Shaka Smart staying at VCU; Illini search moves on

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“I would have assumed if you were swift in firing in that you would have the other one already locked up and ready to go,” said Mike Mullins, whose Illinois Wolves produced current Illini players Joseph Bertrand, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu.

Thomas fired Weber on March 9 after Illinois finished 17-15, including a 2-12 collapse to finish the season, and tied for ninth place in the Big Ten. The Illini missed the postseason, and it was the third time in five seasons they didn’t make the NCAA tournament.

Weber was the third coach Thomas fired in less than four months, along with women’s basketball coach Jolette Law and football coach Ron Zook.

Illinois hired Tim Beckman from Toledo to replace Zook, but only after reportedly being turned down by Houston’s Kevin Sumlin, who took over at Texas A&M.

Thomas acknowledged the day he fired Weber that, in getting rid of high-profile coaches so quickly and naming their replacements, he’d be putting himself up for fans to quickly judge, too. He also said that hiring Weber’s replacement was particularly crucial at Illinois.

“This program, this school is looked at in a different way than some of our other programs,” Thomas said. “So it’s under a spotlight and people are paying attention.”

Illinois is also still looking for a replacement for Law, too. Buyouts for the three fired coaches total $7.1 million, money the university has said will come from private funds.

The search for Weber’s replacement includes a potentially complicating racial component. Two university trustees earlier this year refused to vote in favor of Beckman’s contract because they said the school hadn’t done enough to hire black head football or men’s basketball coaches, something it’s never had.

That condition and Smart’s resume and charisma put him at the top of the Illini wish list.

After last year’s Final Four run, Smart turned down an offer to jump to North Carolina State and was rewarded with his current eight-year deal.

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AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz Jr. in Richmond, Va., contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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