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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber was fired Friday after nine seasons with the team.
The firing caps a surprising fall for Weber, who led the Illini to the 2005 NCAA title game, losing to North Carolina. He finished 210-101at Illinois, trailing only Lou Henson and Harry Combes in wins at the school.
But his teams were 55-66 in the Big Ten over the last six seasons and the struggles were magnified the last three years.
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. Illinois lost 12 of their last 14 and less than a month ago, Weber sounded like he had lost his team.
"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 after a 67-62 home loss to Purdue on Feb. 15. "That's my fault."
Illinois won once after that game, and never again looked like the team that upset then-No.5 Ohio State in early January.
Aside from the 1915 national title that's distant history, Weber's nine years 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.
The Big Ten title the team won on its way to the championship game was the program's first outright conference championship since 1952.
Still, 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.
And, after the championship game, his teams never again quite reached that kind of high. Many fans never gave him credit for the title game, dismissing it as a product of superior players recruited by his predecessor.
Illinois 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. He went undrafted and wound up in legal trouble.
And rather than being consistently good like the Big Ten's marquee teams, the Illini sometimes turned in bafflingly bad performances. The Illini have lost six of their last 10 to Big Ten-doormat Penn State, including a 38-33 performance in 2009 that many fans still recall as a low point.
The low point this season? It might have been a 74-70 loss to instate rival Northwestern, yet another loss to Penn State, this one 54-52, or maybe the 80-57 embarrassment at Nebraska that ended with players crying in the locker room.