COLUMN: Weber-Illinois marriage not on the rocks – yet

By Steve Contorno

There is a reason I am writing about basketball and not throwing down dunks at Assembly Hall.

I am not what you would call a “gifted” athlete. I don’t have “talent.” I can’t “make it rain threes” or “school” someone. I have what you would call a little bit of a weight problem.

So, instead, I have forfeited my right to be a member of the men’s basketball team and will allow more qualified individuals such as Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle to represent the University on the hardwood. That does not mean I do not care about the team’s performance any less than the players.

College athletics creates a connection between the fans and players more than any other level. Maybe it’s because we’re considered “peers” on campus or because the team is seen as an extension of the school, but there is a definite relationship between students on campus and their respective school’s sports teams.

It is only fair, then, that those who feel a team’s success and failures have the right to express their opinion of the team. When Bruce Weber steps on the court in his orange blazer and the players put on their jerseys with “Illinois” written across the chest, they are not only representing a proud tradition of Illinois basketball, but also the University of Illinois.

The students and alumni who attend or attended the University have whole-heartedly supported the basketball team through some of the most jubilant times in school history. Seventeen Big Ten Championships. Five Final Fours. And that all too memorable runner-up finish in the 2005 NCAA final.

Sometimes, the times are not so jubilant. When that happens, fans have the right to question exactly who they are supporting and look for change. And right now, there’s a quiet movement on campus slowly getting louder looking for ways to return to glory.

Sure, the mindless masses might try to feed us banter on fan boards about how the Illini are fine. “The Illini won more games than any other program the past four years and have won at least 20 games in eight consecutive seasons,” they say. “What glory is there to return to? We are in glory.” Don’t try to fool us. When Weber got to Illinois, it was a wonderful marriage between two sides that needed each other: the Illini recovering from a horrible breakup after getting dumped by Bill Self in favor of a more attractive school and Weber, a fresh face looking to prove himself in a big conference.

But this marriage, this program, is not where it should be right now. This gets said over and over again, but it is too true to forget: Two seasons removed from finishing second in the nation, the Illinois basketball program should not be in the state it is in.

Most people blame recruiting. An average freshman class this year coupled with no big names coming in next season means there will be a depletion in talent for at least two seasons. Others look at the internal problems of the team that have led to issues off the court. A few say Weber is not the coach everyone thought he was and was riding on what Self brought in.

Maybe some of the criticism is right, maybe all of it is. To be fair, it looks like recruits are coming in after next year’s class, the off-court issues seem like a problem not exclusive to Illinois, and we know Weber can coach because one does not get to the NCAA final on luck alone.

Still, I think there is no doubt Weber is on the hot seat this season, even if Athletic Director Ron Guenther will not admit it. Those who would have followed him to the ends of the earth two seasons ago are slowly starting to turn around and head in the other direction. If for only that reason, Weber and Guenther should look at this season as a critical juncture in his career at Illinois. That does not mean that if the team fares poorly he gets the axe, but with such a rich tradition and recent success, any year the expectations of fans are not met the people in charge should have to answer questions.

But let’s stop right there. It’s time to stop looking at that 2004-05 season as a benchmark and the past two seasons as evidence that some changes need to be made. The 2007-08 season is the last season with any connection to the Bill Self era. It will officially be Weber’s program in one year. A coach that has not won fewer than 20 games in any year he has been here, has not lost a Big Ten Tournament opener and has never missed the NCAA Tournament should not be let go of before he has fully taken over a program.

The marriage between Weber and Illinois should not fall apart this season, but the honeymoon is definitely over.

Steve Contorno is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]