Watching the final moments of Bruce Weber’s career as the basketball coach at the University of Illinois was painful. The pain was more acute because there really weren’t too many people who disliked Weber.
What people didn’t like, though, were the results of Weber’s efforts over the past several seasons in which great promises of success on the basketball court were unmet.
The implosion of this season’s team was sudden and unexpected, particularly after the Fighting Illini got off to a 15-3 start. But as the losses mounted, just about everyone who followed the team figured Weber was a goner. It wasn’t a matter of if it would happen, but when it would happen.
Thus, in newsrooms around the state, including the Herald & Review, planning for the end of the Weber era began.
Executive Sports Editor Mark Tupper had discussions with Mike Albright, our sports editor, and me about what he expected to happen. As the season wound down, Mark guessed it would happen the day after they lost at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. We talked about logistics and what kind of information we needed to gather. Mark even compiled a list of 51 names of possible successors.
Figuring the end for Weber was inevitable, our newsroom went into preparation mode. Albright put together a timeline hitting the highlights and lowlights of Weber’s career at Illinois. Our Web staff began putting together documents that included a slide show featuring Weber at different stages in his career. It was all arranged on a Web page that was labeled with words that included the phrase, “Bruce Weber fired.”
In working with Web pages, you have to test them to make sure everything is OK and the links work. That’s essentially what happened a week ago Thursday. Oddly enough, just as the Illini were playing Iowa in the tournament, the page went live on our site.
It was not apparent or easy to find. You would have had to be inspired to find it by searching our site, sorting through links and then coming up with the final part of the link on your own.
However, someone did a Google search on the words “Bruce Weber” and “fired” and found the embedded page on our site.
This person then posted the link on some Illini message boards, and before we knew it, we had 4,000 hits on the story, the chatter was going, and we started getting messages about our insensitivity to Weber’s situation.
Other than making the page live for 90 minutes, we did nothing unusual. Planning for news events is pretty normal stuff for us. It’s no different than the preparation we did anticipating the outcomes of the legal problems of newly imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Making the page live was a mistake. However, it would have been pulled down without incident if our Google friend hadn’t hit pay dirt.
Online Editor Tim Cain visited a few sites where it was posted, explained the situation and apologized. It was a mistake, but a mistake made because of effort, not malice.
As it turned out, and as one of our early critics pointed out in reply to the apology, we were just 24 hours ahead of the news cycle.
Obviously, we felt bad about the mistake. No one wanted to make things more difficult for Weber or exacerbate an already bad situation.
The truth is, most everyone in our newsroom who met Weber liked him a lot, and I can guarantee you that no one here took any joy out of watching his exit from Champaign.