Coach made a lasting impression at Southern Illinois – now part of Illini country

CARBONDALE – Bob Radtke didn''t have much use for Illinois basketball. Neither did Clay Kolar. Nor Susan Rehwaldt.

Until the school hired their favorite coach.

Tonight, they will gather around the television and cheer for their friend in the national title game. So will the rest of this southern Illinois city, the place Bruce Weber left for Illinois.

"The general feeling down here is that it just couldn''t happen to a nicer person," Rehwaldt said Sunday, a day before Weber''s Illini took on North Carolina. "We are just thrilled for him. We were thrilled when he got the job. We were sorry to see him go."

"He made an impression on the people he came into contact with here," Bob Radtke said. "He continues to impress us."

"There are people who are Illini fans because Bruce is there," said Carbondale''s Ginny Mead, the mother of Illinois band members Carolyn and Chris.

Imagine folks in Champaign-Urbana sitting around rooting for Bill Self and Kansas. It isn''t going to happen.

But Weber''s relationship with Carbondale defies the traditional coach/community breakup. No bitterness. No curses cast. No good riddances.

Carbondale wants Weber to succeed. Now and forever.

"He put his heart and soul into this program," said Southern Illinois assistant coach Rodney Watson, who worked with Weber and has stayed on the staff with Matt Painter and Chris Lowery. "What you see is what you get. He represents southern Illinois. He''s a regular guy. He''s a hard worker. He''s honest. He''s everything this community stands for."

Weber came to Southern Illinois in 1998 after 19 seasons as an assistant coach, all but one on Gene Keady''s staff at Purdue. The Salukis were a mess when he took over, and nobody expected miracles.

Watson has put his finger on the exact moment Weber became a successful head coach. It was after his first game with Southern Illinois, a loss at Murray State.

The Salukis met the next day to watch the tape. The team''s top player had made 11 turnovers in the game, and Weber explained what went wrong.

"This kid took exception," Watson said. "He felt like he was being singled out."

Watson can''t go into the details of what happened next, except to explain the result.

"Our players, when they got done with the film session, it wasn''t about the loss and it wasn''t about the turnovers, it was about buying into being coached," Watson said. "Our players knew this guy meant business.

"They understood the message. That''s what Bruce Weber is about. He''s more than just a basketball coach wanting to win games."

Sound familiar? The same scenario played out in Weber''s first season at Illinois.

The Salukis listened to Weber, and the fans in Carbondale bought in, too. A winning season the first year. An NIT bid the second. Another winning season.

Then a trip to the big time for the Missouri Valley power: upset wins against Texas Tech and Georgia to earn a spot in the NCAA Sweet 16.

Weber followed it with another NCAA bid the following season. Five years, 103 wins, totals fit for the Big Ten. Illinois made the call.

"To take a school like Southern Illinois and put it in a position where it will get four at-large tournament bids, it is eerie," Watson said. "It''s amazing."

Friends for life

As of a visit Sunday to Carbondale, there is no Weber statue on the Southern Illinois campus. Not yet, anyway. Win tonight''s game, and there might be a move that way.

Weber does have his own little shrine on the bulletin board at Epiphany Lutheran Church of All Saints.

Jan Radtke keeps the board updated with the latest Weber articles. There is a story about his success. And another about the recent death of his mother.

While talking about their favorite coach, the Radtkes and Rehwaldts are quick to express their sympathy for Dawn Weber.

"We understand that he says she''s looking down," Susan Rehwaldt said. "That''s our faith as well."

Weber and his family were regulars at Epiphany Lutheran in their five years in Carbondale. After late-night games and flights back to town, Weber still made the early Sunday service.

When the team had a particularly good game, say a win against a rival, the pastor would point out Weber''s success. And the congregation would let Weber hear its happiness.

"Lutherans do not clap in church," Susan Rehwaldt said. "But the Creighton game was big enough."

Weber never acted like a big shot in Carbondale. Which explains the good feelings.

"He never had that celebrity arrogance," Kolar said.

Kolar got to know Weber because they both had daughters involved in swimming. When the parents were asked to help out, Weber did it. Again, no big-timing.

"Bruce would come and be timing an obscure lane, doing his part," Kolar said.

Wait and see

Want to get the folks in Carbondale on your bad side? Tell them you don''t think Weber can succeed in the Big Ten.

When the coach was hired, people in Carbondale heard the grumblings. The school lost Self to Kansas and picked a guy from a midmajor. Not everyone in C-U was pleased.

"We said, ''They''ll find out,'' " Susan Rehwaldt said.

"We know what you got, and you don''t know what you''ve got," Watson said. "We expected this (title) game to take place. What you guys don''t understand yet is he teaches you how to win. His practices are set up to teach guys how to win. I''m not sure how many people out there know how to do that, but he does."

A place to grow

SIU Arena looks like a scaled-down Mackey Arena. There are multicolored seats in the 10,000-seat building and championship banners hanging from the season. Weber played a part in three of them.

Southern Illinois knows it can''t compete with the Big Ten. It doesn''t try. The school is comfortable in its role.

"You can''t be mad at him for following his dream," said Derek Robertson, who spent his freshman year as a manager for Weber''s team. "He was here for five years. Every telecast, they talk about how he started at SIU. That''s great publicity."

Robertson has stayed on as manager through two coaching changes, a year with Painter and one with Lowery. At 710 Book Store, where Robertson works, the place sells a shirt that pays homage to the coaching tree. It reads "Had Weber. Had Painter. Got Lowery." The Weber and Painter mentions are lined out.

"We are the cradle of Big Ten basketball coaches," said Tommy Bell, SIU director of athletic development. "We''ve got another one (Lowery) in development right now."

Painter and Lowery learned from Weber. They use basically the same system. They''ve had similar success with the Salukis.

Painter and Lowery heard the players at Southern Illinois and Illinois imitate Weber''s gravelly voice. They saw how important it was to Weber that his guys were happy.

"His whole thing is, ''Don''t be a dud,'' " Watson said. "He wants the Purdue guys, the Southern Illinois guys, the Illinois guys to have fun, to enjoy life. That was his whole approach."

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jgrout wrote on March 09, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Carbondale's regard for Bruce Weber reminds me of Las Cruces' regard for Lou Henson, who coached New Mexico State before coming to Illinois.  Though Lou did come back to coach the Aggies, it was many years later and he was much older when he came back than Bruce Weber is now.