LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska fired coach Doc Sadler on Friday after the team he expected to be his best in his six years at the school posted the program's lowest win total since 2003.
"I've decided to make a change in the basketball program," athletic director Tom Osborne said. "I've had to do some difficult things over my lifetime. This may be as difficult as any of them. Doc is a good man, an honorable man and I consider him a good friend. I thought it was wise at this point to make a change."
In their first season in the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers finished 12-18 after losing 79-61 to Purdue in the first round of the league tournament on Thursday. They tied with Penn State for last place in the conference with a 4-14 record.
Sadler wept as he discussed his departure with reporters.
"You're not looking at one of the smarter guys in this business, you're looking a guy that tried," he said. "Six years ago when I came here, I meant what I said. I came here to do a job and this is where I want to be.
"That hadn't changed until today," he said before leaving the podium for about 20 seconds to collect himself. "I wanted to be the guy that won the first NCAA tournament game. It didn't happen. That's the bottom line. We can all sit here and talk about this that whatever. It all comes down to winning. That's what it should come down to."
Sadler was 101-89 overall with three NIT appearances at Nebraska but just 34-64 in conference games. In the Huskers' final five years in the Big 12, Sadler's teams never finished higher than seventh.
Osborne said he and the coaching staff thought the Huskers would be a better team this year.
"I gambled and Doc gambled that this would be a good year," Osborne said. "Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it didn't work out that way."
Sadler last spring signed a contract extension through 2015-16 and his salary was $900,000 a year. His contract calls for him to be paid as much as $66,667 a month until he finds another job — up to a total of $3.4 million.
Sadler has said he had passed on three chances to pursue other jobs in recent years, most recently Texas Tech, because Osborne had asked him to stay. Sadler said the contract extension last spring was a symbol of Osborne's commitment to him; Osborne said he didn't regret giving his coach the contract extension.
The program had appeared to be on the upswing on and off the court last fall.
With the hope of wooing recruits, Nebraska opened a plush, $10 million practice facility in October. A few blocks away in downtown Lincoln, a 16,000-seat arena scheduled to open in October 2013 is under construction.
Sadler said he had his best personnel since he arrived. Four starters returned from a 19-13 team, and a couple high-profile newcomers were set to play.
But the Huskers lost any hope of sustaining an inside presence against rugged Big Ten opponents when centers Jorge Brian Diaz and Andre Almeida went out with health problems. An upset of then-No. 11 Indiana in mid-January was overshadowed by some of the most humiliating losses in program history. Among them: 31- and 34-pointers to Ohio State, a 28-pointer at Michigan State and a 24-pointer at home against Wisconsin.
The 79-45 loss to Ohio State in January was the most lopsided at home on record. In a 62-34 loss at Michigan State, the Huskers scored their fewest points in a game since 1948.
The Huskers averaged a league-low 57 points in Big Ten games and the defense, the strength of Sadler's previous teams, unraveled. Nebraska was last in field-goal defense and eighth in 3-point defense.
"We tried to make whatever commitment we could by working hard on upgrading facilities. We gave Doc the contract extension a year ago to help him in recruiting," Osborne said. "We also made some adjustments in his assistants salaries a couple years ago which we thought would make him more competitive. A strength coach was something we added a year ago, some things in private planes and so on."
Sadler, 51, was thought to be a rising star when former Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson hired him away from UTEP in August 2006, after Barry Collier resigned to become athletic director at Butler. Collier had been under fire after going 89-91 and never having a winning Big 12 record in six seasons at Nebraska.
Sadler tied a school record with 37 wins in his first two seasons. But with lackluster facilities and a largely apathetic fan base, Sadler proved to be no different than his predecessors who failed to sustain success.
The Huskers haven't won a conference championship since sharing the Big Seven title in 1949-50, and they're winless in six NCAA tournament appearances. They haven't been to the national tournament since 1998 and haven't produced an NBA draft pick since 1999.
Nebraska showed promise last season, stringing together 11 straight wins for the longest streak since 1991. A win over third-ranked Texas improved the Huskers to 18-8 and 6-6 in the Big 12 and kept them in the NCAA tournament conversation into late February.
But their hopes were dashed after they lost four of their next five games, and then they were blown out at Wichita State in their NIT opener.
Osborne said he had no candidates in mind to fill the position, which opened just a few hours after Bruce Weber was fired at Illinois.
"The thing we'd like to do, certainly, is number one have someone with integrity, that's something that's going to be paramount, someone that is concerned about academics," Osborne said. "You're looking for a special person, somebody who can do all those things and still win a fair amount of basketball games. Believe me, winning isn't everything. You look at the process, you look at recruiting, you look at how things are going. At some point if you do enough things right, the winning takes care of itself."
Osborne acknowledged that Nebraska is still widely viewed as a football-first school and not a potential basketball power.
"That doesn't mean that it can't be," he said. "I don't subscribe to the theory that this is a football school and this is a basketball school and never the two will meet."