The decision has been made, said Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas. After meeting with Bruce Weber early Friday morning, Thomas fired the nine-year Illini basketball coach to revitalize a program that slid from the nation's elite over the last five seasons.

CHAMPAIGN -- The decision has been made, said Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas.


After meeting with Bruce Weber early Friday morning, Thomas fired the nine-year Illini basketball coach to revitalize a program that slid from the nation's elite over the last five seasons.


Assistant coach Jerrance Howard was named as the interim coach. The former Illini guard and Peoria Central graduate expressed a desire to remain on staff in the long term under the new hire, Thomas said.


"It's just how we were trending,'' Thomas said. "It's the total body of work. It's not just the past three or four months or the last one. It's the last nine years.


"There's no doubt early on his coach Weber's tenure, we had great success here. In the last four to five years, we were running in place or even digressed a little bit. For a program of our stature, it's important that we're playing at the highest level.''


Hired in August, Thomas already fired his three highest-paid coaches. With Weber's $3.9-million buyout paid regardless whether he lands another job, Illinois will pay $7.1 million in buyouts, including $2.6 million to former football coach Ron Zook and $620,000 to former women's basketball coach Jolette Law.


Weber was expected to address the media later in the afternoon. His Illini were 17-15 this season after losing of 12 of 14 games to finish the season. Howard may not available until Saturday.


After meeting with Weber, Thomas spoke with the players and assistant coaches after Weber first broke the news to them.


Thomas would likely use a search firm to hire Weber's replacement. Thomas hasn't spoken with the two university board of trustees who stated a preference for hiring an African-American coach, he said.


Howard would serve as the head coach if the Illini receive an NIT bid Sunday night. Thomas was given no indication the other assistant coaches wouldn't stick through the interim. Thomas didn't seriously consider keeping Weber on board for a possible appearance in the NIT.


Illinois wouldn't accept a bid to play in the two other postseason tournaments, the CBI or the CIT.


Thomas already has a list of candidates.


"There's a preference for someone who's had head coaching experience,'' Thomas said. "I don't want to paint myself into a corner.''


Weber guided the Illini to their only NCAA championship game appearance in school history in 2005, his second year on the job. He was 210-101 with the Illini and won outright Big Ten titles in each of his first two seasons with the program, but the Illini lost momentum.


Illinois failed to advance to the NCAA tournament in three of the past five seasons. The Illini have only won one NCAA game since Dee Brown left campus in 2006.


Thomas said the search for a women's basketball coach won't slow the process of hiring Weber's replacement.


Weber's buyout of $3.9 million will be paid regardless whether he lands another job.


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.