Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Nail in Weber's Coffin

Well, that about does it. Illinois' loss to Purdue last night all but ensures that Bruce Weber will be sent packing after the season is over. Last night's game embodied everything we've seen from the Illini last season: lazy first half play, bad passing, lack of execution, a second half surge that comes up short, turnovers, bad shot selection, etc. It was nice to see the Illini play uptempo in the second half, utilizing the athletes on the team and just letting them play basketball instead of worrying about them executing Weber's offense. You even saw Weber throw in a little zone defense, something he NEVER does, with a mix of some triangle-and-2 defense on a couple possessions in the second half. But in the end, the effort came up short, as it seemingly always does for Illinois, and Weber's fate (and Illinois' tournament chances) is practically sealed.

And that would have been par for the course, if not for the post game press conference from Weber:

Hard to watch, right? Weber sounds like a coach who knows that his time is up. You feel for the guy because he really cares about coaching, so I don't think that he was trying to throw his players under the bus. He's just frustrated and can't keep it in anymore. But this press conference, more than anything else, tells you that he's done. This sounded like a concession speech. He spends time reflecting on where he went wrong the past couple of years as a coach, and how he wishes he would have done differently. It's a completely different tone from the coach that we first saw, one who has always been candid with the media but at this point in time just sounds like a beaten-down man, more akin to a man who's wife has left him and he's drowning his sorrows at the bar, rather than a basketball coach. It's sad that it's gotten to this point, and I can only begin to imagine the stress that he's gone through this season. Yet at the same time, he knows the expectations of the job, a job that he's paid well to do. In college sports, the coaches are the only ones making money (usually), and thus the brunt of the blame will almost always fall on them. And when the losses start piling up, as they have, the coach gets fired. It just so happens that some coaches, like Bruce, make you feel bad when you fire them because they're legitimately nice people.

Bruce, in the early glory years
How did we get here? Bruce's tenure has been a roller coaster. In the beginning, you had the years of Deron and Dee, with Bruce's first three seasons being some of the best in recent Illinois memory. Under Weber, Illinois won the Big Ten Regular Season Championship in 2004 and 2005, and the Big Ten Tournament as well in 2005. They made it to the Sweet Sixteen in 2004, the National Championship game in 2005, and the second round of the tournament in 2006. In those first three years, Bruce was 89-16 as Illinois' coach. This included a 39-9 record in the Big Ten during that time frame. But therein lies the problem. He succeeded in those years largely with the recruits from the previous tenure under Bill Self. In the 6 seasons since then, Illinois is only 120-80, with a 49-52 record in the Big Ten. Sure, there were some good seasons since then, but none with less than 10 losses, there were only 3 additional NCAA Tournament appearances (assuming that Illinois does not make it this season, which they most likely will not), and out of that only 1 NCAA tournament win, coming last year against UNLV.

Bruce had a much different relationship with McCamey
So what happened? Well, as I've addressed before, it took too long for Bruce to get a foothold in recruiting. His classes from the 04-05 season on were devoid of any real impact stars besides Demetri McCamey in 2007. Of course, much of the recruiting momentum that he was starting to gain was destroyed by the sudden, late defection of star guard Eric Gordon at the last minute in the 2007 class. It's hard to imagine what would have happened if Gordon had kept his word and stuck with Illinois instead of bailing at the last minute to Kelvin Sampson at Indiana, a coach that obviously lacked any integrity or concept of ethics. Granted, Gordon was only one player who would have likely still only stayed for one season, but it would have greatly changed the perception of the program. And in this day and age, perception is one thing that recruiting requires. In Chicago, for instance, major recruitments are usually ran by "handlers," that is, people who aren't related to the recruit but step in and run the recruitment for the kid. A lot of times this is the player's AAU or High School coach. These handlers hold so much sway and influence that college coaches necessarily have to deal with them to recruit the city. Granted, this is a seemingly dirty side of the business that can be rife with corruption, but the fact remains that those handlers need to perceive your program as positive in order to direct recruits that way.

In Weber's instance, he had a few things going against him. First, he's a clean coach and won't stoop to lower levels, like a John Calipari, to sway recruits. He relies on the fact that these handlers, and the recruit's family, will see that he's an honest, ethical guy who truly wants to incorporate that recruit into a family atmosphere at Illinois. This obviously didn't work with all of the elite recruits in Chicago. Second, the Gordon defection had an impact that resonated with Chicago coaches even though Gordon wasn't even from Illinois, let alone Chicago. These coaches and handlers in Chicago felt that something must be wrong at Illinois, and when you combine that with long-standing issues between the Illinois program and Chicago coaches, it became increasingly difficult for Bruce to recruit the city and much of the surrounding area. This negative perception led to unproductive classes in 2006, 2007, and 2008. Combined with the fact that Bruce missed on some of the players he did in fact recruit, and you have a messy situation. That is, at least, until Jerrance Howard started working his magic.

The former Illini player joined the staff in 2007, and worked with Weber on changing the recruiting philosophy for Illinois. Weber and Howard would get to kids earlier, before the handlers and the like had the chance to direct the kids to the Calipari's of the college basketball world. They would offer early scholarships to kids like Jereme Richmond, DJ Richardson, Brandon Paul, Crandall Head, etc. And it started to work. In 2009, kids started coming to Illinois. These are the same kids that witnessed the early teams under Bruce Weber and wanted to emulate that same kind of success. These kids fired up the fanbase, who was eager for some sustained success after suffering through some rough rebuilding years.

The problem was, the success hasn't come. A couple of the highly-touted recruits aren't with the program any more (see Jereme Richmond and Crandall Head), and the ones that are haven't panned out in the way that Bruce hoped for. For instance, you see Brandon Paul exhibit his electrifying athleticism on a breakaway dunk, but then turn the ball over or fail to succeed in lobbing a pass into the paint. You see Meyers Leonard throw down a ridiculously athletic dunk for a man his size, then watch him strut lazily down the court, failing to get back on defense. Thus, in all reality, the problems with Weber's recruiting have come back to bite him again. He was so desperate to turn the ship around after the Gordon failure that he couldn't recruit kids that he was sure would fit his system. And even more than that, he's failed to get them developed to the point where they understand and execute his system to begin with.

An exasperated Weber, an all-too-common sight
A lot of this is Bruce's fault. He recruited the players. He's responsible for coaching them and incorporating them into his system. He's turned into such a worrier that instead of trusting his players to do the right thing, he yells from the sideline on every possession, perhaps leading to some gun-shy moments from the players on the court. And he's fallen into some bad habits, especially cowtowing to the players instead of instilling discipline. He's been so desperate to please the fanbase and administration by winning that he's actually forsaken the philosphies that made him such a successful coach in the first place. He failed to drive home discipline for his players, like benching Leonard or Paul for not thinking, because he needed the best players to win. And at the same time, he's failed to find that tough team identity that was the calling card of his SIU and early Illinois teams.

Granted, those are major reasons why Illinois has struggled so mightily and Bruce will be replaced. There is a need for a change and the program has to be shaken up to take advantage of the athletes on the court. Take for instance the second half of last night's game. For much of the half, Bruce abandoned his set offense and had the players running uptempo. Leonard would lead the charge with great defensive rebounds that led to great outlets. You could see the athleticism on display, and what happened with Abrams, Paul, and Bertrand stopped thinking and worrying so much and just played the game that they were so highly recruited to play. But at the end of the game, when the tempo slowed down, the same old story returned: bad shot selection, turnovers, bad defense, and poor execution.

It's not all Bruce's fault
That's not to say that it's all on Bruce. I've never seen a team so lacking in basketball IQ. They don't pass well, they don't screen well, they don't move without the basketball, they seem to have poor chemistry, and they have deplorable shot selection. I understand that Bruce is at fault for a lot, but he's not on the court making these decisions for the players. You could say that they don't work on it in practice enough, but I'm not here to make more excuses for the players. Bruce has faced enough stress and blame for this season, and to excuse the players' performance would be just plain wrong. It's on the players to put in the work outside the gym during the late spring and summer, when the coaches aren't allowed to hold practices. It's on the players to put in extra work during the season, to recognize what they're doing wrong and do what they can to fix it. I always think of the example of Brandon Paul, who apparently spent much time in the off season working on his ball handling. And what came of that? Have we seen any improvement at all in it? It's just not fair to scapegoat Weber for all of the things that have gone wrong this season and the past few. He's too good of a guy for that.

So what now? You have to think that AD Mike Thomas will make a move as soon as the season is over. I've heard that boosters have already ensured that there will be no financial constraints in making sure that Weber can be bought out, and that the next coach will be well compensated. There is also the notion that Illinois must look long and hard at a minority candidate, what with the Board of Trustee voting issues with new football coach Tim Beckman's contract. For me, this leads to one candidate, and one only: Shaka Smart.

I've read opinions from all sorts of national writers, and the opinion on the Illinois basketball program is extremely high. It's an amazing job opportunity, with resources, a rabid fan base, a large, academically prestigious university, and a recruiting hot bed in a great conference. Thus, it's the perfect opportunity for Smart to jump at. He's from the Midwest, he's young, he's energetic, and would immediately liven up a program that is in desperate need of a shake up. Just watch this. Tell me that isn't a guy that the fanbase can get behind, the current players would love, and future recruits would die to play for. Seems like the perfect match, so let's hope that for once, Illinois goes out and gets the candidate that everyone wants. No pressure Mike Thomas, it's only the future of the program at stake.

But I don't want to get too much into the future, because I feel that its disrespectful to a guy like Weber, who's given his all for this program for 9 years. He never once gave up, and gave so much back to the University and community. He truly loved being the coach at Illinois, and that's really a kind of loyalty that you just don't see anymore in modern sports. I only wish that it had worked out better for him here, and barring some miracle run for the rest of the season, the Big Ten tournament, and the like, it won't work out for him here anymore. But he's a great guy, and will land on his feet somewhere where he can start fresh and simply do what he enjoys the most - teach basketball. If only there had been a few different turns in his tenure here, we might be praising the job he's done for all 9 years instead of micro-analyzing it the way I, and nearly everyone one in the fanbase has. It's just too bad that the guy that has to go is the nice guy. And that fact that I feel this upset thinking and talking about this is proof yet again that I care way too much about sports.


Anonymous said...

Great article and a great summary about what went wrong as well as the fact how unfortunate it is that it hasn't worked out for a guy who is as hard working and honest as Weber.

I agree that recruiting was the achilles heel that he just couldn't overcome. And just when he was getting traction the Gordon debacle derailed the program. I often argued on the messge boards that the collateral damage inflicted by his decommittment was probably going to be too difficult to overcome and could lead to the program's demise under Weber. It was Weber's Waterloo just as the Pearl episode was ultimately Henson's Waterloo. Jerrance Howard truly saved him securing solid 9,10 and 11 classes after Weber was on life support once before after the Gordon fiasco coupled with the losing 07/08 season and then the terrible Jamar Smith/Caldwell drunk driving accident scandal. Too much to overcome by a guy already handicapped in the recruiting game. I truly wish Weber the best at his next stop but it was hard to watch (the interview)shere such a beaten man who fought so hard for so long finally giving in.

Dave Johnsen said...

Couldn't agree more with what you said. The Jamar Smith is but one of the crazy events in his tenure that no one even thinks of now.

Katy Korth said...

Coaching is probably like being a parent: you never truly know what you're going to get, but you do the best you can. Also, my understanding is that if you gain the respect of your players through being an authority and the "man in charge," the more likely they won't need to be reminded of the elementary skills like "hustle" and "be a team player." Nice guys always finish last...but I enjoyed watching him coach as a student and alum of U of I.