That was the reaction of many Southern Illinois University basketball fans when Bruce Weber was hired as the Saluki men’s basketball coach after the 1998 season.
Five years, a Sweet 16, two NCAA and an NIT appearance later, Weber was the toast of the town. On Oct. 19, Weber will be inducted into the Saluki Hall of Fame along with Jermaine Dearman, Mallory Duran-Sellers, P.J. Finigan, George Loukas, Jeneva McCall and Bryan Mullins.
“Yeah, it was a surprise,” Weber said. “I joked with Mike Reis a couple times, ‘When (was) I going to get into the HOF?’ He said, when you’re done coaching. I just kind of blew it off. I got a call from Coach (Jerry) Kill and Mike and they said, ‘We have something to tell you.' When I got the call I was definitely surprised and very honored.”
Weber came to SIU after serving an extended apprenticeship under legendary Purdue coach Gene Keady. SIU was his first head coaching job at the NCAA level. He left SIU following the 2002-03 season to become head coach at the University of Illinois. Weber has been head coach at Kansas State since 2012.
However, he first rose to national prominence at SIU, compiling a 103-54 record over five seasons. The Salukis were 52-15 in Weber’s final two seasons.
“It was obviously my first head coaching job,” Weber said. “Rich (Herrin) had done a great job and it had gone down a little bit. To be able to rebuild … we already had Kent (Williams) and Darren Brooks and now Jermaine, three guys in the HOF and two of those in the Missouri Valley Conference Hall of Fame. For my family, it was a special time. There are memories that will stay with us forever.
“I went to the national championship (at Illinois) and did some unbelievable things at Purdue and K-State, but building a program and getting it to where we did and winning five Valley championships, that’s pretty impressive. You just feel proud to be part of it.”
Weber rebuilt the program not by recruiting superstars, but with athletes who played with grit and determination. He said he remembers staying in the office until midnight or later with then-assistant coach Rodney Watson going over recruits that would be the right fit for the program.
“To be honest, when I got the job, we had a lot of things to do, the whole department did,” Weber said. “I still remember when Coach Kill came in, talking about you can’t win every war. You have to figure out which ones you can win. Slowly, but surely, we did some things. We got Kent and Jermaine and added some other guys. They weren’t highly recruited players, but they ended up having great careers for us.
“They bought into it and it started with that first group. A lot of those guys we didn’t recruit, but they set the tone. We kind of demanded a lot out of them and they improved. Darren Brooks didn’t even have another D-1 offer. And, a lot of our guys were like that. They got in the gym and improved and we were good enough to beat some pretty good people along the way.”
The Salukis went 15-12 in Weber’s first year. In 1999-00, the Salukis finished 20-13 and earned an NIT berth, SIU’s first postseason appearance in five years. The Salukis defeated Colorado in the first round of the NIT, but lost at Brigham Young in the second round.
The 2001-02 season was one of the greatest in SIU history. The Salukis finished 28-8. They lost to Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference final, but garnered an NCAA bid. Defeating Texas Tech and Georgia, SIU earned the first Sweet 16 berth since the 1977 season.
And, when Weber peels back that little piece of cloth to unveil his plaque on the wall of the SIU Arena, he may be doing it through teary eyes.
“There’s no doubt,” he said. “I think my whole family is going to be there. My wife ... the girls, they loved their time there and the people were so good there.”