Yesterday Bruce Weber was fired from his job of the last 9 years of coaching men’s basketball at the University of Illinois. After missing the NCAA postseason tournament the of the five last seasons and losing twelve of the last fifteen regular season games and an embarrasing loss vs the University of Iowa in the opening game of the Big Ten post season tournament.
So Weber’s dismissal was no suprise and now the floodgates open who his replacement should be and the early favorite is Virginia Commonwealth’s (VCU), Shaka Smart, a African American coach with Chicago roots and a history of making that mid major school a force in the NCAA post season tournament. Also (with credit going to David Kaplan of WGN), the names of Kansas State’s Frank Martin, Duke assistant Chris Collins, another Chicago product, Marquette’s Buzz Williams, Butler’s Brad Stevens, Reggie Theus (known locally as “Rush Street Reggie” from his days with the Bulls pre Michael Jordan), Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, Baylor’s Scott Drew (who has roots from coaching & growing up in Valparasio, Indiana), & Alabama’s Anthony Grant.
Now there is stirring among African American board of Trustess at U of I about hiring a black coach since new athletic director did not hire a minority earlier this year to coach football and the school has not has a minority coach for football or men’s basketball.
I think the best quote about this is from former star U of I player Ken Norman (who is letting it be known he’s interested in the head coaching position), he told this to Comcast Sports Net’s legendary preps hoops writer Taylor Bell yesterday: “Does Illinois need to hire a black coach,” Johnson said. “I don’t know. They should just hire a good coach. But it is a great opportunity to make a difference and do something that hasn’t been done before. It isn’t a necessity but if it hasn’t been done before, it is right to reach out and make a difference.”
That is a great opinion about the situation, its not about color but this hire is about recruiting, especially the Chicago Public High School and surrrounding areas. Its about making U of I a basketball destination, that this new coach can walk into a kid’s living room and be able to sell him why he should go to U of I and not Kentucky, Kansas, Duke or UConn.
It wasn’t always this way, during the 80’s & 90’s there was a pipeline from Chicago to Champaign of public league stars, from Ken Norman, to Marcus Liberty, Nick Anderson & Deon Thomas. It was like a bus coming down Interstate 57 with the hoops recruits.
Now would there be an advantage top having a coach of color? Maybe, (previously in a different era), Lou Henson was not black but he had Jimmy Collins (who is African American and later coached at UIC), as an assistant lining up the recruits and working the public league.
This new coach also needs to be someone who is going to put down some roots and build this program. Though the recuits coming in maybe “one and done” in terms of a short stay for a big payday, this coach needs to be here a while. We saw the potential when Bill Self was at U of I but he was gone to Kansas before his investments paid off and Bruce Weber couldn’t keep that high end market going.
Its a reality that the U of I job is attractive, its not a top ten elite coaching vacancy, its still a stepping stone for most coaches. Other bigger openings will come calling with bags of money and more prestige and Illinois will need to build and keep their man if they want to compete with those school, much less serving as a training ground for their coaches.
But it comes down to if this new coach can work within the confines of Champaign/Urbana and sell this program with its limited facilities (though proposed for a badly needed upgrade), and recent history of underachiving.
To paraphase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “that day will come when we will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”.
This hire at U of I is all about character and can a coach do the job, not his outward appearence.