With the exception of the Chicago White Sox, has any big-time sports program fallen farther and faster than coach Bruce Weber's Illinois basketball team?
From a season-long No. 1 national ranking and an eventual second-place finish in the 2005 NCAA tournament to recruiting oblivion in 2007. The number of big-time homegrown recruits who have passed up Illinois for Duke or Kansas or Kentucky or Oregon is puzzling and devastating.
No one blames Weber, at least publicly. He has a legion of loyal friends who cheered his work as Gene Keady's assistant at Purdue and as head coach at Southern Illinois and have supported his efforts at Illinois. Purists marvel at his professional coaching style and laid-back demeanor.
Sportswriters love him, too. They even co-author books about him. Universally, Weber is described as an honest, loyal man who does things the right way and coaches the socks off his kids, turning good ones into better ones.
The trouble is he can't seem to recruit a 5-star player, a difference-maker, a great player who turns good teams into top 10 teams and attracts other great players like a pied piper. Every great program--Indiana, Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, UCLA, Kansas--has them. If you don't, you struggle. Illinois is struggling.
Why? Why couldn't Weber and his staff capitalize on the success of 2005? There are many reasons offered for why Jon Scheyer, Julian Wright, Sherron Collins, Eric Gordon, Derrick Rose, Mike Dunigan, Scott Suggs, DeAndre Liggins, Matt Humphrey, Darius Miller and Iman Shumpert shunned Illinois. No matter how many excuses you make, the truth is, in recruiting, second is a lousy finish.
And now assistant coach Tracy Webster, perhaps Illinois' most able recruiter, has left for Kentucky.
Can it get any worse?
I have my own theories. As a 1962 graduate of Illinois who once covered Illini basketball for the Daily Illini and the Champaign-Urbana Courier and a 33-year veteran of the Chicago Daily News and Sun-Times who has observed recruiting in Chicago since before Harv Schmidt didn't bother to recruit Quinn Buckner and lost his job in the aftermath, I am convinced there are anti-Illini sentiments that date to the Harry Combes era. But some of them appear to be of Weber's own making, real or unreal.
"I don't know why they can't close. They are recruiting the right kids," said nationally respected recruiting analyst Van Coleman of Hoopmasters.com. "They big question is why closing hasn't worked out? And why can't they get Illinois kids to stay home?
"What is amazing to me is, looking at the success they have had with guards in the past, the job they did with Deron Williams and Luther Head and Dee Brown, you would think a point guard or a combo guard would want to play there. A lot of kids base their decision on the ability to get to the next level. Illinois has shown it can do that with guards."
A lot of negative recruiting is going on, much of it from Chicago Public League and AAU coaches who have had axes to grind with Illini coaches for years, not just Weber. For example, Illinois will never be forgiven by some who felt Jimmy Collins should have succeeded Lou Henson as head coach. Some complain Illinois failed to recruit one of their players. A few felt they should have been hired as an assistant coach. And some players, coaches and parents expect Illinois to make under-the-table offers that they receive from other schools.
"It is difficult for Weber to overcome all of this because he is a straight shooter and an honest guy," said Roy Schmidt of Illinois Bulls-Eye. "Public League and AAU coaches and other influence peddlers are buying into the philosophy that Weber can't recruit because he doesn't tell them what they want to hear. He doesn't buy players."