Weber brought it up Friday.
“Every time I visit St. Louis, I think about the Final Four experience,” he said. “I still can remember standing on the top of the hotel and seeing tens of thousands of Illinois fans covering the streets in orange. An amazing sight.”
Weber faced criticism from some fans from virtually the moment he was hired in 2003. Some saw the coach from Southern Illinois _ where he took the Salukis to two NCAA Sweet 16s _ as a downgrade from Bill Self, who left for Kansas. In his first season, a black-clad Weber held a mock funeral for Self after hearing the comparisons too often.
And after the championship game, his teams never again quite reached that kind of high. Many fans never gave him credit for the title game, dismissing it as a product of superior players recruited by his predecessor.
Illinois lost recruiting battles for big-name Chicago players like Derrick Rose who helped other teams make deep NCAA runs. And one of the few top-shelf recruits who came to Champaign, McDonald’s All-American Jereme Richmond, played sparingly in one season at Illinois before declaring for the 2011 NBA draft.
And rather than being consistently good like the Big Ten’s marquee teams, the Illini sometimes turned in bafflingly bad performances. Illinois has lost six of their last 10 to Penn State, including a 38-33 performance in 2009 that many fans still recall as a low point.
This year’s team included six freshmen and initially wasn’t expected to do much. Yet the Illini moved into the Top 25 after an 11-2 start that included a win over then-No. 19 Gonzaga. In January, after a surprising win over Ohio State behind 43 points from Brandon Paul, the team was in first place in the Big Ten.
Illinois followed that with nine losses in their next 10. The low point might have been the 80-57 loss at Nebraska that ended with players crying in the locker room.
For Weber, it might have been the Purdue loss on Feb. 15 in a game billed as a must win. The Illini led late, only to see Robbie Hummel _ who has said he wanted to play at Illinois but wasn’t seriously pursued _ ice the game. The Boilermakers, coached by former Weber assistant Matt Painter, have beaten Illinois seven straight times.
“You have to develop a culture and I think maybe the last three years all I did was worry about winning instead of developing a culture and a toughness,” Weber told reporters. “That’s my fault.”
Players took to Twitter to express support for Weber.
“Coach Weber is a very special man and will always have a place in my heart,” wrote sophomore center Meyers Leonard. “Although we butted heads some he was there for me no matter what.”
As for Weber’s future, unsourced media reports linked him to a possible return to Southern Illinois, where Chris Lowery was fired last week. An SIU spokesman declined comment Friday.
Jim Suhr of The Associated Press contributed from St. Louis.