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Illinois coach Bruce Weber felt compelled to issue a statement Thursday after postgame comments the night before led some to speculate about his future with the program.
Weber said he has "coached not to lose all year" following a 67-62 defeat to Purdue Wednesday in Champaign, Ill.Illinois (16-10 overall, 5-8 Big Ten) dropped its fourth consecutive game and seventh of its past eight. "The sad thing about the whole thing I guess is it's my fault," Weber said Wednesday. "Instead of creating toughness and developing a team, I coached not to lose all year. It's sad to be honest, but it is what is."
"I spoke out of frustration following another difficult loss. I am disappointed in myself, as I said, for not developing a culture of toughness with our team up to this point in the season," Weber said in the statement. "The difference between winning and losing is toughness and having the will to win, and that is something we will continue to try to instill in our team.
"We have a young group that has now been involved in 13 games decided by five points or less, which I believe is the most of any program in the country this season. Our players, our staff, and I know our fans are frustrated because we are so close to putting it together. As I told our team last night, we have a lot to play for over these last five regular-season games as well as the Big Ten tournament.
"We still have an opportunity to make the NCAA tournament, and I'm looking forward to practice today and working with our players to help us reach that goal."
With a new athletic director in Mike Thomas, who dismissed football coach Ron Zook after last season, Weber's future appears uncertain. Weber directed Illinois to the national championship game in 2005, but he has also failed to reach the NCAA tournament two out of the past four years.He's recruited a McDonald's All-American (Jereme Richmond) and a potential lottery pick in sophomore center Meyers Leonard, but he's also missed on plenty of Chicago's elite talent.
Thomas said Saturday on a Champaign radio station that he would evaluate Weber's job status at the end of the season. But he also didn't defend Weber as he took calls from fans criticizing the coach.
"For us, we have to compete at the highest level with our men's basketball program," Thomas said Saturday on WDWS-1400 AM. "There's no doubt about. We have to be in the higher ranks of the Big Ten Conference. Let's face it, in the Big Ten, not just men's basketball but for anything, if you're in the upper crust, you're a top team nationally."
Illinois is paying Zook $2.6 million to buy out his contract, and Weber's contract runs through 2015 and would force the school to pay him $3.9 million if he's fired after this season.
In his ninth season since moving from Southern Illinois, Weber is 212-95 (a .691 winning percentage and the third-highest win total in Illinois history). He has won two Big Ten titles -- the 2003-04 title was Illinois' first outright Big Ten championship since 1952 -- and finished with at least 20 wins in seven of the eight seasons he's completed in Champaign.
Since their championship game appearance in 2005, the Illini are 146-86 overall (.629 winning percentage), a pedestrian 60-56 in the Big Ten and 2-4 in the NCAA tournament.
If Weber is fired, former Illinois guard and current ESPN analyst Stephen Bardo said Thursday he hopes the school will consider hiring an African-American coach. Illinois has never had a black head coach in basketball or football, an issue two trustees raised in January when they voted against approving Tim Beckman as the new football coach. Beckman is white.
Bardo said there would be no shortage of candidates for the job.
"This is a top-15 program perennially, even though they haven't performed at that level," Bardo said Thursday on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000. "This is a top-15 program. You'll be shocked at the number of guys that would be interested in coming to coach at the University of Illinois. It's a crown jewel. It's waiting to explode, and I think if they decide to make that decision you'll be very shocked at the quantity and the quality of the coaches that will be interested in that position."
On Wednesday, Weber took the blame not only for this season but the past three seasons, which included a No. 9 seed in the 2011 NCAA tournament and an NIT appearance in 2009.
"You got to develop a culture," Weber said. "I think the last three years all I worried about was winning rather than developing a culture and a toughness. That's my fault.
"You're trying to please everyone and instead of pleasing yourself. That's my fault in hindsight."
Weber was hard on his players, pointing out Leonard's lack of effort in the first half against Purdue.
"Meyers can't have horrible body language," Weber said. "The first half he walked around. This is our desperation game; he walked up and down the court. It can't happen. He's got to change. We're not doing him justice if we don't make him change."
Weber praised Purdue's leadership and questioned his own players.
"(Purdue's Robbie Hummel), Draymond (Green), Aaron (Craft), those are three guys you wish you could coach because they really, truly care about the team and winning," Weber said. "That's the most important thing for them.
"I think Tracy (Abrams) has a chance. He played with great heart (Wednesday). The problem is he's our leader (as a freshman). That's the problem. He's the one talking after the game in the locker room."
Illinois has five regular-season games remaining. Two games are against ranked teams -- at Ohio State and at home against Michigan. The other two are at Nebraska and at home against Iowa.
Information from ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers and The Associated Press was used in this report.