Commentary

Illinois should make Smart choice

Illinois needs to own Chicago, and Shaka Smart is just the guy to help the Illini do it

Updated: March 12, 2012, 9:55 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

Bruce Weber's greatest failure was never turning Deron Williams into Derrick Rose.

Or Eric Gordon.

Or Jon Scheyer.

Weber, a nice-enough guy and a good-enough coach, never evolved into head salesman of a program.

[+] EnlargeBruce Weber
Bradley Leeb/US PresswireBruce Weber took too long to adjust when the Chicago talent pipeline to Champaign dried up.

A once-in-a-program trip to the national championship game never amounted to a top-flight in-state recruit committing to Illinois (besides cautionary tale Jereme Richmond). It never evolved into another trip into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

New Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas fired his third coach in the last four months when he axed Weber on Friday morning, a day after an embarrassing but fitting loss to Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

Thomas said Illinois is about winning championships, and that goes for all sports. But basketball and football, most of all, I assume. Men's and women's tennis probably aren't his highest priorities.

Of course, Weber is the only basketball coach in school history to make the NCAA championship game. I suppose that bought him those extra years and all that money he's owed.

When Peoria's talent pipeline dried up and Chicago's finest (along with Midwestern recruits such as Gordon) weren't impressed with his program, Weber took too long to adjust. He eked out enough NCAA appearances to last nine years at the program. But this season was the breaking point. The Illini had some talent -- recruiting is way up -- and it started off well, before a heroic losing skid -- 12 of their last 14 games. No coach keeps his job after that.

No one should feel too bad for Weber, who lucked into an ideal situation at Illinois when he left Southern Illinois to replace Bill Self, who left for Kansas.

All too often, coaches who win at programs like Southern Illinois wind up getting fired from Houston or Arkansas before cycling back through the system again.

But Weber landed in Champaign with Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head and a solid supporting cast. In his second season, the Illini went 37-2, losing to North Carolina in the NCAA championship game. Not much has happened since then. The most memorable Illinois moment I can think of, besides Weber losing all those recruits, was when Jamar Smith nearly killed teammate Brian Carlwell in 2007 in a drunken driving accident.

Negative recruiting be damned, Illinois has seen marked improvement in Chicago, and there was some talent on Weber's team. You have to wonder if his successor will take the remaining talent and turn the program into a legitimate threat.

That would certainly be ironic.

The obvious target to replace Weber is Shaka Smart, the 34-year-old coach at Virginia Commonwealth who preaches "havoc" as a basketball philosophy. I watched Smart coach VCU to an easy win over Georgetown last year in Chicago, and his team wound up in the Final Four.

Smart surprisingly stayed at the Colonial Athletic Association school, which has become a breeding ground for coaching risers, and has his team back in the tournament this season.

Illini faithful have to be thanking their lucky "Flyin' Illini" T-shirts that Smart didn't go for any of the open jobs last year.

Smart is engaging, energetic and bright (he played at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio) and has all the tools to be a success at a higher level. Last year he spliced into the Georgetown film clips of ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi saying the at-large Rams couldn't guard him to inspire his team. It worked.

Smart can identify with young athletes, something Weber struggled with at times.

"He's like our best friend," former VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez told me last year.

Illinois seems like an obvious move up for Smart, too, though he recently told the "Dan Patrick Show" he stayed at VCU and signed one of those ridiculous extensions because he likes it there. He and his wife just had a child.

"Because I love it here," Smart told the show. "Someone said you shouldn't run away from happiness."

I don't completely buy it, but the move surely didn't backfire. If anything it showed that Smart could win with a rebuilding team.

Illinois will spend money, too. The basketball program was the ninth-most profitable in 2010-11, with $9.78 million, according to information from Businessofcollegesports.com. Illinois pulled in more than $15.4 million and spent $5.63 million. Illinois football is also highly successful with $14.2 million in profits.

For comparison, Indiana had $16.57 million in revenue and spent $7.653 million, giving it less profit. If you want to know how the elite programs operate, Duke had $28 million in revenue and spent more than $13.8 million.

Of course, Illinois will need some of that money to pay all its ex-coaches. Thomas has fired three coaches in four months: football coach Ron Zook, Weber and women's basketball coach Jolette Law.

Weber is owed a $3.9 million buyout -- or $1.3 million a year over three years -- Thomas said in his press conference, while Zook is getting $2.6 million. Illinois will have to pay another buyout if it hires a head coach.

But there is plenty left over to lure a coach such as Smart to Champaign. But can he, or any coach, convince Chicago's stars -- not just the second-tier guys -- to stay in-state? Champaign is nice enough, I suppose, but I can't imagine Scheyer wasn't more impressed with Duke, or Anthony Davis with Kentucky.

Keeping Chicago kids in-state is not as easy as you'd think. The city's finest are easy pickings for carpetbagging coaches who know just how to entice them. That's been a constant in this city for decades. And Chicago's best are often the nation's best. So you have to battle with the elites, not just the Big Ten.

It's not hard to understand why Rose took his one-and-done year at Memphis. The same reason Davis went to Kentucky. John Calipari will prepare you for the NBA, and you'll win. Scheyer went to Duke because he loved Duke growing up, looking up to fellow Glenbrook North grad Chris Collins.

Shaka Smart
Bob Donnan/US PresswireShaka Smart is 83-27 overall in three years at VCU.

With ace assistant Jerrance Howard (the Illini's interim head coach) leading the recruiting, Weber has made in-roads in the city. Weber did his work on the No. 1-ranked junior in the nation, Jabari Parker of Simeon, going to more games than even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. I sat near Weber during Parker's sophomore season, watching him munch on popcorn, never taking his eye off Parker.

After this season's humiliating loss at Nebraska, certainly sealing his fate, Weber still made it to Simeon's game only hours later. That impressed Parker's father, former NBA player Sonny Parker, very much.

"It's going to very difficult to have a relationship right now," Sonny Parker said of a prospective new coach at Illinois. "This has been a two-, three-year process. Anybody they bring in, that's going to be very difficult to pick up where they left off in terms of where coach Weber was in recruiting. But you never know. You don't know who they're going to bring in."

Having met Smart, and knowing some background on him, I think the Parkers would fall in love with him. Aside from a foot in height, he's the kind of person they want Jabari to emulate. Smart is from Wisconsin but has family in Chicago. His wife got her master's degree in journalism from Northwestern.

Simeon coach Rob Smith told ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers he'd like to be considered for the job. That's highly doubtful, considering he has no college coaching experience, but Smith could bring Parker and maybe junior guard Kendrick Nunn with him and possibly land other in-state talent.

"I know it's a long shot for the job because you look at history," Smith said. "But when you match up what I have compared to other guys, I have a lot to offer. I think I can put the program back where it was with Nick Anderson and Kenny Battle. I think I can get the guys to stay home, and I think that team could be one of the top 5, top 10 teams in the country."

Right now, Illinois is maybe the fifth-best program in the Big Ten. But it has potential.

If Smart gets the job, the first thing he should do is drive down to South Vincennes Avenue and see if Smith is interested in an assistant's job. If not, then just become his best friend.

Because it's all about getting the Jabari Parkers, Derrick Roses and Jon Scheyers of the world. It's all about owning Chicago. Smart would be the right choice to do it. Illinois could finally be the program its alumni and fans want it to be.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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