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January 26, 2012
Bruce Weber watched competitor Tom Izzo win his 400th career victory on Wednesday night and couldn't help but feel proud of his longtime colleague and confidant. Weber and Izzo cut their teeth in the profession as assistants under Big Ten coaching legends Gene Keady and Jud Heathcoate, adversaries during the 80s and 90s.
"He's just good for the business," Weber said of Izzo, who became the fourth coach to win 400 games at a Big Ten program, joining Keady, former Indiana coach Bobby Knight and former Illinois coach Lou Henson. "I'm happy for him."
Weber, who has 208 victories at Illinois, also would like the opportunity to join Izzo in the 400 club.
But check the pulse of the Illinois basketball fan base and the discussion isn't focused on Sunday's loss at Wisconsin, Saturday's crucial game against Minnesota or even where the Illini (15-5, 4-3 Big Ten) stack up in the latest NCAA bracketology (ESPN's Joe Lunardi latest projections place Illinois as a No. 7 seed). The hot topic surrounds whether first-year Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas should retain head coach Bruce Weber past this season.
Weber said the criticism is just a reality of his $1.5-million job.
"I don't know if (the criticism's) unfair," Weber said Thursday morning on the Stevie Jay morning show on ConnectFM, a Champaign radio station. "That's part of my job is to win. I think we've done a good job. We have a new team, a young team. But at the same time, you want to have a great team, and that's what we're trying to strive for. There's always pressure and you want to keep your job. I'd like to stay here. I'd like to leave a little bit of a legacy. I don't think it's going to be what (former Illinois) Coach Henson left or Coach Izzo or Coach Keady, but you'd like to be here awhile and do some good things. I think we have done some good things.
"We've won 70 percent or close to 70 percent of our games," said Weber, who has a 69.5 winning percentage. "We're the first outright Big Ten championship team in 52 years and we did it back-to-back years (2003-04 and 2004-05). We've been to the national championship (in 2005), which has never been done at Illinois, and we've also graduated our kids. Our (academic progress) rate is not only one of the best in the Big Ten, one of the best in the country. And we got a good young group and got a chance to be really good a year from now."
Most of those on-the-court accomplishments came during his first two seasons, when Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head and James Augustine roamed the court. Illinois has remained competitive in the Big Ten since Brown and Augustine departed in 2006, finishing below fifth place in the conference just once (the Illini placed ninth during the 2007-08 season). But the Illini have finished at least four games back of first place the past five seasons.
Expectations weren't high for the Illini entering the season. Magazine prognostications had a young, mostly inexperienced Illinois squad finishing anywhere between second and ninth in the Big Ten following the graduation of Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale - key contributors the past three seasons - and Jereme Richmond's early entry into the NBA Draft following an up-and-down freshman campaign.
But expectations rose after a 15-3 start, highlighted by a 79-74 upset of then No. 5 Ohio State on Jan. 10, and a return to the national rankings. That was a short-lived high though as the Illinois took a frustrating 54-52 loss at Penn State (10-12, 2-7) - Weber's fourth loss in five games at Happy Valley - followed by the team's first home loss to Wisconsin.
After watching Thomas make an immediate impact on the stagnant football program with the firing of Ron Zook, vocal and message-board support is growing for Thomas to make another change with the basketball program.
With 11 Big Ten games remaining - and if the early part of the Big Ten schedule is any indicator of what the rest of the season holds, anything can happen - Weber said all he can do is avoid the criticism and stay focused on the task at hand. For his short-term and long-term prospects, that's winning at Minnesota (15-6, 3-5) on Saturday.
"If you pay attention, you'd kill yourself because it's hard," Weber said. "If somebody critiques you, you take it to heart because you care. At the same time, the problem is the negative people, they're the ones that are always giving their voice or their opinion. The positive people, they're just going on with their life: kids, family, jobs, things like that. So they don't take time all the time to call, but we get a lot of positive emails."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.myconnectfm.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerConnectFM