The News-Gazette, Darrell Hoemann) MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Less than a month ago, Bruce Weber sat down moments after a home loss and gave a brutally frank accounting of his team's shortcomings and his own.
Weber said he spent the last three years coaching to win immediately, rather than building a program. He failed to build what he called a culture of toughness. And his teams lacked leadership.
And now the Illini are looking for a new leader altogether: After nine years of leading the Illini, Weber was fired Friday by first-year athletic director Mike Thomas, who may be able to use that checklist as he hunts for a successor.
"Bruce is everything you'd want as a coach," 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."
Illinois finished the season 17-15 after a Big Ten tournament loss to Iowa on Thursday, a record that includes a 6-12 league record. But the problems for Weber date back years, with the program failing to live up to its magical run to the 2005 NCAA championship game.
Weber read a statement to reporters that recalled the highs of his stay in Champaign, including the 37-win team that lost to North Carolina in the title game.
"This is a bottom line business. We all know it," Weber said, surrounded by his family and most of his team. "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."
Add to Thomas' check list one more area where Weber struggled: A recruiter who can draw top talent from Chicago and the rest of the state.
"I think he wasn't getting good enough people," said former Illini coach Lou Henson, one of two coaches in Illinois history, along with Harry Combes, with more wins than Weber at the school. "He got some good players, but this league is so tough, I think maybe you have to have a couple of star players to win."
Henson, who still lives part of the year in Champaign and knows Weber well, said he and his assistants worked to make contacts at 400 Illinois high schools to give themselves a chance at top recruits.
Under Weber, Illinois instead 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.
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."
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.
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, but Thomas said that money won't hinder his ability to compete for the next coach.
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