Phil Pash's Simply Sports: Illinois provides amazing script

Win or lose in the NCAA championship game (played too late April 4 for inclusion in this section), I would bet on a couple of books and probably videos/DVDs chronicling Illinois’ great 2004-05 basketball season.

It has been that kind of season, and the story has so many angles:

Head coach Bruce Weber and the tragedy he and his family had to overcome during the tourney with the death of his mother, Dawn Weber.

The mix of so many unselfish players, with four of five starters from Illinois, and their understanding of the team concept of basketball—it doesn’t matter who makes the play as long as the play is made.

It all came together during Illinois’ 100th year of playing college basketball. How amazing it that?

The list could go on and on. If the ’89 Illini were the “Flying Illini,” these guys are the “Just Get It Done Illini.”

In the 72-57 Final Four national semifinal victory over Louisville (33-5) in St. Louis April 2, Roger Powell Jr. and Luther Head were the players who got it done, each scoring 20 points. In the second half, Powell played like he was shot out of a cannon. He was everywhere, doing everything.

Deron Williams, Dee Brown and James Augustine struggled on offense, so they played defense, rebounded (Illinois won 37-25) and handed out assists (Illinois, 21-10). Francisco Garcia, Louisville’ best player most of the season, was held to just four points while another Cardinal starter, Juan Palacios, was held to zero points by the Illini “D.”

Another big factor was Illinois got 13 points off the bench at key times (nine by Jack Ingram, plus five boards, and four by Nick Smith).

With the win, the Illini (37-1), ranked No. 1 the final 15 weeks of the season and unanimous six times, tied the single-season NCAA record for victories. Only two other Illinois teams, in 1953 and 1989, were ever ranked No. 1, and both also reached the Final Four, but neither lasted on top more than a week during the season.

A win over North Carolina (32-4) would give Illinois the victory record—and its first national title in five tries.

“We put April 4 on the board six to seven weeks ago and we are playing April 4 in the national championship,” Weber said.

More digging into coach Bruce Weber’s background has yielded more information, this from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

His father, Louis Weber, was born in Austria and came to Milwaukee with his parents when he was 2 or 3. He lived the rest of his life in the city, raising five children with his wife on the northwest side of town and working for years as a salesman for the Heil Co.

When the kids were younger, he worked evenings at a grocery store. He also ran basketball leagues for the recreation department, and when his kids reached adolescence, he was their coach.

He never went to college, but that didn’t stop him from extolling the value of a college education to his children or the virtues of teaching and coaching.

The result is a family full of teachers and coaches. Ron Weber, the oldest son, spent 23 years as the head coach of Waupaca (Wis.) High School before retiring; he still teaches PE at the school. David Weber, the youngest brother, coached Northbrook Glenbrook North High School to the Illinois Class AA state title this season.

Their oldest sister, Jan, has a teaching degree. Carrie, another sister, was studying to become a teacher when she died in a car accident.

Said Ron Weber about Bruce: “Bruce definitely has his (father’s) work ethic. There is no doubt about that. That is one of the big things that has enabled him to be successful, to get to the point where he is at. He is non-stop 24-7, will do whatever it takes.”

Louis Weber didn’t get to see all of his sons’ successes; he died 16 years ago from a heart attack. Their 81-year-old mother, Dawn, died suddenly the day the Illini beat Northwestern in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament.

Of all the local stories about former Illini, the best one was Scott Leber’s piece on WTVO-TV-17 about “The Rockford Flash” Bill Erickson on Illinois’ first of five Final Four teams.

Erickson was the starting point guard for the Fighting Illini during the 1948-49 season. The Illini ran up a 21-4 record and finished the regular season ranked fourth in the nation.

Erickson’s widow, Ginny, never will forget that team. She says in some ways, that team was much like this year’s team.

“Bill’s teams were runners like these guys are. They were fast, fast, fast,” Ginny Erickson told Leber.

Bill Erickson was the catalyst of the “Runnin’ Illini.” His constant motion across the court and cutting to the basket earned him the nickname “The Rockford Flash.”

It was Erickson’s junior season, an All-American season. He was named first-team All-American by the coaches. He even beat out Bob Cousey, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career in the NBA with the Boston Celtics.

In that ’49 season, the Illini earned a trip to New York City for what was then called the NCAA Playoffs. Ginny didn’t get to go. “I was a measly little student who couldn’t afford it,” she says.

So she did the next best thing at that time. “We didn’t get to watch it on TV then. We had to listen to it on the radio. It was different.”

The Illini beat Yale in the first game in New York. But they lost badly to eventual national champion Kentucky 76-47 in the semifinals.

After that, the Illini were sent out West to Seattle to play in the consolation game. They defeated Oregon State to finish third in the country.

From the April 6-12, 2005, issue

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