- Associated Press - Saturday, March 3, 2012

CHAMPAIGN, ILL. (AP) - Illinois fired women’s basketball coach Jolette Law on Friday after five seasons without an NCAA tournament bid.

It was the second time athletic director Mike Thomas has fired a head coach since coming to Illinois last summer. Football coach Ron Zook was let go in December, and speculation continues that men’s basketball coach Bruce Weber could be fired at the end of the season, too.

Thomas said at a press conference that Law’s teams _ which were a combined 69-93 _ just weren’t winning enough.

“Really, competitively, we’ve been in the bottom third (of the Big Ten),” said Thomas, who said he told Law in person Friday afternoon. “Really we needed to be at a point where we competed at a higher level.

Thomas said the team should be able to draw more fans. Average attendance has dropped from just under 1,500 a game in 2008 to just over 1,000 a game, according to the NCAA.

“If you have a winning program they will show up,” he said.

Law wasn’t available for comment but in a statement released through the school she thanked former Athletic Director Ron Guenther for hiring her.

“I have found great joy in coaching, teaching and guiding a group of remarkable young women,” Law said. “We have laid a good foundation for great things to happen in the future. I wish nothing but the best for Mr. Thomas, the program, the university and of course my student athletes.”

Law has two years remaining on her contract and will be paid the $620,000 she’s owed for those years, Thomas said.

Thomas said many of the people he’d like to interview are with teams still playing, so he could not put a timetable on when a new coach would be hired. He added that the next coach doesn’t necessarily have to have head-coaching experience.

Law was hired in May 2007, months after helping lead Rutgers to the national title game as an assistant, and boldly promised in her opening news conference that she would win a national title.

“We will _ we will _ win a national championship at the University of Illinois,” she said.

Her first team won 20 games and a spot in the 2008 Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

Three of the next four seasons ended with losing records, including the 11-19 campaign that ended this week with a 68-53 first-round loss to Michigan at the Big Ten tournament.

Illinois’ NCAA tournament drought goes back to 2003. The Illini haven’t been in the Top 25 since November 2000.

Law came to Illinois after 12 seasons as an assistant under Vivian Stringer at Rutgers.

After playing at Iowa, Law also played several seasons as one of the few women to ever suit up for the Harlem Globetrotters.

At Illinois she replaced Theresa Grentz , a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame who coached the Illini to prominence before struggling in her final few seasons.

Thomas fired Zook in November after the Illini football team lost six straight games, a move that cost Illinois a $2.6 million buyout. Zook’s replacement, Tim Beckman, was named less than two weeks later.

Speculation has picked up in recent weeks Weber could be fired at the end of this season after his team has fallen almost entirely out of NCAA tournament contention. Buying out Weber’s contract would cost another $3.9 million.

Thomas has declined to talk about Weber’s situation.

The athletic director said when he took the job at Illinois he didn’t have any improve-or-else mandates in mind for any of the coaches he would oversee. But few coaches, he said, keep their jobs long term.

“You have a Bobby Bowden for life, you have a Jim Boeheim for life, you have a Pat Summit for life,” Thomas said. “You can kind of count those situations on one hand for sports.”

___

Follow David Mercer on Twitter: http://twitter.com/DavidMercerAP