy, do it at the end of the year. I think that hurt him Saturday, you could tell by his players. But knowing Bruce like I know him, I know it will be hard, but he’ll find a way to bounce back. He’s not a good coach, he’s a great coach. He really is, he’s proven that.
“I’m not an AD, but I mean put it this way, when an AD does what happened it affects your team and recruiting.”
Few coaches in the Big Ten can credibly calm an opposing team's fan base. Izzo may be the only one. But his success in the league, and the respect he commands among his peers and rival fan bases -- nobody actively dislikes Tom Izzo -- gives his words a unique kind of weight.
Not that they'll help much. Izzo is wrong about at least one thing: This isn't just about one bad year. Illinois fans expect to participate in the NCAA tournament. Frankly, they expect a lot more than that, and some of it may be unrealistic, but this particular expectation is not. If the current trajectory continues, the Illini will miss their third tourney in five years under Weber. One of the teams that did make the cut -- last year's 20-11 squad -- was considered by most fans, given the mix of young talent and veteran stalwarts, to be a massive disappointment. Illinois fans' frustrations have been slowly but surely building over the past five seasons. They accentuated in 2011, and they've officially boiled over in 2012. This goes deeper than one bad season. (And oh, by the way: Weber isn't Izzo. One mediocre year after six Final Fours in 11 seasons this is not.)
Had Illinois managed to beat Nebraska at Nebraska Saturday -- as opposed to being blown out 80-57, an effort accompanied by an openly weeping Meyers Leonard -- fans would still want Weber gone. Even if this team rallies and somehow makes the NCAA tournament, which seems very unlikely, the fans won't be dissuaded. They want a change. Their decision has been made. And if Thomas's comments on the matter are any indication, he is inclined to agree.
So what can Weber do? The only thing left to do -- keep coaching, keep fighting, keep working hard. On Monday, he told ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers he had shared this message with his team:
"I can't have my own pity party," Weber said. "They can't have it. There's no sympathy from anyone. Obviously, you guys know it. It's out there. If we keep feeling sorry for ourselves, we're going to let the season slip by. We have to man up. Tough times stop; tough people don't.
"I told all the guys I don't want any more tears until the end of the season. We just got to play."
This is an admirable way to move forward. Weber could just as easily lash out at unsupportive fans, or an overbearing media, or -- in a slightly more risky maneuver -- at his athletic director, for vaguely "hurting" his kids with "negativity." He hasn't done that. Instead, he's going to fight to the end. You can't help but respect the tact.
Weber's colleagues, Izzo included, surely agree. But unless something drastic changes in the next three weeks, all the Big Ten respect in the world can't save Weber's job now.
(Hat tip: Beyond the Arc)