CHAMPAIGN — Mike Thomas has been athletic director at Illinois for five very busy months.
He fired football coach Ron Zook three months after being hired and then hired Zook’s replacement, Tim Beckman, over the protests of two university trustees who complained that the new coach wasn’t black.
Thomas is now about to launch a campaign to raise more than $100 million to redo Assembly Hall even as fans grow increasingly frustrated with men’s basketball coach Bruce Weber.
“Pack your bags, Weber!” a fan shouted at the ninth-year coach after a recent home loss.
The Illini (16-9, 5-7) have lost six of their last seven games to cement themselves in the middle of the 12-team Big Ten. And that, many fans note with disgust, is more or less where Illinois has been for several years.
Thomas won’t say whether he plans to fire Weber. Much like he said when fans called for Zook’s job last fall, Thomas said he usually evaluates his coaches at the end of the season — and that’s what he plans to do with Weber.
“I go through a process and assess the situation — not only what’s happening currently but the total body of work — and usually make those decisions at the end of the season,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think you try to do it as soon as possible, you know, (when) it’s pretty fresh to you.”
Still, Thomas made clear during an appearance last weekend on a Champaign radio show that just getting to the NCAA Tournament — and there’s no guarantee Illinois gets there — isn’t good enough.
“It’s certainly our hope as a program that we’re always in the NCAA Tournament,” Thomas said. “It’s not a fact that we’re going. It’s where we’ll be seeded, how high, and we’re a threat to win national championships and make some noise in the tournament.”
Despite the shouts from the stands and the angrier-than-usual vitriol on Illini message boards, Weber said he believes fans, at least some of them, are still behind him and his team.
“It’s heart wrenching for me,” he said last week. “It’s heart-wrenching for fans. I still think we have tremendous fans.”
His defenders include Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, an old friend from their days as assistants.
“If you want to talk about a guy who does it the right way, coaches his tail off, works his tail off,” Izzo said. “I’m prejudiced because he’s my friend, but Illinois better be happy to have him. He’s won a lot of games there and taken them to a Final Four.”
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 — played for the national championship in 2005 (losing to North Carolina) and finished with at least 20 wins in seven of the eight seasons he’s completed in Champaign.
Since that championship game appearance, Illinois is 146-86 overall (.629 winning percentage), a pedestrian 60-56 in the Big Ten and 2-4 in the NCAA Tournament. Two of those seasons, the Illini didn’t make the tourney at all.
The home crowds are still among the biggest in the Big Ten, but sellouts are now a rarity rather than the norm.
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.
Firing both the head football coach and men’s basketball coach in one academic year isn’t common at schools with Division I programs, but it’s not unheard of, either. The most recent instance, according to STATS LLC, was at Army, where both football coach Stan Brock and basketball coach Jim Crews were fired in 2008-09.
Trustees Lawrence Oliver and James Montgomery — both of whom are black — said they voted against Beckman’s hire because they believe the school needs to hire its first black head football or basketball coach. Illinois has never had either.
Thomas declined to address the trustees’ votes.
Illinois has five regular-season games left, starting Wednesday at home against Purdue. 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.
What the Illini do in those games and the Big Ten tournament may decide whether Weber stays in Champaign. Being pretty good over the most of the last few seasons may not be good enough.