CHAMPAIGN — The end came Friday at breakfast time.
Bruce Weber climbed the stairs to the second floor of the Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building and Director of Athletics Mike Thomas pulled the door closed and told him he was fired.
I hope he did it with a little more compassion than I’ve seen when Donald Trump whacks someone on his television show, but however the words were framed, it cut deeply into a man who pours as much pride into his job as any employee ever could.
That doesn’t mean hard work, passion and pride can make the University of Illinois basketball offense run smoother. And it hasn’t necessarily made Weber’s messages hit the bull’s-eye every time.
Weber is not a perfect basketball coach, and the imperfections added up in an undeniable way these past five or six seasons. There was simply no denying that Illinois had consistently fallen down in the Big Ten standings and had become less and less relevant to the NCAA Tournament field.
A program that had been at the mountaintop in 2005 had slid down into the foothills in 2012.
But if you’re around this man for any length of time, you realize Bruce Weber is 100 percent basketball coach, at his happiest when he’s on the practice floor throwing bounce passes and demonstrating how to get in a defensive stance.
“I can tell you truly that my staff and I have given our heart and soul to this program,” Weber said late Friday afternoon, surrounded by family, coaches and players as he read prepared remarks that amounted to a tearful farewell.
I attended Weber’s farewell address, and it was difficult to sit through. It’s hard to watch people cry and not feel like crying yourself. Associate head coach Wayne McClain was in tears. Jerrance Howard, named interim head coach, was bawling. Players Nnanna Egwu and Devin Langford dabbed wet eyes.
From this seat, I can promise you this has been no fun to write about.
Strange, then, that within minutes of each other I received two e-mails expressing opposite views.
One said Illinois should have fired Weber three seasons ago and would have if I hadn’t been such a shameless apologist and spent so much time trying to save his job.
The other said they hoped I was happy now that my endless attempts to get Bruce Weber fired had finally paid off.
Sometimes it’s hard to be the messenger and knowing this was a pivotal season for Weber and the Illini, I tried to honestly express the excitement being felt when the team went to 15-3 after its dramatic victory over Ohio State.
But as the season spiraled downward, and as I kept matching Thomas’ measurements for success with Weber’s failure to meet them, it became apparent to me this would not end well for Bruce Weber, a man who loves this job.
The longer it went, the more painful it became to watch.
I recognized the start of a physical change after the loss at Wisconsin on March 4. That’s when Weber’s voice first started to break in two and it’s then that I realized he’d probably not been sleeping or eating.
But it was Thursday, after the Big Ten Tournament loss to Iowa, that I became worried for his health. That’s when I realized the color had drained from his face. Bruce Weber looked like he needed to be tucked under the covers and left to sleep for 48 hours.
I learned Friday afternoon that Bruce never went to sleep Thursday night. He never bothered to eat. And with his sobbing daughters and heartbroken wife clustered at his side Friday afternoon — devastated to share in their father and husband’s personal pain — I just wanted him to get through this last leg of the ordeal in one piece.
College basketball lost some of its charm and appeal Friday when Bruce Weber walked away. Thankfully, he did so with his dignity and decency still intact. He’s such a decent guy, a kind of everyman from modest Milwaukee who fell in love with a game and made it his life’s love.
Oh, he’ll coach again.
The folks at Southern Illinois University would chauffeur him to Carbondale today if he’d come back to revitalize a Saluki program that has practically gone belly-up. They loved Bruce and Megan Weber when they were at SIU from 1999 to 2003, and they’re ready to love them again.
It’s a nice option, and the $3.9 million buyout he’ll receive from Illinois softens the blow, too.
But Weber’s pride was hurt Friday and to the son of Louie and Dawn Weber, that’s always been what matters most
It’s one of the many things we’ll miss about him.
Mark Tupper covers the University of Illinois for Lee Enterprises. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 421-7983.