Part of our continuing Alma Mater Navel-Gazing series here at Prospectus.
Dave Barry said if you drop a guitar it will of its own volition play “Gloria.” Apparently if you drop a sportswriter when indisputably straight-arrow Coach X is about to be fired, said sportswriter will automatically state that the firing is a Searing Indictment of What College Sports Have Become Today.
I like doing an occasional searing indictment myself, but in the case of Bruce Weber‘s termination at Illinois this morning, there is nothing to indict. To maintain otherwise is silly.
Points per possession, standard deviations above/below Big Ten mean
Conference games only
Call this chart Laudable Midwestern Patience. If I had showed this to Weber in 2006 to reveal to him what his future would hold, he, being the straight-arrow mature adult that he is, would be the first to say it’s time to move on to the next challenge.
It’s been five years now since the Illini scored points at a rate equivalent to an average Big Ten offense, the key word there being “average.” Today’s Demanding Sports Fan isn’t demanding that Illinois go to the Final Four every year. But 50th percentile? Once every five years or so? Yeah, that’d be nice.
For specific biographical reasons that require no elucidation here, let’s just say I’m “plugged in,” as the young people like to say nowadays, to the sentiments and wishes of retirees in central Illinois. That is as steady and unassuming a group as you’ll find anywhere. They respect Weber as a rock-solid citizen, they appreciate the good times he delivered a while back, and they think it’s best for everyone involved that a change is being made. They’re exactly right.
Now the search for a replacement begins, but before we place strict demands on what kind of coach is needed let us note that the chart up there could also be entitled The Total Irrelevance of Scheme in College Basketball. At Illinois the scheme on offense stayed the same throughout Weber’s tenure. Good night, did it stay the same. Here I am six weeks ago petulantly hurling my sippy-cup to the floor over precisely that sameness:
After seven conference games it appears probable that for a fifth consecutive season the Illini will not rise to the level of an average Big Ten outfit on that side of the ball. (Last year, granted, the team came within a whisker of that elusive empyrean realm, the conference’s 50th percentile on offense. You may have seen merely a befuddled gang of somewhat listless veterans, but, sadly, what I saw was the high-water mark for Illinois scoring since 2006, kind of like the Confederates reaching Gettysburg.) It looks as though Meyers Leonard will shake David Stern’s hand this summer fresh from a team that couldn’t muster a point per trip in its league. Meantime put me down as tired of the endless east-west passing on the perimeter, tired of indecision and tentativeness on offense posing as “patience,” and tired of knowing in advance (as do opponents) that there will be no offensive rebounds or free throws. I can’t watch anymore.
In 2005 when the scheme was executed by Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head, it was, quite literally, a wonder to behold. (Think Missouri this year. Plus D.) But even by 2006 it already looked much different. In part that was the power of contrast and sheer regression to normalcy, but all those threes Brown was suddenly missing as a senior turned out to portend things to come.
The Eric Gordon fiasco hit Weber hard, but at the time (and maybe again in the next couple days) it was asked to carry exculpatory weight that it simply could not hold. Gordon’s defection explained one hole in one recruiting year at one position. It didn’t explain other holes in other years at other positions. And the holes were numerous.
Then, at last, the recruiting improved. The Illini roster last year was populated by a striking number of young men who are making or will make money by playing basketball professionally somewhere in the world. We know now that Jereme Richmond was not destined to see his number retired at Assembly Hall, but what we ask of coaches is that they go out and get McDonald’s All-Americans, and, say what you will, Richmond was a McDonald’s All-American. By the same token Meyers Leonard has been spotted playing basketball in an Illinois uniform of late, and he can apparently be drafted in the middle of the first round this summer should he choose to avail himself of the opportunity. (He should. Ignore commentators who say he’s raw skill-wise and immature emotionally. Both observations are indisputably correct, but big men should never stay in the college game too long. His skills and maturity will both improve faster at the next level.)
The talent improved but the offense didn’t. Then at the 11th hour, in the final indignity for Weber, the defense finally caved in too. Since the odd, hideous, and wholly misleading win at home over Michigan State on January 31 where Draymond Green was both injured and in foul trouble, the Illini let Big Ten offenses run all over them to the tune of 1.13 points per trip. That’s a level of D worse than what we saw from Northwestern this year. Weber gamely insisted that his players never stopped trying, but they did stop succeeding.
Weber now gets a $3.9 million buyout, a figure that gets tossed around with far too little comprehension. It’s not in the same league as what Peyton Manning would have received if the Colts had held onto him, but it is, to put it mildly, a vast sum. When we see a major-conference coach fired, we respond instinctively to the spectacle as if we’re witnessing the termination of a co-worker. But our co-workers don’t get a payday equivalent to eight years’ worth of the boss’s salary. The major-conference coaches are different from you and me. That doesn’t mean they can’t be traduced by wrongful firing, but it does mean they will at least have a roof over their indoor pool.
The knock on Weber in 2005 was that he did it all with Bill Self‘s players, but not only did he succeed with Bill Self’s players, he succeeded brilliantly with them. Weber also succeeded, more often than not throughout his tenure, on defense. He succeeded at Southern Illinois. And he’ll succeed again. He’s a fantastically wealthy man. This season’s been very bad and today will be even worse, but life is still very good for Bruce Weber. I’m glad it is. He’s a good guy.
The most miserable team I’ve ever seen was the last Kentucky team under Billy Gillispie in 2008-09. Just to see that team play a game was to intuit at a glance that the players wanted the entire ordeal to end. It never got quite that bad in Champaign, but I was moved to think of that UK team yesterday when I watched Weber and his players in the closing seconds of their loss to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament. And it did get to the point this season where the players stopped listening.
Once you get to that point, you have to make a change.