Illinois Needs to Wake Up for Shaka Smart
By Jim Weber
Let’s cut right to the chase: Bruce Weber is done coaching Illinois.
Illinois fans are already throwing out names like VCU’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens to replace Weber and return the program to where it was in 2005 when Weber reached the NCAA title game with Bill Self’s old players.
But after making an uninspired hire in Weber in 2003, the Illinois administration and Illini fans need a wake-up call about the reality of their program if they are going to avoid making the same mistake twice.
Let’s start by separating fact from fiction about the Illinois program and its head-coaching position for truths that many Illini fans don’t seem willing to accept.
• Fiction: Illinois seems to believe it is fighting with Northwestern for the distinction of “Chicago’s Big Ten school” and that any coach would be honored to coach in close proximity to “The Windy City.”
• Fact: Yes, the city is painted Orange whenever the Illini come to town and has a massive alumni base there but Champaign is 140 miles south of Chicago. That’s hardly a stone’s throw away. Champaign is a cow town known as “Moo U.” and not exactly where a coach dreams of living and raising his family.
• Fiction: Coaching at Illinois is made easy because of its proximity to Chicago that has produced Illini legends like Deon Thomas and Kendall Gill.
• Fact: While players in Chicago used to dream of playing for Illinois, they certainly don’t anymore. That much has been proven with players like Derrick Rose (Memphis) and Anthony Davis (Kentucky) taking their talents elsewhere on the way to the NBA. Yes, it’s an advantage to be near a recruiting hotbed like Chicago but it hardly guarantees you will land blue-chip players. Just ask Weber about that.
• Fiction: A coach should be honored to be at the best program not to win a national title as exemplified by its five Final Fours and long list of alumni in the NBA.
• Fact: Coaches aren’t in awe of the Illini’s history. Illinois is the best program n0t to win a national title, but what exactly does that mean when you consider programs like Oklahoma State, Holy Cross, Marquette, UNLV and UTEP have all cut down the nets? As for the Final Fours, only two of those have come since 1952 - the same number as Providence.
• Fiction: The support a coach receives at Illinois is up there with the best programs in the nation as evidenced by the “Orange Krush” student section and packed houses at Assembly Hall.
• Fact: Yes, the support from the students and fans is first-rate, but that’s not what matters most these days.
They want a big pay check and sparkling facilities to attract big-name recruits and have top-of-the-line training.
Weber is paid $1.5 million a year in Champaign, which is less than Michigan’s John Beilein, Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan - none of whom are exactly basketball titans.
And Assembly Hall, a.k.a “The Flying Saucer,” is an aging dinosaur that was built in 1962 and doesn’t even have air conditioning. The Board of Trustees recently approved a $2.2 million contract for a renovation design but that’s a long way from actual work being done. In 2002, a $66.8 million renovation was turned down. By comparison, Kentucky is looking at a $300 million renovation of Rupp Arena.
Coaching Job Prestige
• Fiction: Because of all these misconceptions, Illinois fans believe the Illini coaching job is in the second cut of college basketball coaching gigs with Syracuse, Michigan State, Connecticut, Louisville, Georgetown and Arizona right behind the blue bloods (North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke, UCLA, Kansas, Indiana).
• Fact: Illinois is squarely in the third cut of jobs with the likes of Maryland, Villanova, Purdue, Pitt and NC State. And you see the trouble both NC State and Maryland had filling their jobs last year with the inability to land Shaka Smart at either place.
Case in point: What does it say about the Illinois job that then-Marquette coach Tom Crean wasn’t interested in 2003 and then took the job at Indiana with the program on its knees and huge NCAA sanctions looming over it? The result was hiring Weber, a woefully under-qualified coach from Southern Illinois.
So just where does that leave us?
It just so happens that the People’s Choice to replace Weber at Illinois is Smart, who considered Chicago a second home while growing up in Madison, WI, and already soaked up the love from Chi-town fans by belting out “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Wrigley Field.
But as he evidenced last year, Smart isn’t going to take the Illinois job just because it’s Illinois (the Illini face even longer odds with Brad Stevens). Heck, Smart is currently making $1.2 million per year now at VCU.
And don’t put it past him to stay in Richmond another season with the possibility of openings at programs like UCLA, Connecticut and Texas in a year.
To paraphrase Jay-Z: They say money talks, so Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas needs to speak up in his pursuit of Smart.
Thomas should start by doubling Smart’s current salary (which would still be less than Thad Matta makes) and politicking with the Board of Trustees so that Thomas can confidently tell Smart Assembly Hall is going to get a massive facelift. With the amount of money pumping into Big Ten schools through the Big Ten Network and the conference’s football championship game deal with FOX Sports, there’s no excuse not to step up to the plate and make a home run hire with Smart.
Because if Illinois doesn’t have a wake-up call and ends up with another second-rate hire that results in more mediocrity, it only has itself to blame.
Jim Weber is the founder and president of LostLettermen.com. His column appears each week.