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 concluded 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 in his first year on the job also has fired football coach Ron Zook and women's basketball coach Jolette Law, said fans expect the Illini to be "a factor" in the Big Ten and the "national conscience" each season.
Weber, in nine years with the Illini, led them to the 2005 NCAA title game, where they lost 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 the past six seasons, including 6-12 this season. The Illini closed the season 2-12.
"This is a bottom-line business. We all know it," Weber said Friday
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."
The Illini lost Thursday in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, falling to 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.
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."
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.
When asked about Weber's firing, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said he was "sick about it."
"Bruce is a friend of mine," Izzo said. "He's been here since the Gene Keady days. He's done it the right way. He doesn't cheat. He mans up to his own responsibilities. Incredible incredible person. I've recruited against him and lost and I've recruited against him and won, and hasn't changed things. ...
"I feel bad for the Illini nation because somebody's -- somebody pulled the rug out from under them."
VCU's Shaka Smart, who coached the Rams to last year's Final Four, is expected to be a candidate to replace Weber. Smart and AD Thomas once worked together.
"Shaka, you can see what he's done at VCU, obviously done a bang-up job," Thomas said on "Chicago's Gamenight" on ESPN 1000. "He's a sharp guy. He's someone that has a strong background. He's done great things at VCU ... I think we'll have great interest in this job. I don't think there's any doubt it's a high-profile job. And in my mind probably one of the top 15 or 20 jobs in the country."
Thomas said he will consider diversity when choosing candidates.
"For me as it falls under my job description, it's really about hiring the best basketball coach," Thomas said. "But in saying that, it's also my job to make sure we have a quality pool and a diversified pool. We gotta have some diversity. It's gotta be a pool of strong candidates. But at the end of the day, it's my job to get the best basketball coach for the University of Illinois."
Southern Illinois athletic director Mario Moccia has been surveying the possibility of Weber returning to the Salukis, sources told ESPN.com's Andy Katz. Weber coached SIU from 1998 to 2003, with two NCAA Sweet 16 appearances.
When Weber went to Illinois, assistant Chris Lowery was hired as SIU's coach. Moccia fired Lowery March 2 after SIU finished 8-23.
Illinois' 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.
The Big Ten title the team won on its way to the championship game was the program's first outright conference championship since 1952, and Illinois won the title again the next season.
Still, Weber faced criticism from some fans from virtually the moment he was hired in 2003. Some saw him 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 such as 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.
The Illini also sometimes turned in bafflingly bad performances, including a 38-33 loss to Big Ten doormat Penn State, a game in 2009 that many fans still recall as a low point.
Assistant coach Jerrance Howard will take over as interim head coach. Thomas said a national search for Weber's replacement would begin immediately.
Information from ESPN.com's Andy Katz and The Associated Press was used in this report.