clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Bruce Weber and Marcus Foster: Dysfunction on Both Sides

The fanbase is missing the forest for the trees.

Au revoir.
Au revoir.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

So, it's done. Marcus Foster, mercurial talent and admitted problem child, is gone. He's been shown the door by Bruce Weber, along with Tre Harris and (not so directly) Jevon Thomas.

The Wildcat fanbase is, naturally, apoplectic. The problem: a complete lack of nuance and a determination to paint this as a black-and-white situation.

It is not.

First, let's state the obvious, lest certain parties think Weber's getting a pass. It is patently obvious, both from his tenure in Manhattan and his time in Illinois, that Bruce Weber has problems retaining players. In Champaign, this was passed off by Weber as being pressured into going after players that didn't fit his system by Illini boosters who demanded he land the top talent in Chicago. But, that excuse doesn't fly here. So, why has Weber now lost, through departure or eviction, five scholarship players in just three years at the helm?

There's a fairly simple answer to that: he doesn't recruit well. Whether it's that he recruits players who just don't fit, or he recruits players without understanding what makes them tick, or even perhaps recruits players everyone else has backed off of in the hopes of being able to do something positive with them... it's now an incontrovertible pattern.

Worse, once he's got them, he clearly doesn't manage them well. There's widespread belief that the players simply don't respect him. His motivational tactics are the brunt of jokes outside the training facility, so what do you think the reception is inside?

Simply put, there's obviously a problem at the top of the program, and those who say it's unfair or inappropriate or just incorrect to blame the players... well, they've got a point. They're wrong, but they've got a point.

On the other hand, it seems relatively self-evident that accepting a scholarship to play any sport entails one responsibility above all others. Players are expected to abide by the rules, show appropriate respect, and put forth their best effort. We've beaten this into the ground here before: you don't blast a kid who's doing his best. You can criticize his errors, but you don't throw him under the bus.

But that goes out the window when the player isn't on board with the program. Marcus Foster and Malek Harris were suspended mid-season. We don't know exactly why, but there are some pretty good guesses to be made1. Foster was benched before that for his lack of effort. Finally, after the season was over, Foster himself admitted he hadn't been putting in the work.

(1 - We're not going to speculate. We'll simply note that it wasn't just Bruce Weber making that decision; Currie was involved as well.)

Is Bruce Weber to blame for Foster's effort vacuum? Sort of, yes. He's to blame for having recruited Foster in the first place. He's to blame for not more harshly corralling Foster sooner. He's to blame for being played like a yo-yo all season long. If this were Bill Snyder and a problematic football player, that player would disappear and nobody would question it. However, the problem with saying Weber is to blame is that the people saying it are largely saying it because they want to exonerate Foster, and they're upset that he's leaving.

Marcus Foster is a talented basketball player. The world is full of talented athletes who failed, though. Foster failed by his own admission, and no matter how much one wants to pin that on Bruce Weber, Foster is still ultimately responsible. Frankly, an athlete of Foster's caliber shouldn't require motivation. He shouldn't have to be pressed into putting in the necessary work. And while Foster's comments after the loss to TCU in the Big 12 Tournament lead to sympathy, we're forced to ask: Is that the first time that Marcus Foster has admitted he wasn't holding up his end? Had he already had this conversation with Bruce Weber privately, back around the New Year? And maybe again during his suspension?

Do we just assume that Foster had an epiphany after that loss, or do we face the possibility that he was just saying publicly what Weber had already heard quite enough of over the preceding three months? Saying you know you're not putting in the effort and you want to improve carries a lot less value with the coach when you've said the same things to get out of the doghouse twice already, after all.

Put another way, we can blame Bruce Weber for failing to motivate Foster properly; it's a valid argument. Doing so is part of Weber's job, after all, and publicly whining about having to do so is part of why the temperature of Weber's seat kept increasing. But doing so inherently ignores the fact that Foster wasn't self-motivating. Are we really that distraught over losing a player who didn't care enough to work hard? A player whose lack of motivation and effort dropped him from being the best player on the team to not even measuring up on a minute-by-minute basis to Justin Edwards, a player this fanbase has uniformly dismissed as being a disappointment?

Nino Williams and Thomas Gipson, without naming names, expressed their frustration not with the coaching staff but their teammates in what essentially boils down to their public exit interview. Now, don't read into that an assumption that they've got Bruce Weber's back, necessarily. See, the difference between Williams and Gipson and the players they referred to in their post-season interviews is pretty simple: respect. They may not have agreed with Weber's style or tactics. They may well even be of the opinion that Weber handled the situation poorly.

But they're not going to say that, because they've got respect. They understand that it's a team effort, not a me effort.

Bruce Weber handled this season horribly. He may not be not up to the task of effectively leading this program going forward. He clearly lacks ability to properly discipline and motivate at times, and is seemingly only capable of maintaining respect from players who are already inclined to give that respect unconditionally.

But, we can't pretend that it's all his fault. If the players aren't acting out -- you know, failing to live up to program standards -- then Weber doesn't have the problem of trying to correct them. To put all the blame on Weber is to to blame your doctor for being unable to cure your heart disease when you won't stop eating fried foods and bacon because he's not telling you to stop the right way.

Blame Weber. Blame Foster. Blame them both. But, when you turn that on its head and start defending Weber and saying it's all the fault of selfish players, you're wrong. When you pontificate on how Weber just needs more time and how things will be better now that the cancer's been excised, you're even more wrong.

Conversely, when you defend the players and rend your shirt over losing them and blame Weber for running them off, you're wrong, and when you lash out at anyone who has the gall to point out that the players are just as guilty here, you're even more wrong.

That's not sexy, of course, and it gets in the way of SMOKING HOT SPROTS TAEKS. It's much easier to blow your stack and demand satisfaction. (And admittedly, either way this had gone, with one half of the equation hitting the road, getting rid of the other half might not seem like a bad idea either.) But, as long as you're beating one drum and not both, you're missing the boat.

Rationality matters. This is a program in crisis, and that's an easy opinion piece for any writer. We can do better. We can suss out the true problems and rationally discuss the best manner in which this program should move forward. But not if everyone is just shouting about selfish players making a good coach look bad, shouting about a bad coach ruining good players, or simply shouting about burning something down.