TUPPER: Weber might soon have to answer to new AD

2012-02-09T01:00:00Z 2012-03-06T11:34:15Z TUPPER: Weber might soon have to answer to new ADBy Mark Tupper H&R Executive Sports Editor Herald-Review.com

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - Back in August on the day Mike Thomas was hired as Illinois' Director of Athletics, I wrote about it being too early to predict if he'd be cleaning house with his head coaches.

First give Thomas a chance to at least meet them, I suggested.

But in the same column, speaking about football coach Ron Zook and basketball coach Bruce Weber, I wrote, "Now would not be a good time for either head coach to stumble around and hope to explain away disappointment."

After losing the final six games of the season and showing a seven-year ledger of 34-51, Zook's explanation didn't wash with Thomas, who fired him on Nov. 27, one day after losing to Minnesota.

Now Weber finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to explain disappointment on the basketball side of the street.

It's murkier with Weber, because in his ninth season his overall mark is 209-93 and includes two Big Ten titles and a trip to the national championship game (Yes, everyone understands those were Bill Self's recruits).

But the number that may haunt Weber is his Big Ten Conference record of 49-49 since Dee Brown graduated following the 2005-06 season.

Remember: Mike Thomas has very clearly stated that all Illini athletics teams will be expected to compete for Big Ten titles and to be a factor on the national scene.

There may come a day when Thomas' patience with coaches he has hired will haunt him, too. But for now, it's the coaches hired by former AD Ron Guenther who should be frightened.

This Illini basketball season is far from over. Anything could happen.

But I'm hardly alone with the feeling that we're about to see this team in serious trouble faced with a daunting schedule that starts tonight at Indiana.

Four of the next five games for this inconsistent, unpredictable Illini team are on the road. Three of those games are at Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State. The combined home record for those three teams is 43-1.

Do you want to predict unexpected Illini success in those venues? Be my guest. I can't do it.

Not when the team just lost at home to Northwestern, sending fans marching from Assembly Hall in an eerie silence I can only describe as resignation.

On Thursday, Weber was asked about the darkening fan mood and he talked about the accumulative effect close losses have had on everyone. And not just this season.

"I'm frustrated when we lose close games," he said. "It's hard. The hardest part probably is that we've been so close over the last three seasons. That takes a toll on everyone. It's heart-wrenching for me, for fans.

"I still think we have tremendous fans. I went to a high school game last night and they were taking pictures of me and I was signing autographs and no one threw anything at me. At least nothing hit me, that I know of."

Weber has tried to keep his sense of humor and he's tried to stay positive with his team, which can't be easy.

And he's right about the accumulative effect of close games. Illinois lost eight games by six or fewer points last season and eight more by six or fewer in 2009-10.

The last eight games of the current season have all been decided by five or fewer points (four wins, four losses).

There's a lot of fan angst bundled up in those games.

But whether you're losing close or wining close, for six seasons in Big Ten play Illinois has lost exactly as often as it has won. And therein lies the problem.

Weber points out that the fans are still cheering hard for the Illini team. I'd like to hope they always will.

But I don't see how he can win the public relations war. There aren't enough victories, enough upsets, enough miracles out there that could realistically fall his way.

I'll be watching this final stretch, hoping to have an unexpected storyline to write about. But beginning tonight at Indiana, I'm more realistically expecting to write about the inevitable.

I'm afraid this will be a tough season to explain away the disappointment.


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