Here I sit digesting another disappointing Illinois basketball loss. Actually, I’m not really digesting it. I was at work until 10 and missed the whole game. However you can’t talk Illinois basketball anymore without debating whether or not Bruce Weber should be fired as the head coach. I read an article today that summed up exactly what I’ve been saying for years now: if you’re going to do it, you better be damn sure the next guy is better than Bruce.
Here’s the thing about Weber, he’s very highly regarded nationally as a coach and is as fine a human being as you’ll ever meet. With Bruce Weber you’ll never have to worry about your program getting put on probation. So is a championship worth the price of your program’s soul? I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that Illinois hasn’t won a national championship in basketball EVER so after over 100 years, maybe it is. Cubs fans? You want to weigh in here?
The lack of championships brings me to my point though. Illinois is a basketball school, no doubt. It’s often regarded as the best program to have never won it all, but that’s the thing. Illinois has zero championship banners in Assembly Hall. The fan base seems to believe that Illinois should be in the Final Four every year, but this isn’t Kentucky. Or Duke, North Carolina, or Kansas. This isn’t UCLA, arguably the most storied program in college basketball. If that’s where we want to be (and we do) then let’s compare (I basically stole that sentence from Bill Simmons).
I’ll take UCLA out since they haven’t been much of a power since Bill Walton left. That leaves Kansas, UNC, Kentucky, and Duke. With all of those schools you have multiple championship banners hanging up. You have a tremendous history that includes names like Wilt Chamberlain (Kansas), Michael Jordan (UNC), Grant Hill (Duke), and while I really wanted to list Kyle Macy for Kentucky, let’s go with Dan Issel and Pat Riley for them. That’s literally the tip of the iceberg for those schools, but look at the list.
Chamberlain is the only guy to score 100 points in an NBA game, Hill is probably a Hall of Famer, Riley’s a tremendous coach/GM/President of Basketball Operations with several rings, Issel is a Hall of Famer, and Jordan is the greatest basketball player that ever lived. How do you compete with that? How do you compete on their level when you aren’t on their level?
Yes Kendall Gill was great, as was Nick Anderson, Johnny “Red” Kerr, and Ken Norman. Sure Dee Brown was a college legend, but the best player you can point to right now in the rafters of Assembly Hall is Deron Williams. Deron’s great. He’s my guy, but does he belong on the same list as those names above? Not yet. Maybe not ever.
In all of those arenas, you can look up and see tons of banners hanging. Banners with legendary names and Final Fours and national championships. You don’t have that at Illinois.
Is that Weber’s fault? Sure he lost the title game against UNC, but I have always believed that Bill Self wouldn’t have even gotten Illinois there, let alone won it. The point though is that you can’t compare Illinois to those schools because they just aren’t on the same level.
Here’s the point: you aren’t getting John Calipari or Rick Pitino at Illinois. You just aren’t. You aren’t getting Coach K – he turned down the Lakers for crying out loud, he’s staying at Duke until he retires. You’re not getting Tom Izzo or Roy Williams or Bill Self back. You aren’t getting Billy Donovan from Florida. Those are the “names” right? The guys that everyone knows and everyone respects. They aren’t coming. It’s not even because Illinois is a bad job – it isn’t – it just isn’t the job for them. Izzo, Donovan, and Coach K (you’re high if you think I’m typing his name out) are lifers at their schools. They all turned down the NBA and the millions of dollars that come with it, so they aren’t leaving for another school. Pitino’s about to retire and even if he wasn’t Illinois isn’t sexy enough for him or a guy like Calipari to be interested. They want the big time, the headlines, the lead on SportsCenter every night. Even when Illinois was #1 for most of the 2004-05 season, they didn’t lead SC.
Brad Stevens of Butler is a name I hear a lot for Illinois. That’s great. I would love to have him. Clearly he’s a great coach, but he’s also clearly in love with Butler. I don’t think you’re getting him. Even if you think you can, it’s no guarantee, so what happens if you fire Weber and then Stevens burns you? What are you left with? Mid-major guys, assistants, NBA failures, or the middle of the pack major schools like Miami or Oregon. What in the world makes anyone think that the guy coaching Texas A&M (I don’t even know who it is by the way) could automatically be better than Bruce?
Do you see my point here? It can go bad just as easily as it can go well. Ask Iowa. They ran Steve Alford out (he resigned, but the fan base had been calling for his head for years), and are now an absolute joke of a team. Ask Indiana after Mike Davis got run out on a rail. Call up the Kentucky folks, yes the same vaunted Wildcat faithful, that never bought in to Tubby Smith – who only won them a championship – what happens when the unpopular guy decides he’s had enough. Smith left for Minnesota so Kentucky went and hired the hot shot new guy, Billy Gillispie. Hit that link for the whole story, but he only lasted two years and Kentucky couldn’t get him out the door fast enough. Yes, I know Gillispie was an Illinois assistant under Self. Yes, I know some people want him back in Orange and Blue. I don’t. I think he’s a d-bag.
I won’t sit here and tell you that Bruce Weber doesn’t deserve to be fired, but I also won’t say he does. I don’t envy Mike Thomas, the athletic director, because I don’t think it’s an easy decision. You know what you have in Bruce; a coach respected by his peers but maybe not by players nationally who will get you in the top half of the Big Ten, but probably not much beyond that. He’s a guy who can keep you good, not great. Illinois can beat anyone and lose to anyone. That’s what he is. That’s what Illinois is with him.
Can you honestly tell me it won’t be the same under the next guy?