Illinois coach Bruce Weber fired after 9 seasons

By David Mercer

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 9 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Weber finished 210-101 at Illinois. His teams were just 55-66 in the Big Ten over the last six seasons and Weber was under the spotlight as the Illini closed the year 2-12 after leading the Big Ten standings in January. The team's collapse this season followed a 10-0 start.

Weber nonetheless said that this team was one of his favorites.

"This group was special," he said, flanked by players who left without taking questions, "and I don't know if I've ever had a better character group in all my years of coaching."

Weber's players took to Twitter to express support for him.

"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."

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, a longtime friend of Weber, was critical of Thomas' decision.

"I mean, this guy has won more games than (almost) anybody ... that's been at the school," Izzo said after his team's win at the Big Ten tournament. "And he's done it the right way, and that's not easy to do. And it's not an easy job there."

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.

Many fans never gave him credit for the title game, dismissing it as a product of superior players recruited by his predecessor.

This year's team, which included six freshmen and initially wasn't expected to do much, moved into the Top 25 after an 11-2 start that included a win over then-No. 19 Gonzaga. Illinois followed a win over Ohio State with nine losses in their next 10.

Thomas said that Illinois 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.

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.

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 the Tar Heels in the last five minutes before losing the championship game 75-70.

"Every time I visit St. Louis, I think about the Final Four experience," Weber 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."

Associated Press writer Jim Suhr contributed from St. Louis.

Follow David Mercer on Twitter: http://twitter.com/DavidMercerAP

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