Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, March 9, 2012
What has been speculated for weeks became reality today when Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas announced the firing of Bruce Weber. Thomas wasted no time turning the page on the Weber era, letting him go a day after the Fighting Illini lost to Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten tourney. Illinois is 17-15 (6-12 Big Ten) still could receive an NIT bid. If that happens, an assistant figures to serve as interim coach.
Weber hit his nadir after a 67-62 home loss to Purdue on Feb. 15, when he offered a candid and frank assessment of his team and the job he had done. It almost sounded like a concession speech.
What?s next for Illinois? When hiring coaches when he was A.D. at Cincinnati, Thomas opted to go with proven head coaches. He tabbed such a person when he named Tim Beckman of Toledo to take over for Ron Zook. Many feel Weber?s replacement will be a person with head coaching experience.
Many names are being speculated, with Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart perhaps being at the top of the list. Smart, 34, is one of the hottest coaches in the nation, taking VCU to the Final Four last year and securing another NCAA bid this year. He worked with Thomas when both were at Akron.
Butler?s Brad Stevens, 35, also remains a hot property after taking the Bulldogs to the NCAA title game in 2010 and 2011, but Butler will miss the tourney this year. Still, Stevens seemingly is a guy who can have his pick of jobs and has turned down many good offers the past few seasons.
Other hot names are Wichita State?s Gregg Marshall, South Florida?s Stan Heath, Alabama?s Anthony Grant, Marquette?s Buzz Williams, Cincinnati?s Mick Cronin and Reggie Theus, who is out of coaching but has experience in college and the NBA.
Weber leaves Champaign with a 210-101 mark in nine seasons after arriving from Southern Illinois in 2003-04 after Bill Self left to coach Kansas.
Weber?s first three seasons in Champaign were his best. He forged an 89-16 overall record and a 39-9 Big Ten mark with two league championships, a Sweet 16 appearance and a trip to the national championship game in 2005. But the last six seasons have seen a decline.
Since that torrid start under Weber, Illinois finished no better than second in the Big Ten and made just three NCAA appearances with an NIT berth. Illinois failed to advance beyond the second round in any of its final three Big Dance appearances.
What?s next for Weber? There is speculation that he could be headed back to Southern Illinois, which recently fired Chris Lowery. Weber enjoyed great success with the Salukis, going 103-54 overall and 62-28 in the MVC with two league titles, two NCAA trips and an NIT appearance in five seasons at Carbondale (1998-03). Weber?s 2001-02 team advanced to the Sweet 16.
Regardless, the Weber era will be remembered for unmet potential after such a promising start as Thomas continues to redo the Illinois landscape with his third major firing. Gone are Zook, women?s basketball coach Jolette Law and now Weber.
Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com. Find Dienhart?s work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow him on Twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and click here to subscribe to his overall RSS feed.