Those familiar with the sport of horse racing have undoubtedly heard of the term "trifecta". The University of Illinois is about to pull a trifecta that I don't think has ever been done before, and that is get rid of the three main head coaches in one calendar year. First of all, back in November, Ron Zook was let go after a freefall that saw the football team go 6-6 after starting the season 6-0. At the time of the perfect start, nobody envisioned that the season would end like it did, much less costing Zook his job. Next, last Friday, new athletic director Mike Thomas announced that women's basketball coach Jolette Law would not be retained following an early exit from the Big Ten Tournament, which followed yet another subpar season. During her 5 year tenure at Illinois, Law compiled a dismal 69-93 record, and finished the 2011-12 campaign a very disappointing 11-19, which included the first round loss to Michigan. Law could never really get it going in Champaign, and perhaps her finest moment was landing Destiny Williams as a recruit, but that was very short lived, as she played all of one game before leaving the program and transferring to Baylor, where she had a stellar career.
So, in keeping with the trifecta theme, the fate of men's basketball coach Bruce Weber hangs in the balance, due to his team doing a free fall of their own, starting the season off 15-3, but stumbling down the stretch, finishing the regular season 17-14 and just 6-12 in the Big Ten. This has been a painful season to endure for Weber's group, and covering it on a weekly basis has certainly been no picnic. I remember saying about a year ago that the team's spirit was broken by Jereme Richmond, who ended up leaving school after just one season, and that wasn't even a complete campaign. But, that pales in comparison to what they have done this season. The 2011-12 version of the Illini have lacked heart and desire in many of their games recently, and the 27 point loss at Nebraska a couple of weeks ago was the final straw. All signs are pointing to Weber being fired at season's end, whenever that will be. Thomas has been quoted on several occasions saying that he will evaluate all coaches at the end of the season, and will take into account the entire body of work as it relates over the last few seasons. It is apparent that this Illini team is broken and in dire need of a change at the top, and it is hoped that the current team can put it together and make one last attempt at salvaging a season that is lost in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament. By virtue of the Illini's collapse, they earned (if you want to call it that) the #9 seed, and will play Iowa, who is the #8 seed on Thursday morning (10:30 am, BTN). This is actually a decent scenario for the Illini to actually win a game in the tournament and live to see another day, since the Hawkeyes are the only team that they have beaten during this long string of losing. Since the Big Ten Tournament is the only possible chance that the Illini have of making the NCAA Tournament, they will need to pull a major miracle, winning 4 games in 4 days. Since this team has had problems winning a single game over the past 2 plus weeks, that seems a foregone conclusion at this point. Most likely they will be playing in the NIT, and due to scheduling conflicts, will not be able to host a first or a third round game, provided they even get that far. The spirit of the team has been severely damaged, and many are just wanting this season to be over, and the tenure of Weber to be history as well. The only remaining question now is when that will happen.
So, how did we get to this point? The answer to that question can be summarized by two words: Ron Guenther. After all, it was Guenther that gave all three of these coaches extensions on contracts that should not have been extended in the first place. Now, the University of Illinois is faced with yet another buyout of Law's contract, which will total $620,000 over the final two years of the contract. To further this, Weber's buyout has been rumored to be well over $3 million, and this doesn't include buying out the assistant coaches and their contracts. Plus, you have to also shell out money for new coaches in both cases as well. The women's hire won't be nearly as much as hiring a new men's coach, but it still will require an increase nonetheless. Mike Thomas has had quite a few months on the job, and completing the "trifecta" will be his finest work yet.
I feel I need to end this week's installment of the blog with a little good news, and that comes from the wrestling team and Mario Gonzalez, who won the Big Ten title in the 197 lb. weight class. Gonzalez was the first grappler in the 197 lb. class to win a title for the Illini since Pat Quirk accomplished the feat back in 2001. Next up for Gonzalez, the NCAA's in St. Louis beginning on March 15. Joining Gonzalez in the Gateway City will be Jesse Delgado (125), B. J. Futrell (133), Conrad Polz (165), Tony Dallago (184), Jordan Blanton (174) and Daryl Thomas (141).
That's it for this week as we get ready for March Madness. Let the madness begin!