Tom Izzo’s lengthy comments about Illinois’ firing of Bruce Weber after a total meltdown by the Illini seem kind of random and conspiracy theory-related at first listen. Coaches generally won’t say they “shed a tear” over the firing or put other athletic directors (Illini AD Mike Thomas in this case) on blast for a large portion of their comments. Izzo even went out of his way to say that Illinois beat Michigan State this season and that he doesn’t know too many guys who are better coaches than Weber.
Izzo seems to blame Mike Thomas’s comments in February that were non-committal at best in terms of Weber’s future with the program for which he is among the most successful in history. The comments came, apparently, during a radio interview in which the AD was taking phone calls from “disgruntled” Illinois fans which should make everyone wonder if he was just trying to be conciliatory even though the fans were complaining about a 16-8 team.
Thomas has now fired his football coach (Ron Zook) and both the men’s and women’s basketball coaches. Only in the presser for the firing of former women’s basketball coach Jolette Law did Thomas at least baldly state that the program just wasn’t winning enough games for his satisfaction.
In this context, Izzo’s comments make a lot more sense. It has become increasingly obvious that Mike Thomas was looking to get his own coaches into the programs as quickly as possible, even if that mean openly undermining Bruce Weber. Izzo plainly stated that everyone has to be “on the same page” for things to work, and Thomas clearly was not on Weber’s page, nor does it appear he wanted to be.
Izzo was definitely lamenting the politics that can happen behind closed doors in an athletic department that really have nothing to do with wins and losses or even if a coach is running a clean program or not. Illinois has admittedly been mediocre in men’s basketball for the last couple of years, but I have to agree with Izzo: you’re not going to find too many coaches who will run the Illinois program better than Bruce Weber.
Fans of Illinois have been complaining about Weber for the last several years, and Weber has failed to recruit the kind of talent he inherited from Bill Self. But the program has also had injuries and Self recruiting Deron Williams et al probably had more to do with Bill Self being awesome than with Illinois being a basketball Mecca, which it is not. And there is obviously no guarantee that Self would have kept up that same success in the long term either.
Mike Thomas’s hiring of Tim Beckman as the football coach to replace Ron Zook has been almost universally praised, but obviously Beckman has to turn that into wins on the field. If you haven’t noticed, Illinois has never been a football power. Or a basketball one, for that matter. They’ll have flashes here and there, but nothing on the scale of long-term greatness. They’re a better football and basketball school than their in-state rival, Northwestern, but that’s not saying much. And it’s close in football too.
So Illinois has changed coaches in both the money-making sports in their athletic department since January. That’s a heavyweight commitment from their athletic director, and his job is most definitely on the line if either the Beckman hire or the Weber firing doesn’t pan out. Thomas has to score big with his hire (it seems VCU head coach Shaka Smart is the primary target at the moment), and that’s a hell of a lot of pressure on the athletic department and the next coach.
Illinois has long been a school for the overachieving private school set in the state, so the new AD seems to be trying to give them an athletic department that at least tries to match their bourgeois aspirations since they couldn’t get into Northwestern and were too proud to go to Indiana, a school with actual athletic history and academic achievement equal to, or better than that of Illinois and their awful-ass color scheme.
Sorry, couldn’t resist. We Indiana fans will miss Bruce Weber too since we encourage all of our rivals to be as mediocre as possible. Thanks, Bruce!