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.
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.
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