Commentary

State of desperation

Illinois' Bruce Weber can't land quality in-state players, and it could cost him his job

Updated: February 17, 2012, 9:41 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- It isn't quite a death spiral Bruce Weber finds himself in, but it is a spiral nonetheless, and it got the attention of everyone in and around the program Wednesday night.

[+] EnlargeBruce Weber
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireBruce Weber took the Illini to the championship game in his second season, but he's missed the NCAA tournament in two out of the past four seasons.

"Instead of creating toughness and developing a team, I coached not to lose this year," Weber said following the Illini's 67-62 home loss to Purdue, their fourth consecutive loss and seventh in the past eight games. "That's really sad."

He sounded defeated and resigned to losing the job he has had for nine seasons, so much so that he decided to issue a statement Thursday to clarify.

"I spoke out of frustration following another difficult loss," Weber's statement read in part. "I am disappointed in myself, as I said, for not developing a culture of toughness with our team up to this point in the season. …

"Our players, our staff, and I know our fans are frustrated because we are so close to putting it together. As I told our team last night, we have a lot to play for over these last five regular season games as well as the Big Ten Tournament. We still have an opportunity to make the NCAA Tournament, and I'm looking forward to practice today and working with our players to help us reach that goal."

Weber is the sort of coach every major university should want heading up its program. He's passionate, ethical, loyal, an above-average X's and O's guy, has a dynamic personality and is a genuinely good guy who had more than paid his dues before coming to Illinois.

Just as importantly, Weber is a destination coach, someone Illinois hired because it wanted a coach who wouldn't take off for someplace better after the first bloom of success. That usually does little for a school other than cost it more money and set back the program.

So what? You fire Weber and then go try to find another guy just like him?

Granted, Weber did it with players whom he did not recruit, but he took his team to the NCAA title game in his second season, recording the school's best record at 37-2, which tied an NCAA record for most wins in a season.

It took Jim Boeheim 11 years at Syracuse to get to his first Final Four. He went to his second one nine years after that, and it was another seven years before he won the title.

Weber needs a star. No mystery about that. And all it takes in college basketball, with shorter rotations, shorter games and younger legs, is one. But he got an Illinois Mr. Basketball in Brandon Paul. And he got another Mr. Basketball and McDonald's All-American in Jereme Richmond last season, and we saw how that worked out as Richmond struggled on and off the court.

Maybe Weber had a bad feeling about Richmond's character. Who knows? But like every big-time college coach, he also probably felt some desperation to get the biggest names available. It was the same desperation, he said Wednesday night after the Purdue loss, that made him a different basketball coach and not one he wants to be.

"The last three years all I did was worry about winning instead of developing a culture and a toughness," he said. "We're always mollycoddling them."

It is a slippery slope, to be sure. You pull out a Meyers Leonard for typically uninspired play in the first half rather than threatening to pull him out as Weber did, and Leonard doesn't come back with his great second half. You roll the dice with Brandon Paul, who clearly has some judgment issues, and he scores 19 points but hoists up an ill-advised 3-pointer with nine seconds left in regulation.

Dave Weber, Bruce's brother and the Glenbrook North boys' basketball coach who coached seven years at Eastern Illinois, can't pinpoint the recruiting dilemma any better than the rest of us.

"I look at the state of Illinois and try to figure it out," he said. "I've seen all the great players. I've watched teams win state championships or been very good and I don't know what it is.

"It's attractive for kids to go out of state. Even though Illinois has a lot of exposure on ESPN, it's glamorous to go to Kentucky, Memphis, Duke, Carolina … [Bruce] has recruited well, he's worked hard at it. But it's a puzzle."

You may recall that not even Dave could convince Jon Scheyer, his own player, to go to Illinois. Scheyer picked a great school and a great program in Duke. And it is hard to say what convinces players to go to a certain school. Assuming there are no illegal enticements involved, the color of their uniforms, the type of shoes they wear, the impressiveness of their locker room has as much of a role to play in many cases as the quality of the academics and the influence of the coach.

"I look around the state and wish we could get better [at keeping talent in-state]," Dave Weber said. "As a high school coach, I wish we could keep our kids home more, but I don't know how to do it in this AAU world, where there's so much travel and kids are going to Vegas and Orlando. It's a different world for them and there are always places prettier and more glamorous."

[+] EnlargeJereme Richmond
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireLanding a prized in-state recruit like Jereme Richmond proved to be nothing more than a disappointment for Illinois.

Bruce Weber, a former fifth-grade teacher, is in the classic modern-day conundrum in many ways. You don't always have the luxury to stick to your principles when it means not building up W's.

"The difference between winning and losing is toughness and having the will to win, and that is something we will continue to try to instill in our team," he said in his statement Thursday.

This season his team has been in 13 games decided by five points or fewer, losing six of those. You can call that a bad team or a tough-luck team or a team with a coach who deserves to be launched. You can also call it a team led by a guy hired nine years ago because the university was sick of coaches leaving, because it saw a person dedicated to his craft, respected by his peers and someone the school and, OK, the previous athletic director, wanted to lead its basketball program for a very long time.

Now new athletic director Mike Thomas, who came in demanding championships and fresh off firing football coach Ron Zook, can make another easy move.

Doesn't always make it the right one.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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