It was all a matter of timing. And for Ryan Webber, the timing couldn't have been better.
A few years ago, Warren basketball coach Chuck Ramsey was asked to pick a year to step down. He picked this year. He had retired from teaching in 2007 and felt, after 19 years, with an all-senior team that figured to contend for the state championship, this was the time to retire.
Webber, 32, was looking for a job. After four years and a 78-39 record at Moline, including 23-9 last year, his job security was iffy. He had already survived one budget cut (reduction in staff) that would have put him in the unemployment line with his wife and two children.
Last February, when Webber received another RIF notice for non-tenured employees, friends informed him that Ramsey was retiring at Warren. When the job opening was posted in late March, he applied as fast as he could lick a postage stamp. He was interviewed, brought back for a second interview and hired last week.
"My wife and I are super excited," Webber said. "Knowing the job that coach Ramsey has done (408 victories, two state finals, seven sectional titles) and the basketball tradition of the school...well, at a young age, it's a thrill to be able to have a job of the caliber that Warren presents.
"The timing was right. Warren is a once-in-a-great-while job that you have to go after. I talked to veteran coaches who said you have to throw your hat in the ring. It's one of the top five coaching jobs in the state -- with Simeon, Proviso East, Peoria Central, Peoria Manual, maybe Evanston, Glenbrook North and Peoria Richwoods."
Webber knows all about tradition. A graduate of Galesburg in 1997, he played basketball and baseball with Taylor Thiel, the grandson of legendary Galesburg basketball coach John Thiel. As a senior, he was the starting point guard on a 23-6 team that was led by All-Stater Joey Range and lost to Moline in the sectional final. A year later, Range took Galesburg to the state final.
"I knew the tradition growing up," Webber said. "I grew up in a great time when basketball was everything to kids in Galesburg."
In those days, kids in Galesburg played at one of two outdoor courts. At the fire station near Churchill Junior High School, kids stood in line to play on the one-hoop, blacktop, half-court surface while crowds surrounded the court. Rotary Park offered a full-court but a nine-foot-high hoop and a spotlight to allow kids to play at night.
After graduation, Webber enrolled at Western Illinois but didn't play basketball. He began student teaching at Rock Island in 2003-03 and served as Thom Sigel's varsity assistant. Sigel had been sophomore coach at Galesburg before he went to Rock Falls.
Webber moved on to Rockton Hononegah where he served as varsity assistant to Mike Miller, who had been his varsity coach at Galesburg. At 25, he was hired as Byron's head coach. After three years, he moved to Moline. Now he is ready for another challenge. He still is so young that he often jokes that he still gets carded.
He knows what lies ahead at Warren. He watched Ramsey's last team lose to Rockford Auburn 49-43 in the Class 4A supersectional at De Kalb last March. Warren finished with a 26-4 record but the top seven players were seniors. The cupboard is empty. Gone are standouts Darius Paul, Nathan Boothe and JoVaughn Gaines. Only one junior got any playing time.
"This is an adjustment time for the new coach and the new players," Webber said after meeting his squad for the first time last week. "I will have an observation period during the summer to see the kids, to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, to see what we can do together.
"I'm a flexible coach, not stubborn. What is my philosophy? Give it some time. I base my offense and defense on the personnel I have. That's how I always have operated. I played man-to-man defense at Byron and the ball-press defense at Moline. Until I see what I have, I'm open-minded."
Webber's wife already has found a new home in Gurnee. But they leave behind some wonderful memories in Moline. He believes his time in the Western Big Six Conference and competing in Moline's venerable Wharton Field House has helped to prepare him for the Warren job.
"I'm a big fan of Illinois high school basketball traditions," he said. "The Western Big Six is a very competitive league with great coaches. I'll miss Wharton Field House. Even when I wasn't playing there, I would spend a lot of hours there, watching film. I have a lot of fond memories. There is no better high school venue than Wharton."
Even though it might take some time to cultivate some talent at Warren, Webber promises that fans won't be disappointed in what they see. "My teams historically play super hard, like Ramsey's. They play the right way, a lot of ball movement, five players playing as one on offense, very competitive,"
Meanwhile, he doesn't think he and his wife will have any trouble adjusting to their new environment. "We love Chicago. We have a lot of high school friends there, a sister-in-law in Bucktown. Gurnee is a beautiful area. Those were among the appealing things that influenced me to take the job," he said.