Having an elite basketball program—or a semi-elite basketball program, if you prefer—is relatively new territory for the University of Illinois.
We have a long tradition of quality hoops, but nothing can compare to the spate of excellence in the last decade: multiple conference titles, a steady stream of professional-quality players, and a National Championship game appearance.
As such, we haven't quite grasped all the "rules" of having and maintaining a top-notch program.
Right now, head coach Bruce Weber has an .800 winning percentage. Still, a growing segment of our fanbase—a segment which I recently joined— wants him gone in the near future.
If this were another school—say, Iowa or Virginia or Washington—I'd call their fans inane whiners and declare it basketball apostasy to can a coach who has won 80 percent of his games.
But can you pull the trigger if the situation merits it?
I'm starting to think so—and while this revelation sits far away from Luther's or Darwin's, it's an important one for those who bleed Orange and Blue.
Recruiting impotence remains the most pointed attack against Weber. The depressing list of failures speaks for itself:
He missed on Julian Wright and Brandon Rush.
He missed on Jon Scheyer, whom his brother coached.
He missed on Scott Suggs, a lifetime Illinois fan.
He couldn't bring in Sherron Collins, Deandre Liggins, Jerrel McNeal, or Evan Turner.
He turned down Patrick Beverley for what appeared to be academic questions—then offered Quinton Watkins the next year, who didn't qualify for college.
He had blue-chipper Eric Gordon in the bag—then lost him at the last moment to a morally vacuous sleezeball who's never put a guard in the NBA.
Weber has signed only three players who qualify as consensus four-star talents. He has been outrecruited by Thad Matta, Tom Izzo, Matt Painter, Kelvin Sampson, and Bo Ryan. He has yet to land one of the top two players in the state of Illinois, and going into 2008 has missed on his top seven targets.
It's pathetic by any reasonable standard, especially considering the resources Weber has.
Worse still—and this was the catalyst for my departure from the Weber bandwagon—the 2007-08 season will be Weber's first with absolute control over the roster...and the team will feature no scholarship shooting guards and eight post players.
This from a coach whose greatest triumphs have come with three-guard lineups.
It's one thing to recruit poorly. It's another to not have a proper roster in order.
And it's a whole different arena when you have severe off-the-court issues.
During Weber's tenure, fans of the Illini have seen a robbery attempt involving Luther Head and Rich McBride, and DUIs involving McBride and Jamar Smith—the latter of which almost killed teammate Brian Carlwell.
None of the three were kicked off the team.
As much as I loved watching him as a player, Luther Head had no business representing the school or the state in any form. I'm far from fascist, but the prestige of the University and program has to be maintained.
On the other hand, at least Bob Huggins can recruit major talent.
I'm tired of it all—the excuses, the whiffs the excessive drama. I'm also tired of a dropping standard of success—from Final Four to Sweet 16 to making the NCAA Tournament at all.
When Bill Self left his extended-stay hotel room and went back to the Great Plains, athletic director Ron Guenther chose Weber over local product Thad Matta...and it's been a tale of two programs ever since.
Bruce Weber was given a BMW and he's pimping it into a Ford Taurus. As I've watched the basketball program slide further into national mediocrity, all I think of is the Illinois football program.
Ron Turner guided the Illini to the Sugar Bowl but refused to lift a finger in recruiting—and the team sank to the Big Ten cellar. When Ron Zook was hired, there was an immediate turnaround.
Guenther should learn from his own history.
Over the last eight years, Illinois has vied with Duke to post the best cumulative record in the country.
If we're not careful, we might be rivaling Purdue and Michigan for the fifth-best record in the Big Ten.
There are some glimmers of hope on the horizon. Weber has a verbal commitment from Jereme Richmond, an apparent stud talent in the 2010 class. In 2009, Illinois seems to be in a good position to land quality recruits like Chris Colvin and D.J. Richardson—but this is exactly what we fans said of the 2006, 2007, and 2008 classes as well.
Were I the athletic director, I'd be willing to give Weber one last chance. But one more major discipline issue, one more year of recruiting blunders, or one more season that falls short of its potential and the coach can pack his bags for Carbondale.
Maybe you can't fire a coach with an .800 winning percentage, but you sure as hell can axe one who's at .730.
To my dismay, I fear that's a choice Ron Guenther might face in nine months—and I fear the man is too vapid and orthodox to pull the trigger, just as he was in the last three years of the Ron Turner era.
Unfortunately, the ride down isn't half as fun as the ride up.