Mike Thomas Seeks New Basketball Coach

The Fighting Illini basketball team will be undergoing renovation. To no one's surprise, Illini head basketball coach Bruce Weber was terminated from his contract Friday. Athletic Director Mike Thomas explained the reasons for his decision and answered questions regarding his new coach search and the criteria he seeks in a new head man.

Athletic Director Mike Thomas stated Friday what had already become a foregone conclusion: Bruce Weber was fired as basketball coach at Illinois.

"A decision has been made to move in a different direction. I want to thank Coach Weber for all his years of service to the University of Illinois, not just what's happened on the basketball floor, but from the ambassador he's been off the floor as well.

"As you can imagine, it's difficult to make this decision when talking about someone the quality of person that Coach Weber is. He is everything you would want in a coach as it relates to how he represents the University, his student athletes, our program. That makes it that much more difficult.

"I did meet with Bruce this morning and informed him of my decision. I also had an opportunity to speak with the assistant coaches and the student-athletes to inform them we were moving in a different direction."

Thomas named Weber assistant Jerrance Howard as interim coach while the search for a new coach is conducted.

"Jerrance would lead us if we receive an invitation for an NIT berth. We know from our student-athletes, in the discussions we had today, they certainly have an interest in playing in the tournament."

Will assistants Wayne McClain, Jay Price, Gary Nottingham and Sean Harrington continue to serve in that capacity?

"That would be my hope, that they would continue to move forward as part of this program."

Did Howard express an interest in applying for head coach?

"No. Jerrance's interest is in being here at the University of Illinois. I think he has great interest in working for the next head coach.

"It will be the new head coach's decision on who he would like to keep. I'm a big Jerrance Howard fan. Jerrance has done great things for the program, and I know he has great relationships with our student-athletes.

"He will be serving that interim role and be the face of our program until we have a new coach in place. At the end of the day, when a new coach is hired, that will really be their call."

Did he consider allowing Weber to coach any post season games should there be an invitation to the NIT?

"That really wasn't a serious consideration. I think somebody would be lucky to have Bruce Weber as their basketball coach. This gives him an opportunity to move on, and it gives us an opportunity to move forward with our search. Also, I think there's a settling peace with our student athletes. They know someone else is going to be coming in eventually. There was a real good option there."

As always, Thomas says his decision was based on an evaluation of Weber's entire tenure.

"It was just how we were trending. I looked at the total body of work, it's not just the last 3-4 months but the last nine years. There's no doubt that early in Coach Weber's tenure, we had great success here. But in the last 4 to 5 years, I don't know if you want to say we are running in place, but maybe we've even digressed a little bit.

"For a program of our stature, being in a tremendous basketball conference, I think it's important that we're playing at the highest levels. We're about winning championships. I think that's an appropriate expectation to have for myself and our coaches, our administration and our student-athletes, and for those people who are Fighting Illini fans."

Attendance reductions at home games also played a role in this decision.

"You look at the numbers, I think our attendance has dropped a couple thousand in the last few years. Certainly, that's something you need to pay attention to. How much you can attribute that to the economy, and how much you can attribute that to the satisfaction with the program, I really can't put that into numbers.

"But I do know there were a lot of empty seats this year. I don't think that's what Illinois basketball is all about. It's our hope that we are playing in front of full houses every night over at the Assembly Hall."

Assembly Hall renovation plans are also affected by Thomas's decision.

"I think it's important to have momentum for the Assembly Hall. People need to be excited about that project, people at all levels, whether it's people buying single-game tickets, people that aren't season-ticket holders, people that support our programs in a generous way in the corporate community. I think it's important that we have some energy as we transition into a new phase and try to get that project off the ground."

Thomas feels it's a buyer's market for the Illinois program.

"We will begin a national search immediately. I anticipate there will be a lot of interest in this job. We will move quickly, but we will move diligently. I'm excited about the prospects of this program for the future. Certainly, the key to that is feeling like we have the right person in place to lead what is a very national program that has a history of great success."

Thomas wishes to keep an open mind about all potential candidates.

"I think there's a preference for someone who's had head-coaching experience, but I don't want to paint myself into a corner and say I wouldn't be open to those that haven't sat in the head chair."

He shared the criteria he seeks in a head basketball coach.

"I think to have a track record of competitive success, getting it done on the floor; academic success and a philosophy of getting kids to graduate; the ability to recruit at a high level, recruit Big Ten type athletes that can give us a great chance of success.

"Someone that could serve as a first-rate ambassador and be a great face for the program. There's external parts of this job that are very important. And really, the thing that trumps all is the fact we are going to do things the right way. Someone that has a clean record, that compliance is important to them, and integrity is part of their DNA."

Weber's contract buyout requires payments of $1.3 million for each of the next three years. Counting buyouts for football coach Ron Zook and women's basketball coach Jolette Law, the DIA must pay out $7.7 million in buyouts. Since Thomas is likely to pay a top replacement upwards of $2 million a year or more, where will the money come from?

"I'm confident that we will be competitive as we move forward with the hiring of a new men's basketball coach. The buyouts are paid with intercollegiate athletic monies, that come out of our budget. We do not get any institutional aid to cover those payments."

Two members of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees voiced public preference for a minority hire. Will Thomas seek a minority coach?

"It's in my job description to hire the best coach regardless of the sport for the University of Illinois. But it's also my job to be active and ensure we have a very diversified pool of coaches from which to choose, which I'm confident will happen. Chancellor (Phyllis) Wise is my supervisor in these kind of matters. She will receive my direct report."

Thomas must also find a replacement women's basketball coach. Will he need to hire a search firm to help guide his task?

"There is a strong likelihood that I will use a search firm. First of all, I'm doing two searches on a parallel track. I'm not real good at multitasking, so it's an opportunity to assist in that way. Also, making it a very comprehensive and efficient process. I think they can certainly help in that regard.

"Some search firms have great expertise in this area; I know a lot of schools that have had success using search firms. I've done it both ways, but I do think this is certainly a situation in a competitive marketplace where I am working with two searches on the same track, that kind of support would be a real benefit."

Does Thomas seek a preferred style of play?

"Not necessarily. I think sometimes that comes into play. It's come into play when I hired football coaches, and I've been successful with that. But in this conference, and in the conference I just came from, the Big East, there are a lot of different styles of basketball.

"Some resonate more with fans than others. Some that don't resonate well with their fans as far as having a flair of excitement to them, it doesn't mean they're not successful. There are a lot of examples of successful programs out there that might not necessarily be like the Flying Illini in 1989.

"So I'm not really wed to a certain style at this point. I think there's a lot of ways to be successful, and I think there's a lot of people out there that have proven that."

Must the new coach have close ties to Chicago recruiting circles?

"I think Chicago is important to us. I know it gets talked about a lot as it relates to our ability to have success or lack of success. I think we do a good job up there. Can we do better? Absolutely.

"I think having those ties and relationships is important. You have to remember, some coaches come in and are a little short in those types of relationships. Their staff may reflect having those kinds of relationships."

Illini players took the news hard. Thomas spoke briefly about his interaction with them this morning.

"The message was that I believe in them. I think we have a great bunch of kids. It's an emotional time for them. I wouldn't expect for them to be doing cartwheels. Indeed, quite the opposite. I would have been surprised or disappointed if it had been any different. Emotions are running high, and then having great disappointment.

"I'm certainly okay with them being upset and disappointed in me. I would expect that. Hopefully in the long term, that's not the case. But I get that, and I accept that. I'm invited them to speak with me individually."

Normally, Illinois is required to advertise the job officially for two weeks before a new head coach can be hired. Thomas indicated he might try to get that time reduced by requesting a waiver.

"Most likely we would. It's a waiver that doesn't eliminate the window of time, it just reduces the time. And that's consistent with what we did in the football search."

It appears Thomas will rely heavily on his top assistant Jason Lener.

"Jason my deputy oversees the program day-to-day. He had oversight of basketball at Miami of Ohio, and he was Jamie Dixon's oversight at Pitt. So he knows what he's doing. And I'm on speed dial, and I'm only a few paces from his office."

According to Thomas, this program does not require a complete overhaul.

"I don't really see it as a project. Obviously, I'm up here today talking about a change in leadership for our program. But I'm certainly more optimistic about the program than some of the media.

"I think we have great student athletes, I think they care about the program, I think they want to win. The foundation is there to be successful. We just need to grow and develop that. I truly believe good things will happen."

Thomas says the quality of the Illinois basketball program and the mandate to win championships required a change in leadership at this time.

"Any time you hire a coach, it's critical. You're doing it to show you want greater success in the future. I also recognize the fact that this program at this school is looked at in a different way than some of our other programs. So it's under the spotlight, and people are paying attention.

"We've got great fans who care deeply about our programs. That's a good thing. That's what you need to get some of those projects done. So for us, I think it's extremely important.

"There's no one in the Big Ten conference who was gonna feel sorry for us. We need to show up with a team that's competitive, that can win basketball games and make us a perennial threat in the conference. Like I've always said, if you're successful in this conference, you're a national player."

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