Dear Coach Weber-
It’s been the best of times (the 2005 National Championship Game), it’s been the worst of times (Jamar Smith almost killing Brian Carlwell in a drunk driving accident, this season), but through it all I’ve done my best to support you from the start. No matter what happens at the end of this season, please know that many Illini fans are still fans of Bruce Weber, and will be sad to see you go.
When Bill Self abruptly abandoned his team and the rest of Illini Nation mere months after insisting he would be staying, you had to step into some big shoes and coach his players through the 2003-2004 season. We hated Self for ditching us, but we also were extremely critical of anyone who would replace him. Despite the anger and skepticism spewed your way from the media, fans and even some cranky players, you went ahead and led the team to the first outright Big Ten Championship since 1952, and then to the Sweet 16. Of course that enabled everyone to warm up to you, but I had already fallen head over heels as soon as you sported that beautiful orange jacket.
We all know what happened the next year. In the 2004-2005 season the Illini were No. 1 for most of the year, and almost went undefeated should it had not been for that fellow at OSU whose name I will not utter here. Then, you coached the team through the most amazing game I have ever seen against Arizona in the elite 8. Down 15 points with just 4 minutes to go it looked like the game was over, but Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head worked together with James Augustine and Jack Ingram to tie up the game and grab the exciting overtime win. The Illini fell short against North Carolina in the championship game, but the season was magic nonetheless. The team went a record 37-2 for the year, you were Big Ten Coach of the Year and also earned the Naismith Award.
While many note Brown and Williams as their favorite players from that season, I am in awe of the way you helped Head turn his life around. He had some troubles at the start of his career, including at least one arrest. By his senior year Head was a new man and went on to play in the NBA for a number of years. And, I was so impressed with his skills that I named my dog after him.
Sadly, the Illini never reached that same glory again under your tutelage, and things started to head downhill after that season. Illinois only missed out on the Tournament twice with you as head coach, though they weren’t able to actually win games. Slowly, their stock continued to fall and people ranted and raved that you couldn’t recruit. But you stepped up your game and proved them wrong.
Unfortunately, in 2006, there was the whole “he who shall be named” debacle with the chipmunk that headed over to Indiana at the last minute leaving you high and dry for the 2007-2008 season. Not your fault, Weber! I never blamed you for that for one second. You continued to pick up your game after he broke your heart and ours and along the way honesty and integrity were always at the top of your priority list.
As if the chipmunk decommit didn’t suck enough, in early 2007 Jamar Smith drove drunk and slammed his car into a tree virtually killing teammate Brian Carlwell. You handled that as well as expected, but in the end Smith couldn’t follow the rules and had to be dismissed from the team. He was an extremely talented guy that Illinois could have used, but you don’t have tolerance for shenanigans like that.
Then came the Jereme Richmond coup. You convinced him to commit as a freshman, and you held on to him until he stepped on to the UofI campus for the 2010-2011 season. Sadly, he was a bust as well, and no one was sad to see him go. Again, I don’t really blame you for that one either, but perhaps you had an inkling he’d be trouble?
A lot of the circumstances were bad luck, but along the way perhaps a few could have been prevented? In addition to Richmond’s early exit, last year was a difficult season that didn’t live up to overall expectations. Your four seniors didn’t put in the effort necessary, and despite the first NCAA Tournament win in a long time, fans were getting a little itchy and starting to lose faith in your abilities as a coach. Not me! I was still ready to see what a new era could bring this season with all of your own talented recruits and no distractions.
That brings us to the present day. Six talented freshmen joined the team all to play for you (well, and Jerrance Howard). No one expected the Illini to be any good this year, but you teased us with early wins and then disappointed us with silly losses. Finally, even I had to wonder if you were the right person to lead Illinois to victory. I would love for you to be the one to bring the team back to glory, but I fear it’s not meant to be. If it were up to me, I would probably give you one more year to show us what you’re made of, but alas- the decision has nothing to do with me.
Throughout the years, your voice was forever raspy from screaming on the sidelines day in and day out. Fans of other teams yelled at you constantly to “sit down,” but you never would unless it was to protest a call from a ref as you put on that astonished face that I grew to love. Also, I appreciate that you always did things the right way, even to a fault. You called the players out in front of the media – which was good and bad – but you always told the truth and laid it all out on the line.
On my mantle will always sit the signed basketball that was given to me as a wedding shower present from dear friends who managed to finagle your signature. I will also never forget how kind you were the first time I finally got to shake your hand and meet you in person. I had been sitting in the crowd of reporters for two years in a row but never had the guts to actually introduce myself. I had asked questions that you dutifully answered and looked directly into my eyes as you answered them, but you had no clue who I was. At this year’s Big Ten Media I finally caught you alone and told you my name and you were kind enough to shake my hand and remark that you had seen me around. That made me beam for at least three days. I like to imagine if you were given one more year you might recognize me at the next Media Days, but maybe it’s best not to find out.
No final determination has been made, but it seems the writing is on the wall for you at the end of this season. Thank you for nine amazing years as a head coach, and please know that you have left a legacy that will not be forgotten. On behalf of all the fans I wish you the best of luck wherever you may land, and I’m sure you will enjoy the $3.9 million coming your way just to not do your job. You will always have a place in my heart, and in the hearts and memories of many Illini fans throughout the world.