Klee: The story of Bruce Weber's firing — and what's on tap
CHAMPAIGN — It was late Thursday night. Hours earlier, Illinois had been knocked out of the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.
The six freshmen on the Illini roster convened in a private meeting at an off-campus home in Champaign-Urbana.
Their conversation was heavy stuff; for the teenagers, their futures were up in the air. The players held a group prayer, similar to how one of the freshmen entered Bruce Weber's office in February and offered to pray for the season. And they discussed what was coming Friday.
Their head coach would be fired.
It wasn't official yet. Weber didn't get the word until Friday morning just before 8.
But this seminal moment in the program's future — their future — had been building for weeks, weighing down a lost season, and the roster's core was preparing for the inevitable.
Athletic director Mike Thomas established open-minded guidelines for the next coach.
He prefers someone with head coaching experience but won't limit the pool to head coaches. He said the jackpot owed to fired coaches Ron Zook, Jolette Law and Weber — a combined buyout of $7.1 million — won't limit what he can pay the next basketball coach.
"Really, the thing that trumps all is we're going to do things the right way (in terms of the NCAA rules)," Thomas said.
He cited styles of play ("Some resonate more with your fans than others") and equal opportunities ("A diversified pool" of candidates) as factors in the hire.
"We're about winning championships," Thomas said. "I think that's an appropriate expectation to have."
There always is great fan interest in Illinois basketball. But it has lagged. Most recently that was evident Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The crowd for Illinois' game against Iowa likely was the smallest to watch the Illini in a Big Ten tournament game. The Illini had only one sellout this season, a far cry from the 60-game sellout streak that ended in 2008.
"I do know there were a lot of empty seats this year," Thomas said. "I do know that's not what Illinois basketball is about."
Thomas said an invigorated fanbase also is paramount considering the renovation plans for the Assembly Hall.
"I think it's important that we have some energy as we transition into that phase," Thomas said.
Even while Illinois stumbled to a 17-15 record and missed the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons, Thomas said, "I don't really see it as a project."
Who sticks around will help determine that.
Sophomore center Meyers Leonard all but announced his intentions to enter the NBA draft after Thursday's loss to Iowa. He later joked with one staffer that he wasn't certain exactly how to declare. That he wondered aloud was an indication of his intentions.
"I just wish all the guys the best of luck. Hopefully they keep fighting," Leonard told media.
Illinois loses one scholarship senior — guard Sam Maniscalco. A likely scenario has junior guard Brandon Paul at least testing the waters of the NBA draft. His mother said Friday they haven't discussed that option and acknowledged Weber for being a "class act."
"That (draft) isn't something we're thinking about. I still think Brandon is a lottery-type player," Lynda Paul said. "He's got God-given gifts. Unfortunately he's not been able to display those for various reasons. I think certainly Brandon's best basketball is ahead of him."
The extended future of the program, however, is based in the underclassmen. The first priority for the next coach would be convincing the players he wants to stick around. One piece of advice for the unnamed coach: Don't let Tracy Abrams near the front door. His basketball game is a work in progress; his leadership traits are refined.
"I've been around Dee (Brown) and I've been around Tracy," UI interim coach Jerrance Howard said earlier in the week. "He's got the same (leadership) traits, that will to win."
One staffer said Abrams and Mike Shaw are the "ringleaders" of the younger players.
"He's always been that way," added John Jackson, an assistant coach at Chicago Mount Carmel. He has been a sort of mentor to Abrams since Abrams was 13. "People are drawn to him. I think the same has been true at Illinois since he's been there."
Other programs already are sniffing around through back channels to inquire if there would be potential transfers. Several sources close to the players said it would be important to have some continuity from the current staff to the next one.
"I want them to keep Jerrance. I think it's important these guys have that connection," said Phil Gipson, a mentor to Myke Henry that helped raise the freshman on Chicago's west side.
It's no coincidence that Howard was named interim coach, an indication he could be the lone staffer retained. Howard was the lead recruiter among the assistants on the freshman class. But the interim tag also comes with expectations, like an extended interview for a permanent spot.
"This is where I want to be. This is where my wife (Jessica) wants to be," Howard said earlier in the week. "I would be lying if I said I wanted to go somewhere else."
"I'm a big Jerrance Howard fan," said Thomas, who, it's worth noting, added the next coach would have final say on staffing. "I know he has great relationships with our student-athletes."
It would be rare for a new coach to retain a member of the previous staff. But in this case it could be the difference between losing several freshmen — and facing a multi-year rebuilding project — and keeping the core of the future roster intact.
Henry might have the most star potential among the freshmen. And it is a tight-knit bunch.
"You know how we feel about Coach Weber. Coach Weber is a wonderful man. He's a man of integrity," Gipson said. "That's why Myke went to Illinois. And hopefully when the new coach comes in, it's like a second chance for (Henry)."
Their coaching and life mentors are advising the players on future decisions.
"This is the rude awakening for the freshmen," said Illinois Wolves director Mike Mullins, who has four of his former players on the UI roster — and recruit Jalen James in the pipeline. "We used to tell them on (recruiting) visits it was a business trip. Now they're seeing the business side of college basketball."
Multiple players suggested the majority of the roster would prefer to decline a potential NIT bid. They have voiced that decision to coaches, according to sources. Their spirit is broken and the first game would be on the road, a combination that probably wouldn't end well.
The NIT bracket will be released Sunday night.
At his farewell address Friday, Weber said he would auction off his 72 orange ties to benefit Coaches vs. Cancer. He cracked a smile at the thought of helping someone again.
He hasn't been able to smile often enough over the past two months. And the reasons the emotions have been so thick go beyond basketball. His daughter Christy is an Illinois graduate. His youngest daughter, Emily, is a UI student on the cheerleading team.
It wasn't just this season and its disappointments that weighed on his heart. This was his 27th season in the Big Ten as an assistant or a head coach. And one of only four where his team had a conference record below .500 (6-12).
"I haven't slept or ate in 24 hours," said Weber, who in nine seasons was 210-101 overall and 89-65 in the Big Ten.
Weber knew he would be fired. Two days before the Big Ten tournament, while returning home from a recruiting trip, Weber said, "I just hope we have a strong finish to leave a positive note."
And his greatest character trait was on display in the final hours of his tenure. He knew his own job was slipping away. Even so, every night he called SIU coach Chris Lowery and assistant Brad Korn before and after a coaching change in Carbondale.
"He wanted to make sure we're OK," Korn said. "That's the kind of person he is."
His approach to life in the final days of his tenure weren't, in fact, that different from the highest point of his career.
At 3 a.m. on the day he would coach Illinois in the 2005 NCAA championship game, Weber was in his hotel suite watching film of North Carolina. All the sudden — again, at 3 a.m. — he dialed the number of a friend to let him know there would be a ticket waiting at will call.
"I wanted to go to the title game, but there was no way I was calling him for a ticket. I didn't want to bother him," said SIU radio voice Mike Reis, who used that ticket. "But there he was calling to ask if I wanted to come. I said, 'What do you mean, If, coach? Of course I do.' "
Weber has always worn his emotions just above the "BBW" initials stitched on his shirt cuffs. After his SIU team beat Georgia to reach the Sweet 16, he cried, saying, "I wish my dad could be here. He would be so proud."
The stories of Weber's goodwill seemingly are endless. And those who would know suggest his being a good human too often overshadow his coaching ability.
Still, in moments of clarity, even Weber would admit he stayed at Illinois too long. Interest came from Oklahoma after last season. Weber turned it away to stay closer to family and coach the current players at Illinois.
"This group was special," Weber said. "I don't know I've had a better character group in all my years of coaching."
The next step for Weber likely will be known in the coming weeks. Several programs have inquired about his interest in open or soon-to-be open positions. Weber is expected to have an interview with another school within the next week, according to a source outside of the UI program.
He won't be out of coaching for long. Weber doesn't have hobbies or play tennis anymore, not after pulling a hamstring during a vacation. He has family and basketball, as Lowery said.
"This is what I do," Weber said last week. "It's who I am."
The future for the rest of the coaching staff is up in the air. Assistant Jay Price is in the mix for the vacant head coaching job at Eastern Illinois. Howard has the interim tag and hopes to remain at Illinois. Associate head coach Wayne McClain hopes to stay within the DIA in some capacity — an unwrittten promise made to him by the previous administration when he stayed at Illinois despite overtures from Bill Self to leave for Kansas in 2003.
McClain was the bridge between the Self and Weber eras. He helped deliver the Peoria Three — Frank Williams, Marcus Griffin, Sergio McClain — that gave the program a rebirth. He came up with the idea to play Dee-Deron-Luther together in a three-guard backcourt that carried the Illini to a school-record 37 wins and the 2005 NCAA title game.
"He is a special man," Weber said of McClain. "I don't know if I've met anyone (better) in my life."
The program stagnated in the era A.D., showing a mediocre 50-56 Big Ten record since Dee Brown was at the reins. The coaching change was necessary. Weber said as much.
"This is a bottom-line business. We all know it," he said. "It's the reality of the coaching profession."
Still, the change didn't come without emotion — as much of a trademark of the Weber era as the motion offense.
"Every time I visit St. Louis I think about the Final Four experience (in 2005)," Weber said. "I still can remember standing on top of the hotel and looking out and seeing tens of thousands of Illinois fans covering the streets in orange, an amazing sight."