Former Illini Bardo Says Change Necessary

Many former Fighting Illini basketball players are joining fans in speaking out about the future of Bruce Weber at Illinois. Some are in favor of keeping him, and others believe the time has come for change. Stephen Bardo takes the latter approach in this interview.

Stephen Bardo was the point guard on the famous Flying Illini basketball team, a team which captured the hearts of America and reached the Final Four. He is now a successful TV basketball analyst and has great respect nationally as well as at Illinois. Speaking on WDWS radio Saturday morning, he added his thoughts to the cacophony of voices believing a change in head coaches is necessary.

"Bruce Weber's tenure at Illinois has been very successful overall. You look at the numbers in the grand scheme of things, and you say, 'why is he being replaced?' But that emphasis hasn't been just this season, but the last three or four seasons.

"There's a trend with Coach Weber's teams. They start out really good in the preconference schedule, may win some games maybe we're surprised they won. So the fan base gets a little excited. Then they get into Big Ten play, and they start off in strong fashion like they did this year at 4-1.

"And then something happens to the team, and this has happened three or four years consecutively. Either they lose confidence or there's a chasm within the team where they're not on the same page. Guys have different opinions, and it kind of goes downhill from there.

"The team is struggling to get into the NCAA tournament. It's a trend that I've noticed over the last few years, and it just feels like there's something that's broken.

"I think that if you continue to do the same things and expect different results, that's the definition of insanity. So if you want to get different results, you have to go in a different direction. One of my main things is that a breath of fresh air would do the program good.

"The perception of Illinois's basketball program is stale. That's not a slap against Bruce Weber or what he's done. It's just the way things have been done in Champaign from an athletic direction. This is a chance for Mike Thomas to really put his stamp on a new direction for the program."

Bardo hopes the new athletic director will be the change-agent who can free Illinois from a negative feedback loop.

"I was pleased with certain aspects of what Ron Guenther was able to accomplish at Illinois. He ran a program that was fiscally sound. He got the facilities and did certain things. But the performance of the teams in competition was not at the level I think Illini fans expect.

"With Mike Thomas coming in, I think people are kind of surprised he's making such swift decisions. But I think he recognizes an alumni base that's frustrated, one that's started to lose interest in the program overall. And that damages the brand, damages the ability to raise funds.

"I think he's trying to chart a new course and get people excited again. What better way to do that than to go in a totally different direction from what we've seen at that university in the past?

"Try to get maybe someone younger, maybe someone of color, but I would want somebody with a proven track record. A head coach that's either been in a Final Four or a national championship. Anything less than that, I wouldn't be very pleased with."

Many say college basketball recruiting has become a cesspool for cheating, especially with the recruitment of high school superstars. Bardo doesn't deny this but prefers to talk about what is possible rather than what is not possible.

"I think that's the common thought around college basketball. But I wish to take a slightly different approach. Let's take a man coming out of the city of Chicago right now named Jabari Parker. Jabari Parker is a little bit different than the typical student-athlete that's coming out of urban areas.

"His father is involved. His father played in the NBA and played college basketball. He understands the process. Let's take a young man by the name of Trey Burke with Michigan right now. He was from Columbus on a high school team with Jared Sullinger. His father was involved.

"There are top-level players whose fathers are involved in their lives that don't necessarily have to be paid under an AAU situation. If you are able to get a player like Trey Burke or Jabari Parker into your program, that sends a message and a signal to the rest of the players around the country, that Illinois is a legitimate situation.

"I think there are situations you can attain that kind of set the trend. I believe that Jabari Parker is that kind of talent. It would send a message not only to kids in Chicago, but with other players around the country.

"Illinois is viable again. They're not necessarily paying guys, but if you have a chance to win a national championship, and you have the resources of the city of Chicago and University of Illinois, I think that can overcome some of the things that others are talking about."

True, but everyone in the country wants Parker, a junior at Chicago Simeon. He is being wooed by Duke, North Carolina and all the other top schools in the country. He loves Weber and Illini assistant Jerrance Howard, but will either be around by the time he makes his college choice?

Bardo looks on the bright side, and Illini Nation hopes he is correct. He estimates recruiting as being 60-65% of what makes a successful college basketball program. It's a big gamble to expect Weber's replacement to sign Parker and/or other superstars with a new coach under contract.

Can Illinois expect to get lucky with a replacement who can recruit without cheating and coach at the same time? Only time will tell.

Bardo has heard rumors of possible replacement coaches for Illinois.

"Illinois is a top 15 basketball program, and I think most people understand that. I've heard Lorenzo Romar from Washington, of course Shaka Smart from VCU. I've heard Brad Stevens's name from Butler, and Gregg Marshall from Wichita State. I've heard Danny Manning, who now I think is ready to become a head coach.

"Another name that's interesting is Reggie Theus. People scratch their heads a little bit--why Reggie Theus? He was an assistant with Rick Pitino at Louisville, coached New Mexico State I think to an NCAA tournament. Then he went to Sacramento with the NBA, where he didn't have success.

"But he is still revered in the city of Chicago. He's such a handsome guy, he'd be able to walk in, and anybody's mom would send their kid to Illinois. He's just a smooth character. I don't know if his name would resonate that well in the Midwest. Those are just some of the names I've heard."

One way or the other, Bardo is convinced Weber will land on his feet. He will have multiple options should he not be retained at Illinois.

"Bruce Weber was sought after last year by Missouri as well as by Oklahoma. He's going to be highly sought after. People around Champaign might not know Bruce Weber's reputation, but he has a very solid reputation around the country.

"Rumor has it, and this is just a rumor, that Ben Howland might be out at UCLA, and they would be interested in Bruce out there if he were to leave Illinois. He's not gonna struggle with another opportunity if things don't work out in Champaign for him."

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