ST. LOUIS, April 1 -- The beginning of Bruce Weber's college coaching career was delayed 26 years ago by personal tragedy. Now, as his top-ranked Illinois basketball team stands two victories away from winning the school's first national championship, Weber is grieving over another loss: His mother died of a heart attack last month.
As the Fighting Illini prepare to play Louisville in a national semifinal Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome, Weber finds himself reflecting on the last conversation he had with his mother. When Weber called her after the regular season, she told him: "I see you on TV all the time. I'm just in awe of all the people that are calling me. It's a fairy tale."
"Our lives and careers were so important to my mom and dad," Illinois Coach Bruce Weber said. "There's no doubt they would be so happy."
(Michael Conroy -- AP)
Dawn Weber, 81, suffered a heart attack on March 11, while she was waiting in line for tickets to watch Illinois play in the Big Ten tournament in Chicago. She died a few hours later during surgery to repair a torn aorta. Less than two days after burying his mother in Milwaukee, Weber coached his top-seeded Illini in the NCAA tournament in Indianapolis.
Weber said the last three weeks, in which Illinois easily beat Fairleigh Dickinson, Nevada and Wisconsin-Milwaukee before needing a miraculous, 15-point comeback in the final four minutes to beat No. 2 seed Arizona in last week's Chicago Region final, have been both exhausting and joyous.
"We really haven't had a chance to grieve," Weber said. "We did almost publicly that weekend [she died] and that was tough to deal with."
He's no stranger to tragedy. As a young assistant coach at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee in 1979, Weber drove more than 500 miles south to Western Kentucky University, where he hoped to persuade then-Hilltoppers coach Gene Keady to give him a job. But when Weber arrived in Bowling Green, Ky., Keady wasn't there. A few weeks later, Weber called Keady from a pay phone outside the high school gym. Keady wanted him to come back and interview for the job.
"Coach, I can't afford to drive back down there," Weber told him. "If you're going to hire me, you've got to offer me the job over the phone."
Keady hired Weber as an assistant and on the day the young coach arrived on campus, Weber's older sister was killed in a car accident. Weber had to return to Milwaukee for the funeral. He spent the next 19 years as Keady's assistant at Western Kentucky and Purdue before landing a head coaching job at Southern Illinois in 1999. He guided the Salukis to the NCAA tournament in each of his last two seasons there, and was hired by Illinois when Bill Self left for Kansas before last season.
This season, the Illini won their first 29 games and have been ranked No. 1 for most of the season, and Weber also has been able to enjoy his younger brother's success. David Weber led Glennbrook North High School to its first Illinois Class AA state championship March 19.
"Our lives and careers were so important to my mom and dad," Bruce Weber said. "There's no doubt they would be so happy and so proud. They wanted us to have better lives. They wanted us to be coaches and teachers. It's been a relief. It can't get any better with my brother winning a state championship and the success we're having."
Illinois guard Deron Williams said he hopes getting to the Final Four has eased some of Weber's pain.
"Coach's situation has been a bad one," Williams said. "Us getting to the Final Four won't take away his loss, but I think it's helped him deal with it."
Weber, 49, is the least experienced of the four coaches in the Final Four. Louisville's Rick Pitino and North Carolina's Roy Williams are making their fifth trip to the event; Michigan State's Tom Izzo will coach in his fourth. Weber said he has called several coaches, including Izzo, for advice on issues such as handling media attention, ticket requests, hotel rooms and player curfews.
When Weber called Izzo on Monday, the Spartans coach told him: "Hey, you're making me nervous. Get a plan."
"One of the biggest things I heard from all of the coaches that I talked to is, 'Do you lock 'em up and keep 'em in or do you let them enjoy it?' " Weber said. "For the most part everybody said, 'Let them enjoy the experience.' It goes too fast. It could be gone in one game. Then all of the sudden, it's over, and the kids haven't gotten a taste of it."
Pitino, the first coach to take three schools to the Final Four (his 1987 Providence team lost to Indiana in the national semifinals), said Weber has more than proved he belongs on college basketball's biggest stage.
"He's got an incredible team," Pitino said. "He's more than up to the task of being in the Final Four. He's got the number one ranked team in the country all year. They were a three-point shot at the buzzer away from being an undefeated team so he doesn't need any advice from me."
Weber knows anything short of winning a national championship would probably be considered a disappointment for Illinois.
"It would be even more special, a fairy tale ending, if we were crowned national champions," he said.