Basketball coach's run ends after nine seasons.
Made easier by a remarkable slide that buried a promising basketball season, Illinois athletics director Mike Thomas moved quickly Friday by firing coach Bruce Weber less than 24 hours after the first-round loss in the Big Ten Tournament. Now it's Thomas' job to land a coach and rebuild the department's flagship program after the Illini lost momentum following the school's only trip to the NCAA title game in 2005, a magical run led by Weber that failed to lead to more success during his nine-year tenure. After meeting with Weber early Friday morning, Thomas fired Weber to revitalize a program that slid from the nation's elite over the last six seasons. "It's just how we were trending,'' Thomas said. "It's the total body of work. It's not just the past three or four months or the last one. It's the last nine years. "There's no doubt early on in coach Weber's tenure, we had great success here. In the last four to five years, we were running in place or even digressed a little bit. For a program of our stature, it's important that we're playing at the highest level.'' Assistant coach Jerrance Howard was named as the interim coach. The former Illini guard and Peoria Central graduate expressed a desire to remain on staff in the long term under the new hire, Thomas said. Weber was 210-101 in nine seasons with the Illini. His teams won outright Big Ten titles in Weber's first two seasons, but the Illini were 50-56 in the Big Ten with one NCAA Tournament win during the past six seasons. "This is a bottom line business,'' Weber said during an emotional goodbye. "We all know it's the reality of the coaching profession. I leave here with no regret. I believe this program is on solid footing and once again experience levels of success we've enjoyed much of my time here.'' The Illini were 17-15 in the regular season after losing 12 of the past 14 games. An NIT berth is possible, but Weber said the Illini were on the bubble for that bracket. The Illini job is seen as one of the top 25 nationally, according to analysts, so this hire could be Thomas' most important move. Thomas must juggle rebuilding the Illini and trying to keep everyone happy. Board of trustees James Montgomery and Lawrence Oliver already made it clear they'd like to see an African- American coach hired. "It's been my job description to hire the coaches, regardless of sport,'' Thomas said. "It's also by job to have a diversified and qualified pool. I'm confident we'll have that.'' Thomas works directly with the chancellor and not the board, he said. From the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo lashed out at Thomas for the administrator's radio comments in mid-February that Izzo said undermined the Illini season. "I feel bad for the Illini nation because somebody's pulled the rug out from under them,'' Izzo said. "I feel bad for those players that have been there that, in my estimation, weren't given a fair chance back about the middle of (February), whenever that famous statement was made. "But if you look at that team from that statement, it went directly down. And I feel worse for Bruce because we lost a good soldier. And yeah, friendship is some of it, but it's not all of it. We lost a good coach.'' Thomas already fired the department's three highest paid coaches. With Weber's $3.9-million buyout paid regardless whether he lands another job, Illinois will pay $7.1 million in buyouts, including $2.6 million to former football coach Ron Zook and $620,000 to former women's basketball coach Jolette Law. Thomas would likely use a search firm in hiring Weber's replacement, he said. Meanwhile, Howard would serve as the head coach if the Illini receive an NIT bid Sunday night. "I'm a big Jerrance Howard fan,'' Thomas said. Thomas was given no indication the other assistant coaches wouldn't stick through the interim. He didn't seriously consider keeping Weber for a possible appearance in the NIT. Illinois wouldn't accept a bid to play in the two other postseason tournaments, the CBI or the CIT. Thomas already has a list of candidates. "There's a preference for someone who's had head coaching experience,'' Thomas said. "I don't want to paint myself into a corner.'' John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie. The short list Here are a few names to consider in the Illini's search for a men's basketball coach. Shaka Smart The 34-year-old Smart, the NCAA Tournament darling at VCU last season, worked as Akron assistant when Mike Thomas was AD there, and he's a popular choice if a minority hire is a priority. Anthony Grant, Alabama He started the run at VCU, then left for the Crimson Tide. A talented recruiter in the Billy Donovan coaching tree already makes good money. Brad Stevens, Butler With the Indiana job likely filled for quite some time, maybe the Illini can talk Stevens into working on this side of the state line. Reggie Theus The former coach at New Mexico State, the charismatic Theus also has one year of experience as an NBA head coach. Lorenzo Romar, Washington An experienced coach with three trips to the Sweet 16 as Huskies coach. Gregg Marshall, Wichita State He's a regular in the NCAA Tournament during stops at Winthrop and Wichita State. The Shockers won the Missouri Valley regular-season title this season. Stan Heath, South Florida The Big East coach of the year was a former assistant under Tom Izzo at Michigan State, but Izzo probably didn't make any friends Friday. Chris Collins, Duke assistant It might be hard for fans to take Duke guy on the Illini bench, but he comes from a strong coaching pedigree. Danny Manning, Kansas assistant He's got no head coaching experience, so this is probably an outside-the-box candidate. Frank Martin, Kansas State If Baylor's Scott Drew and Marquette's Buzz Williams already make too much money, Martin could be an option. -- Compiled by John Supinie, GateHouse News Service