IOWA CITY — There’s a growing movement among Illinois men’s basketball fans to get their coach out of town as quickly as possible.
To a man, from one coach to his friend, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery has a suggestion for Illinois boo birds: Lay off Bruce Weber.
“I’ve known Bruce a long time. I think the world of him as a person,” McCaffery said Tuesday. “I think he’s done a terrific job there. He’s had phenomenal success.
“I feel for him. I wish nobody in our business would have to go through it.”
What Weber is going through on paper is nine losses in 10 games, watching the Illini go from first place to one game out of last, from a solid NCAA Tournament seed to a potential NIT berth.
What Weber is going through, in the newspaper, is headlines such as “Hire a Real Coach,” screaming to Sunday Chicago Sun-Times readers after a loss to cellar-dweller Nebraska.
It doesn’t help matters when Illinois AD Mike Thomas goes on radio shows and never expresses the mythical “vote of confidence” to Weber. In his first six months on the job, Thomas has dismissed football coach Ron Zook, and faces the pressure to make another big move during the collapse of Weber’s squad.
“Yes, obviously, that’s something people are paying attention to right now,” Thomas told listeners Feb. 11. “For us, we have to compete at the highest level with our men’s basketball program. There’s no doubt about that. We have to be in the higher ranks of the Big Ten conference.”
Two days later, Weber shrugged off the comments, saying, “From my understanding, it was kind of taken out of context. We have to win games. Plain and simple, we’re trying to get into the NCAA Tournament.”
After Illinois’ 67-62 home loss to Purdue on Feb. 15, Weber pronounced a now-infamous monologue lamenting the performance of himself, his assistants and his players.
“I think maybe the last three years all I did was worry about winning instead of developing a culture and a toughness,” Weber said after the loss. “That’s my fault … it’s just sad. I feel really bad for my staff.”
With the “Weber-on-the-hot-seat” storyline spiraling out of control, McCaffery has an appreciation for the process; his brother, Jack, is a sportswriter. He’s certainly experienced his hard times in a public forum.
“I never, ever worry about what anybody is saying about me at all. You guys, chat rooms, whatever, I could care less,” McCaffery said. “I know that I know what I’m doing. We’re going to stumble and we’re going to make mistakes.”
“I don’t think it’s ever been personal,” he continued. “I think most of you guys are pros, just like I’m a pro. We have a job to do. So I don’t worry about it.”
McCaffery also backs Weber from a personal angle.
“It’s always been a very public profession, even more so today,” McCaffery said. “It’s unfortunate because he’s a terrific man, a great family man, a great coach.
“But sometimes you go through bumps in the road. I think when you look at Bruce, he’s going to have a number of opportunities to keep coaching if he wants to — if he’s not going to coach there anymore. I think they’d be wise to let him coach his team and lay off a little bit.”
Only two Big Ten teams haven’t contributed to Illinois’ (16-12, 5-10) nasty demise since beating Ohio State Jan. 10: Michigan State, which the Illini upset by a point Jan. 31, and Iowa (15-13, 7-8), which gets its first crack today at Illinois.
The Hawkeyes are 2-8 away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena, including five straight defeats by an average of 15.8 points. Illinois is 60-14 all-time against Iowa in Champaign, including 10 straight triumphs at Assembly Hall.
“The road is hard for everybody,” Iowa sophomore forward Melsahn Basabe said. “But I think we have momentum right now. We just have to go in with the right mentality, as long as you go on the road knowing not to expect home calls.
“You realize the situation, accept it and embrace it. On the road, it’s all about creating your own energy and how resilient you are.”
FIGHTING ILLINI'S FALL
Timeline over the past six weeks:
Jan. 10, 2012: Brandon Paul scores 43, Illinois beats No. 5 Ohio State 79-74, Illini tied for first in league at 4-1
Jan. 31: Illinois ends three-game losing streak, beats No. 9 Michigan State 42-41
Feb. 5: Northwestern beats Illinois 74-70 in Champaign; Meyers Leonard insists Illini still better than Northwestern
Feb. 11: With five losses in six games, AD Mike Thomas tells radio listeners Bruce Weber’s job will be evaluated after season
Feb. 15: In After 67-62 home loss to Purdue, Weber speaks as if he realizes job is in serious jeopardy
Feb. 18: Nebraska goes on a 36-4 run to stomp Illinois 80-57 in Lincoln. The Illini next lose at Ohio State, their ninth loss in 10 games.