Sobering Words From Chicago B-Ball Expert

Fighting Illini basketball coach Bruce Weber is working to keep his job at Illinois while wolves growl angrily at his door. A number of fans feel entitled to more wins, and they demand better recruiting results, especially in talent-rich Chicago. Windy City talent evaluator Joe Henricksen provides sobering thoughts on the shape of the program and potential for the future.

Joe Henricksen is the author of the City/Suburban Roundball Review and frequent contributor for the Chicago Sun-Times. He spoke with WDWS radio Saturday morning. He knows the Illinois coaches well and understands their recruiting difficulties. He also recognizes the climate college coaches work within at present.

Henricksen respects Illini head coach Bruce Weber. He was asked his reaction to strong rumors of Weber's demise at Illinois.

"My personal opinion, and the opinion of people in the business, it's just another example of the cutthroat business of college basketball.

"What I and some other people have found so shocking about Illinois is the viciousness, the attacks, the ugliness, the disrespect that followed towards a coach that, no matter where they are today, has done things no other coach in the program's history has done in a long, long time. And he did it in a way that's respected by his peers and by those in basketball circles. From that perspective, I think it's kind of sad.

"When you hear things about graduation rates, the importance of them, NCAA trouble like infractions and probation, it really doesn't mean a darn thing. These coaches are hired contractors, and really no one cares about them unless they win. And they better win big. If they do that, they really care less about how that coach conducts himself. That's too bad, but it's the nature of the beast.

"If Bruce Weber took shortcuts and played the game, got down a little bit with just a few of the past recruits that shunned Illinois, he'd be coaching Illinois for as long as he wanted and would be revered across the state."

Illinois has historically had problems recruiting superstar Chicago athletes, with only rare exceptions. There are multiple reports of cheating prevalent in the recruitment of top players, something Henricksen admits does occur at times.

"To a degree, that's correct, especially when you're dealing with the high level recruits. It's bad across the country, but I've talked to enough coaches, seen enough things and talked to enough people in Chicago that, if there was a place you could single out that would be the worst, it would be Chicago.

"That's unfortunate because that's Illinois's pipeline. That's what they need to target. Illinois is not going to target kids in Texas, East Coast, California, to get one of those elite guys.

"All these transgressions of the recruits from Illinois that got away, I don't fault Weber with a lot of those guys. They're not going to get them because they weren't willing to play the game and do the things they needed to get them. Call it as it is, that's the truth. College coaches around the country will tell you that."

Illinois has been as clean as any program in the country, thanks primarily to corrections made after multiple run-ins with the NCAA over breaking recruiting rules. Thus, some Chicago athletes are off limits to them. That reality has made some coaches reluctant to consider Illinois as a future destination.

"I talked to two coaches, they're probably not number 1-A or 1-B on Illinois's coaching list as potential candidates to replace coach Weber, but they would be in the mix of the conversation. Both said in the last week to me, 'I'm not that far different from Coach Weber. I believe in my style; I want to do it my way. I don't think my way can work at Illinois.' That's an indictment of what needs to happen, what needs to be done in recruiting in the city of Chicago.

"Is every kid on the take? No. Things have spiraled in the last couple of weeks, and that's what's on the front page. That's what's on everyone's mind and sealed the negativity and what looks like the removal of coach Weber."

Henricksen points to recruiting failures early in Weber's tenure as the true culprit in producing average Illinois teams.

"If I had to pinpoint one thing that went wrong for Coach Weber at Illinois, it's what happened immediately after the Final Four season. There was so much adrenaline, everybody knows that. The magical 37-2 Final Four season. Illinois basketball was arguably in its greatest position as a program.

"That's when Illinois could've gone out and nabbed a really good out-of-state prospect or two. That's when Illinois could've put itself in a different position recruiting-wise.

"But you cannot go four recruiting classes when (Demetri) McCamey is by far your biggest recruit and continue to play at an elite level the following years. In 2005 with Chester Frazier, Jamar Smith and C.J. Jackson. I go to the list: (Brian) Carlwell, (Richard) Semrau, Stan Simpson, Dominique Keller.

"The 2007 class was fine with those guy they brought in, (Mike) Davis, (Mike) Tisdale, (Bill) Cole and McCamey. But they were complementary-type players that you find on a great team. I'll be the first to tell you that I don't blame Weber for the recruiting misses that people ramble about. With many of those big names they missed on, it just wasn't going to happen.

"You have to do better than Jamar Smith and Demetri McCamey as your best recruits over a four-year period if you want a team with the level of success Coach Weber wants and Illinois fans want. If Illinois would have had a higher degree of success in those subsequent years, but couldn't due to the lack of players and talent in the program, fans would be okay with their struggle right now and write it off as one of those years. A rebuilding year without a senior on the team.

"So I think that's the biggest thing, and a couple of bad breaks, namely Eric Gordon and then Jereme Richmond. Those were two big culprits as well. Those were misfortunate and bad luck, if you look at it. If you plug a sane, levelheaded, on-the-same-page, on-the-ball talent like Jeremy Richmond as a sophomore on this team, I don't think we are talking about Weber being fired. But it didn't work out that way."

Many Illinois fans believe their head basketball job is a plum, that most any great coach would love to work in Champaign-Urbana. Henricksen disagrees while pointing out the limitations of the job.

"I think the pool of candidates is not as big (as some think). You can get a good quality coach for $2 million; money talks. But $2 million dollars to me, with the situation Illinois is in, and with the negativity I've heard from coaches about what you need to do to win at Illinois, they're going to have to step up financially and with big-time resources.

"If they want an elite guy, or even to be in a discussion for a superstar, they're going to have to give them years, and they're going to have to give them contracts that at the outset look like they're overpaid.

"Yes, it's a risk. But Illinois will have to more or less overpay for that guy. It's just the situation Illinois is in right now because it's not quite the job a lot of Illini fans I think believe it is.

"I grew up in Illinois. I don't know why more people in Illinois aren't Illinois fans. It's just the way it is in Illinois; it's just different than other Big Ten states. But I think fans are a little unrealistic as far as what they can go out and get as a coach. Not paying top dollar is a big reason why Illinois (is in this position). They've never paid. Coach Weber is the eighth or ninth highest paid Big 10 coach.

"And there's other things. Access to having a plane for recruiting, that's a huge underrated plus for any program. Elite programs and elite coaches have full access to those things. I think there's a guy or two that are out there that Illinois can get. But I think they're going to have to overpay to get them.

"I think Buzz Williams is the biggest home run hire, if it comes down to that point. But you'd have to absolutely blow Buzz Williams away with something ridiculous. I think you'd have to give him 3 million a year, give him whatever he wants because he loves it at Marquette and has it rolling and makes over $2 million a year, an estimate around $2.5 (million). That's pretty far-fetched and unrealistic.

"When you look at other contracts, the length of them (is amazing). Lorenzo Romar has nine years on his deal. It's not huge money, I think he gets $1.7 or $1.8 million. But the length of this contract is unbelievable. So not only are you talking money, you're talking security. That's what coaches want, as well as some of the resources I've talked about.

"Even with these high profile mid-major guys, they have stress-free contracts with unbelievable security. They're making darn good money and waiting it out for the ideal spot. They have an eye on a handful of programs they're willing to wait on. They put themselves in position to do that, so you're going to have to overpay.

"It's not like it used to be. You can't just suck a mid-major guy like Coach Weber from Southern Illinois for the cheap amount of money that they did. The mid-majors have truly stepped up with guys like Shaka Smart, Gregg Marshall at Wichita State, Brad Stevens, Mark Few.

"The security those guys have, they don't have to move. They like the lifestyle, and they can win. So you're going to have to overpay for those guys as well. The big question for me is, is Illinois going to be willing to do that?"

Fan expectations have played a major role in Weber's downfall. Henricksen points to a discrepancy between national recruit rankings and the actual quality of a recruiting class, such as the Illini's six man freshman class.

"Illinois has been involved with a lot of kids. They've got good recruiting classes the last three years. But what I think people fail to realize, the class of 2011 is an example. It's a really good class they brought in. It was not overrated locally because they're all top 10 guys in the state. But nationally they have overrated this class. It's not built to come in and be big impact players.

"There are some vastly overrated freshman players on the national scene. People see those rankings, they see Illinois as a top 10 recruiting class last year. They're a great class for Illinois, and if you let those kids mature over time, they're going to be good as juniors and seniors.

"But as good as the class was, they didn't get prima donna All-Americans in Anthony Davis and Wayne Blackshear. They didn't get the two most college-ready guards in Chasson Randle and Ryan Boatright. They did get some players that are quality players that most high major colleges would take. You develop and build them and hope for the best.

"Unfortunately for Coach Weber I think, he was put into a situation where he had to win with a team I don't think was ready to win. During those years with recruiting problems, they didn't have the kind of seasons that would allow for some leniency now."

Weber is recognized as one of the top coaches in the country according to Henricksen.

"You won't believe how well respected Coach Weber is. There are people in the coaching business, high school recruiting, high school coaches, AAU coaches, who are genuinely pulling for the guy. That goes a long way in recruiting."

College basketball recruiting now includes 8th graders. Getting in early and establishing strong relationships has been key for Weber and his staff. Henricksen feels Illini recruiting momentum within the state of Illinois might reverse if a new coach must come in and start over.

"Between him and the relationships Jerrance Howard has made in Chicago, they are in a phenomenal position. It's gonna be a huge task with such a loaded 2013 and 2014 group in Illinois, for that new coach to come in. He's going to have to hit that running.

"If it does transpire with a new coach, it's going to be a big obstacle for any new coach right away. It's going to take time to do that in Illinois and especially in the city of Chicago."

Henrickson is expressing his personal opinion, one that may differ widely from others. But as someone with a long and influential background in Illinois, he likely has a good feel on what is happening. At least, his voice should be heard before final decisions are made.

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