Weber gives UI his word

CHAMPAIGN - Bruce Weber didn't need to read a newspaper to figure out he wanted the Illinois basketball coaching job.

He only needed one to tell him he had a shot.

?I picked up a paper last Monday and saw what (Illinois athletic director) Ron (Guenther) talked about and what he wanted in a candidate,? Weber said this morning. ?And I told my assistant that was with me, ?If he's telling the truth, I'm going to get that job.' ?

A week later, he had it.

Weber was introduced at a news conference today at the Ubben Basketball Complex, but he accepted an offer Monday to become the Illini's 16th men's basketball coach and the successor to Bill Self.

Today, Weber hit the ground running.

Weber already was working the phones this morning in his mostly barren new office, fielding congratulatory phone calls (Self left a message) and setting up meetings.

He doesn't mind the work. After all, this is a man who's fulfilling a longtime dream of coaching in the Big Ten - if not in the spot he anticipated.

?I never really dreamed of Illinois, because I thought my in would be at Purdue,? said Weber, a Boilermakers assistant for 18 years under Gene Keady. ?That was my chance. But when this came up, it was a fantastic opportunity. It's one of the top jobs in the country.?

And it's a job Weber intends to keep.

He's aware that the Purdue question will come up, especially as he succeeds coaches in Lon Kruger (who jumped to the NBA) and Self (who took the coaching job at Kansas) who left to pursue dream jobs.

But he isn't worried.

For starters, Weber sees himself as a long-haul guy. And then there's the simple mathematics of a considerable buyout clause in his Illinois contract.

Terms of that deal weren't immediately available this morning, but the buyout figures to keep Weber in place.

?A big thing with Ron, right from the start was, ?There's no way you can leave,' ? Weber said. ?And he'll address this, but there's quite a bit of a buyout there. He told me, ?You must be really good if somebody's going to pay that buyout.' I'm hoping I'm here for as long as they want me.?

Weber spoke mostly with intermediaries last week, and Guenther's representatives continued to tell him he was in good shape throughout the Illinois search.

But on Sunday, as talk in the press shifted to Creighton coach Dana Altman, Weber's phone stood silent. For the first time in the search, doubt crept in.

?And then, Monday, Ron called and said, ?I like you and I want to offer the job,'? Weber said.

Weber was asked to keep the offer under wraps, and not just by Guenther. Southern Illinois Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk asked Weber to keep quiet until after the school announced a $4.5 million gift to the athletic department, the largest in the school's history.

He confirmed his departure to an Associated Press reporter who showed up at his front door late Monday night in Carbondale.

?I still don't understand how she found my house,? Weber said. ?My assistants who've been with me for five years can't find my house. The dogs were barking, my daughter was crying and I was just trying to get to bed. She said she was from the AP, but I thought it was somebody trying to rob us.?

Not only did Weber avoid getting robbed, he was on the way to hitting the jackpot.

Weber reportedly was paid about $250,000 per year at Southern Illinois, and Illinois trustee Tom Lamont said this morning that his salary at the UI likely will be in the $500,000 range. Terms of the contract were not immediately available this morning.

Guenther contacted trustees on Tuesday, Lamont said.

The board of trustees won't give formal approval to Weber's contract until May, but Weber already has met with several campus leaders, including Chancellor Nancy Cantor.

?His ways of interacting with his student-athletes are very impressive,? Cantor said. ?We sat and talked about students, and he just gave a number of examples of his time with them.?

Weber said he'll relate to his players, that he'll be demanding but caring, and said Illinois fans should expect his teams to play hard.

And if that sounds a little like his mentor, Keady, it probably should.

But don't expect any divided loyalties when their teams meet.

?I'm very proud of him and wish him all the success in the world, except in two games every season, when they play Purdue,? Keady said this morning.

Weber, 46, already has enjoyed plenty of success. He went 103-54 in five seasons as head coach at Southern, including 24-7 this season and 28-8 in 2001-02, and he led the Salukis to the past two NCAA tournaments.

That included a run to the Sweet 16 in 2002, when Southern knocked off Bob Knight's Texas Tech team in the first round.

That NCAA tournament track record might have given Weber an edge against Northern Illinois coach Rob Judson, a fan favorite who played for the Illini and was an Illinois assistant coach under Kruger and Self.

Judson, who hasn't been to the NCAA tournament in two seasons at Northern Illinois, said this morning that he and Guenther never discussed the opening.

?I'll be recruiting today and excited about doing it for Northern Illinois,? said Judson, who was recruiting in Danville, among other stops, today. ?We'd like to use the visibility and momentum gained from this to help us here.?

As Judson moves on at Northern, Weber is moving north. And there's much to do. There's a family - wife Megan and three daughters - to move, lots of settling to do and a coaching staff to select.

Current Illinois assistant Wayne McClain will remain on Weber's staff, and at least one of his Southern Illinois assistants, Greg Lowery, is likely to join the Illini.

Matt Painter, Weber's top assistant ?is looking pretty good,? Weber said, to get the head coaching job at SIU.

There's also some recruiting to do. Weber can't discuss unsigned recruits, but he said this morning that he wants to ?make sure everybody signs,? a likely reference to prep star Charlie Villanueva, who's committed to Illinois but has been weighing his college and NBA options since Self's departure.

Weber began meeting his current players today, and plans to call incoming recruits.

?Honestly, I don't know much about him,? said Brian Randle, a star at Peoria Notre Dame who signed to play at Illinois. ?I know his team made the NCAAs last year, so he has the credentials. I'm anxious to meet him and develop a relationship.?

Today, Weber still is taking it all in, trying his best to enjoy the moment, though with an eye on the future.

?I want to come here and build a house,? Weber said. ?I think this is a place where you can win a national title. I'm excited about being here, and I want to be here as long as they're excited about having me.?

s Jodi Heckel, Jeff Mezydlo and Jim Rossow contributed to this report. You can reach Brett Dawson at (217) 373-7422 or via e-mail at bdawson@news-gazette.com.

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