Nothing, however, prepared Weber for the resistance he faced at Illinois after replacing Kansas-bound Bill Self in May 2003. "There were a lot of rocky spots those first six months," he says. The players balked at his preseason conditioning workouts, which lasted three times as long as Self's had. Nor did they cotton to Weber's sometimes disarming candor. "Dee was the hardest one to get to buy in," the coach says. "The first week I got here, we had workouts to evaluate the players, and right away I said, 'Dee, your left hand is suspect, and you don't have a pull-up jumper.' I was trying to help him, but he was thinking, Who is this guy?"
Tired of hearing Self's name's come up among his players and in the media, Weber took drastic measures a month into last season, famously donning a black suit and tie and holding a mock funeral for Self in the locker room. "A lot of people thought it was great, and some thought it was nuts," Weber says. "I don't know how Bill took it, but it was really a compliment to him. I had to get it in their minds that he wasn't coming back." Yet the ghost of Self wasn't Weber's only obstacle. An early blowout loss to Providence occasioned the customary Internet and talk-radio hysteria among Illini fans, and when Weber's daughter Christy woke him up screaming one morning before the Missouri game, he assumed the worst.
"She starts yelling, 'Dad, there's something hanging in the tree outside!'" recalls Weber, whose thoughts raced to the legendary Dean Smith effigy that angry North Carolina fans hung early in Smith's career at Chapel Hill. "I'm thinking, Oh, God, they've gone too far. They want us out of town." When he finally approached the tree, Weber instead discovered a stuffed feline above a message reading beat the tigers/coach we love you.
Illinois rebounded to defeat Mizzou, win its first outright Big Ten title since 1952 and reach the round of 16, falling to Duke. These days, the delightfully overcaffeinated Orange Krush student section serenades Weber with a lusty "Broooooce" when he's introduced at Assembly Hall--apt reward for a dues-paying grinder who grew up as one of five children in working-class Milwaukee and took the advice of his late father, Louis, to become a coach. "Even though Coach Weber got the big contract [$550,000 a season through 2008--09], he's still a regular dude who helps carry bags off the bus," says Brown, who embraced his new coach's approach midway through last season. Adds Illini assistant Jay Price of Weber, "He's a basketball junkie. At night he'll go home, have dinner with his family [wife Megan and daughters Hannah, Christy and Emily] and start watching tape. I'll check my cellphone and have a missed call from him at 12:37 in the morning."
Like the soon-to-retire Keady, Weber preaches man-to-man defense--the Illini often played zone under Self--but he has tweaked Keady's motion offense, creating "changes that are more suited to the modern-day player," as Keady says, with a hint of old-lion resignation. "There are more options, from allowing the guards to post up to giving players more freedom to shoot threes and go one-on-one. But they still get the ball inside and make the extra pass."
"The more skilled players you have, the more freedom you can give them," says Weber. "They're allowed to make plays as long as they do it within the system."
Despite the positive publicity surrounding the Illini's breakout season, the jury's still out on Weber as a big-time recruiter: All of the players in his rotation are Self's recruits, and Self outflanked him last fall to land highly regarded in-state forward Julian Wright of Homewood-Flossmoor High. That's just one of many reasons that Weber would no doubt love to meet (and beat) Self's Jayhawks at, say, the Final Four in April. ("That would be a hard game," Weber says diplomatically. "I think the guys would want to beat him, but Bill's also their friend.") But as any Illinois fan should know, it wouldn't be smart to look ahead two months, whether the topic is a possible three-weekend bus tour to Illinois-friendly NCAA tournament sites ( Indianapolis- Chicago- St. Louis) or the chance to become the first men's college team in 29 years to go unbeaten.
Even the Illinois players were divided on the topic of achieving a perfect season. "I don't think it's impossible," declared Williams.
"Anything can happen," said Brown.
Smith had other ideas, mindful that Stanford and Saint Joseph's failed to reach last year's Final Four after taking spotless records into March. "The bottom line is, we're not going to win every game," Big Nick argued. "We're not the 1976 Indiana team or the 1991 UNLV team by any means. Those teams had, like, five NBA guys each. We have very good talent and play well together, but going undefeated just isn't going to happen. Besides, if you were in our position, would you want to go into the NCAA tournament without a loss? Talk about a zoo. Everyone remembers how you finish, anyway, not how you played in January."