CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Illinois fired Bruce Weber on Friday, letting go of a fiery coach whose first three years with the Illini included a run to the national championship game before a long slide the past six years ended with a 17-15 mark this season.
"Bruce is everything you'd want as a coach," athletic director Mike Thomas said. "We had great success here but in the last four or five years, I don't know if you want to say (that) we're running in place, or maybe even digressed."
Thomas, who has also fired football coach Ron Zook and women's basketball coach Jolette Law in his first year on the job, said fans expect the Illini to be "a factor" in the Big Ten and the "national conscience" each season.
Weber met separately with reporters, joined by his family and most of his young team.
"This is a bottom line business. We all know it," Weber said. "It's the reality of the coaching profession. But I leave here with no regrets. I believe this program is on solid footing. I am very proud of what this basketball program has accomplished in my tenure."
Weber choked up when he thanked his wife, Megan, for being with him "as he lived his dream to be a college basketball coach."
Weber spent nine years at Illinois and led the Illini to the 2005 NCAA title game, losing to North Carolina. He finished 210-101 at Illinois, trailing only Lou Henson and Harry Combes in wins at the school.
However, his teams were just 55-66 in the Big Ten over the last six seasons, including 6-12 this year. The Illini closed the year 2-12 and lost in the first round of the Big Ten tournament on Thursday, beaten by Iowa 64-61 -- a far cry from January, when they were atop the Big Ten.
Thomas said the school would accept an NIT bid if one is offered and assistant Jerrance Howard is the interim head coach. The athletic director said Howard has expressed interest in staying on as an assistant.
A national search for Weber's replacement will begin immediately and Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall and Butler's Brad Stephens, among others, all could be candidates for the job. Thomas said he wouldn't rule out hiring an assistant coach, but said, "I think that there's a preference for someone who has head coaching experience."
Illinois has never had a black head coach in football or men's basketball, a point two university trustees brought up when football coach Tim Beckman was hired. One of those trustees, James Montgomery, said he could support any new coach "under the circumstances where there is a fair and complete open process that's transparent."
Firing Weber will cost Illinois $3.9 million to cover the three years remaining on his contract. Zook's buyout cost the school $2.6 million and Law will receive $620,000.
The basketball team's collapse this season followed a 10-0 start. Henson, who stills lives part of the year in Champaign and knows Weber well, said the decision was inevitable.
"Intercollegiate athletics, you know, there's so much money at stake," he said. "This is one of the toughest seasons I think I've gone through and I think Illinois has gone through. Some of the time you can do a super job of coaching and things don't work out. And for some reason this team just didn't mix, and I don't know why."
Aside from the 1915 national title that's distant history, Weber's tenure in Champaign included the program's absolute peak seven years ago. A tough, dynamic team led by Deron Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown fought back from a 15-point deficit to tie North Carolina in the last five minutes before losing the championship game 75-70.
Weber brought it up Friday.
"Every time I visit St. Louis, I think about the Final Four experience," he said. "I still can remember standing on the top of the hotel and seeing tens of thousands of Illinois fans covering the streets in orange. An amazing sight."
Weber faced criticism from some fans from virtually the moment he was hired in 2003. Some saw the coach from Southern Illinois — where he took the Salukis to two NCAA Sweet 16s — as a downgrade from Bill Self, who left for Kansas. In his first season, a black-clad Weber held a mock funeral for Self after hearing the comparisons too often.
And after the championship game, his teams never again quite reached that kind of high. Many fans never gave him credit for the title game, dismissing it as a product of superior players recruited by his predecessor.
Illinois lost recruiting battles for big-name Chicago players like Derrick Rose who helped other teams make deep NCAA runs. And one of the few top-shelf recruits who came to Champaign, McDonald's All-American Jereme Richmond, played sparingly in one season at Illinois before declaring for the 2011 NBA draft.
And rather than being consistently good like the Big Ten's marquee teams, the Illini sometimes turned in bafflingly bad performances. Illinois has lost six of their last 10 to Penn State, including a 38-33 performance in 2009 that many fans still recall as a low point.
This year's team included six freshmen and initially wasn't expected to do much. Yet the Illini moved into the Top 25 after an 11-2 start that included a win over then-No. 19 Gonzaga. In January, after a surprising win over Ohio State behind 43 points from Brandon Paul, the team was in first place in the Big Ten.
Illinois followed that with nine losses in their next 10. The low point might have been the 80-57 loss at Nebraska that ended with players crying in the locker room.
For Weber, it might have been the Purdue loss on Feb. 15 in a game billed as a must win. The Illini led late, only to see Robbie Hummel — who has said he wanted to play at Illinois but wasn't seriously pursued — ice the game. The Boilermakers, coached by former Weber assistant Matt Painter, have beaten Illinois seven straight times.
"You have to develop a culture and I think maybe the last three years all I did was worry about winning instead of developing a culture and a toughness," Weber told reporters. "That's my fault."
Players took to Twitter to express support for Weber.
"Coach Weber is a very special man and will always have a place in my heart," wrote sophomore center Meyers Leonard. "Although we butted heads some he was there for me no matter what."
As for Weber's future, unsourced media reports linked him to a possible return to Southern Illinois, where Chris Lowery was fired last week. An SIU spokesman declined comment Friday.
Jim Suhr of The Associated Press contributed from St. Louis.
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