CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — 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 210-101 at 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.