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, lackluster slide the past six years that culminated with a 17-15 mark this season.
“Bruce is everything you’d want as a coach,” athletic director Mike Thomas said at a news conference that Weber did not attend. “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 spent nine years at Illinois and led the Illini to the 2005 NCAA title game, losing to North Carolina. He finished 210-101at 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.
The Illini lost in the first round of the Big Ten tournament on Thursday, beaten by Iowa 64-61 in a disappointing end to a disappointing season that in early January had the Illini in the Top 25 and atop the Big Ten. Less than a month ago, Weber sounded defeated after a 67-62 home loss to Purdue.
“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 on Feb. 15. “That’s my fault.”
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 following a 10-0 start echoed that of the football team, which opened 6-0 before losing the rest of its regular-season games.
Aside from the 1915 national title that’s distant history, Weber’s tenure in Champaign included the program’s absolute peak, the 2005 title game. 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 final five minutes before losing 75-70.
The Big Ten title the team won on its way to the championship game was the program’s first outright conference championship since 1952, and Illinois won the title again the next season.
Still, 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. He went undrafted and wound up in legal trouble.
And rather than being consistently good like the Big Ten’s marquee teams, the Illini sometimes turned in bafflingly bad performances. The Illini have lost six of their last 10 to Big Ten doormat 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 the 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 only win was an ugly, physical 42-41 test of wills against Michigan State.
The low point this season? It might have been a 74-70 loss to instate rival Northwestern, yet another loss to Penn State or maybe the 80-57 embarrassment at Nebraska that ended with players crying in the locker room.
For Weber, though, it might have been the Purdue loss 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.
Assistant coach Jerrance Howard will take over as interim head coach. Thomas said a national search for Weber’s replacement would begin immediately.