A downtrodden and teary-eyed Bruce Weber stood at the podium of the postgame press conference Feb. 16 and took the blame for the demise of the Fighting Illini men’s basketball team. The team had just suffered a 67-62 home loss to conference rival Purdue — it’s seventh loss in eight games, and for many, this was the beginning of the end for Weber.
Two hundred miles south down Interstate 57 at SIU, Weber’s close friend and former protégé Chris Lowery was having troubles of his own, finishing up an 8-23 season and setting a school record for most losses.
Lowery was fired as SIU’s head coach March 1, and Weber shared the same fate at U of I March 9.
Immediately, rumors began to swirl about the possibility that Weber would return to SIU, a homecoming of sorts for a man who led the Salukis to back-to-back Missouri Valley Championships and NCAA tournament appearances in his final two years at Carbondale.
Before his position as coach, Lowery was an assistant coach under Weber, who took the Salukis to two NCAA tournaments before he left SIU to coach the University of Illinois basketball program in 2003.
Lowery was fired March 1 after the Salukis completed their worst season in school history.
At the March 2 press conference that announced Lowery’s firing, Athletic Director Mario Moccia was asked if Weber would be an option to fill the coaching vacancy if he became available. Although Moccia declined to comment about a coach who was still employed by another school, he couldn’t help but show his appreciation for Weber.
“I wouldn’t rule anybody out,” Moccia said. “I’d hate to speculate on Coach (Weber) because he’s still coaching at U of I. I think once you join the Saluki family, whether you’re an athletic director that’s been here for six years or somebody like Mike Reis who’s been here for 30, I root for Coach, I root for Matt Painter, so I want them to do well.”
Still, when Moccia described the qualities he hoped to see in the new head coach, it was a bit difficult not to think those qualities described Bruce Weber to a T.
“As we begin the search, we will focus on a coach with the following characteristics but certainly not limited to academics, that’s a big key for us,” Moccia said. “Having a positive attitude with our student-athletes, having the ability to recruit character and talented players that fit their style of play, a very strong communicator — someone that can communicate with our kids, a relentless recruiter and someone who is really willing to be the face of Saluki Basketball in our community, in our region and our institution.”
During the weeks since Lowery’s firing, there has been word from multiple media outlets about the vacant head coaching seat, a spot that Moccia has said he hopes to fill by the weekend of the NCAA Final Four, March 31 to April 1.
Moccia declined interview requests and has said he will not talk about the status of the position until the search is complete.
Multiple names have been mentioned as possible candidates. In fact, if you ask a room full of sports writers who the front-runners are, they each might very well give you a different answer.
But there are a few names that seem to come up often.
Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard has been with the team for 11 years and recruited Saluki sophomore Diamond Taylor to Madison before the player was dismissed from the team. Purdue assistant Jack Owens was previously an SIU assistant for five years, and Southern Indiana head coach Rodney Watson spent 21 years as an assistant for SIU and may be considered a fan-favorite for the position.
And then there is Weber.
Weber has dominated the news during the past week as being a lock for the job. The Southern Illinoisan reported Monday that Weber was offered the job and was the top candidate to win the position, citing an anonymous source close to the search. ESPN also reported that Weber had been offered the job and said Weber was expected to interview, citing an anonymous source.
Hours later, SIU denied the report.
Moccia said Lowery was fired because of multiple reasons, including a loss of ticket sales and a negative atmosphere surrounding the basketball program and the entire community.
There is no doubt Saluki fans are hungry for a coach who can provide them the excitement they experienced during the NCAA tournament years under Weber.