Bruce Weber was named consensus National Coach Of The Year in 2005 after leading his second Illinois basketball team to a 37-2 record and second place in the NCAA Tournament. While no one expected repeat performances every year, that season set the bar of expectation higher than Weber could duplicate in his remaining 7 years on the job.
A combination of factors sealed his fate. For one thing, some Illini fans would have been upset with any coach not named Bill Self, Weber's predecessor at Illinois. Self was a tough act to follow because he offered hope of being a national player in recruiting circles and elite status for the team. He also had the charm and worldly countenance that attracted fans in droves.
In contrast, Weber is a Midwest guy, a hard working blue collar coach who lacks Self's sophistication and stage presence. There is no indication he is anything less than Self's equal as a coach, but Self stole a couple players from the state of Illinois Weber wanted. And Weber lacked the expensive wardrobe and communication skills fans had come to expect in their coach.
Weber took Self's players and molded them into perhaps the best true team in NCAA history. It was a team so special, no one could arrive at a suitable nickname for it. But even then, Weber's detractors gave Self credit for bringing that talent to Illinois.
In truth, there was no indication Self's talent, other than Dee Brown, who was a top 25 prospect and a special personality who attracted fans and publicity to the program, was that outstanding before Weber's two-year coaching job.
The true star of the 2005 team was point guard Deron Williams, the only one to enjoy a lengthy stay in the NBA. Williams was considered the second best player on his high school team and among the second 50 in most national recruiting lists. Weber has the mind of a point guard, and he and Williams meshed beautifully. The result of their collaboration was special; Williams evolved into an elite talent.
James Augustine ended with over 1000 points and 1000 rebounds for his career, but he was not highly recruited before Brown talked Self into taking him. He was athletic and provided the selfless service the other Illini players needed to excel. Roger Powell and Luther Head were recruited originally by Lon Kruger.
All five played at least awhile in the pros, with Head being drafted by the NBA and Augustine, Brown and Powell finding success overseas. They were great Illini players, but Weber deserves most of the credit for molding them into a cohesive unit.
Weber experienced the heights of ecstasy in 2005, so it was not surprising his path of destiny would take a downturn. But he is now suffering the agony of despondency, seeing the program he loves fall on tough times and his job end.
What happened after 2005 would be laughable if it wasn't so sad. The details are too numerous to mention in their entirety, but recruiting misses plagued Weber and his staff. Part of the problem was the difficulty recruiting Chicago superstars, who many suggest were looking for extra (I.e. illegal) inducements Weber refused to utilize.
He likely counted too much on landing players like Sherron Collins, Derrick Rose and Jon Scheyer. He knew they were all an uphill battle, but he didn't have enough backups lined up to replace them adequately. Collins actually committed to Illinois at one point before switching to Kansas.
Then Eric Gordon happened. The Indiana superstar shooting guard, now enjoying a quality NBA career, announced for Illinois as a junior in high school and continued to claim he would attend Illinois even after Kelvin Sampson was hired at Indiana University and made Gordon his #1 target.
To make a long story short, Gordon knew he was going to switch his commitment long before he finally admitted it to Illini coaches. The assumption now is that Gordon and his dad purposely delayed telling Weber to prevent him from recruiting quality replacements. It worked like a charm, and Weber's fall began.
Then there was the problem with Jamar Smith and the year of multiple injuries during the 2006-07 season. Smith was a promising three point shooter from Peoria. He decided to take teammate Brian Carlwell home from a party while drunk. He ran his car into a tree, causing Carlwell serious injuries that eventually led to his transfer to San Diego State.
Smith eventually had to leave the program also. But all the turmoil took its toll. Team chemistry became an issue. The problems bled into the 2007-08 season, which ended badly with a 16-19 record.
The next year was a good one, thanks primarily to the senior leadership of Chester Frazier and improvement of senior guard Trent Meachem. Both are now playing professionally overseas. Frazier led a sophomore-dominated squad to a 24-10 record, 11-7 in the Big 10. Unfortunately, he broke his hand just prior to the NCAA tourney. His absence ended Illini hopes of a strong finish to the season.
Weber's next two teams finished 21-15 and 20-14, not bad by any means. But with four upperclassmen including Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale all showing excellent potential, fans expected more. Much more. None were capable leaders, another problem with Weber's recruiting. After Frazier graduated, the absence of a true leader made it a team of underachievers.
Recruiting appeared to pick up considerably with the announcement in late 2006 that high school freshman Jereme Richmond committed to Illinois. The 6'-7" forward became a McDonald's All-American while playing for Waukegan as a senior, and he was a pied piper for other recruits.
Current juniors D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, and Joe Bertrand committed shortly thereafter, and Meyers Leonard and Crandall Head joined Richmond in the following class. Alas, if Leonard turns pro this spring, none of his classmates will still be enrolled.
Richmond was and likely still is a troubled youth. He admitted he always had to learn things the hardest way possible. After two suspensions his freshman season, he eliminated all suspense by declaring for the NBA draft. He wasn't drafted, but he really had no choice. He wasn't taking his academics seriously, and he had off-court issues that will remain unreported.
Upon leaving the UI, Richmond was arrested. While that made his departure more acceptable, it did nothing to help the Illini team on the court. Classmate Crandall Head, Luther's brother, lost interest in working to overcome his inability to shoot and handle the ball without turnovers. After missing classes and being late for practice multiple times, he chose to leave the program also.
Illini fans assumed Richmond would play a role like Carmelo Anthony, who led Syracuse to a national championship as a freshman. Head had great athleticism and might have become a stalwart if he had some self-discipline and hunger to improve. Without them, the Illini had only six scholarship non-freshmen on their roster to begin the 2011-12 season, a prescription for problems that later materialized.
The current season was advertised as a rebuilding year since the only senior on the team was fifth year transfer Sam Maniscalco. It was hoped Maniscalco could be the leader the team lacked, but recurring ankle problems reduced his effectiveness.
The entering freshman class boasted six quality players, although none were among the top 50 in recruiting rankings. Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu played well at times and show promise for the future. Myke Henry is a scorer who will eventually be a big help to the team.
Mike Shaw and Ibby Djimde weren't ready to contribute this year, although both will see increasing amounts of time as they mature. Devin Langford has excellent potential as a small forward, but multiple injuries forced him to redshirt this season. Coincidentally or not, the birth dates for Maniscalco, Shaw, Djimde and Langford are just three weeks apart.
This past season started off in promising fashion. The Illini won the Cancun Challenge, won at Maryland in the Big 10/ACC Challenge, beat a talented Gonzaga squad in the Assembly Hall and upset powerhouse Ohio State at home.
Then came a 9 day layoff, after which the Illini lost their edge. They proceeded to lose 11 of their last 13 regular season games to guarantee Weber's demise.
Weber ended with an outstanding record while at Illinois (210-101 overall, 89-65 in the Big Ten). He lamented that he was too tolerant of mediocre play this past season, hoping to keep confidence up within a young squad rather than forcing his will on his players. His players needed all the confidence they could muster, but they also needed discipline. It's a fine line, and Weber's choices didn't produce the results fans expected.
Weber didn't have a chance from the beginning with some fans, and the calls for his dismissal became deafening after awhile. But he is still revered around the state and country. He is treated like a rock star when he goes out recruiting, with fans lining up for autographs and photos.
He will no doubt be in demand for other coaching opportunities around the country. He turned down a chance to coach Oklahoma last year, and Missouri also inquired about him. Maybe if he can find a place where he can recruit his kind of players without interference or judgment, his coaching acumen will suffice and produce outstanding seasons.
Many Illini fans have mixed emotions about Weber leaving Illinois. They all want a successful basketball program, but they realize Weber is a truly special human being. His heart is as big as all outdoors, his honesty is legend, and he insists on doing things the right way. His work with Coaches vs. Cancer is recognized nationally.
His banner will someday be raised to the rafters at the Assembly Hall, along with others who have become legends for their ability to put Illinois in Final Fours. Whether fans will remember him as an outstanding coach remains to be seen.
But one thing is not in doubt. As a human being, Bruce Weber is a true champion.