O'Donnell: Bruce Weber recalls 'fairy tale' of Illini's Elite Eight win over Arizona

  • Illinois coach Bruce Weber makes his point during his team's win over Arizona in the NCAA tournament in March 2005 at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont.

    Illinois coach Bruce Weber makes his point during his team's win over Arizona in the NCAA tournament in March 2005 at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont. Daily Herald File Photo

Updated 3/28/2020 5:52 PM

ONE OF THE SAFEST BETS of new-mill sports is that Bruce Weber will never forget Easter 2005.

It was 15 years ago this weekend.


It's double-guaranteed that the Orange Krush -- the enduring jump-arounds who energize University of Illinois basketball games -- will never forget the night before.

That was when Deron Wiliams, Dee Brown, Roger Powell Jr., Luther Head, James Augustine and Jack Ingram banded to engineer one of the greatest prime-time comebacks in the history of college basketball.

Down 75-60 with 4:04 remaining vs. a talent-laden Arizona in an Elite Eight game at Rosemont's Allstate Arena, the No. 1 Illini somehow battled back to win 90-89 in OT.

On CBS, Dick Enberg and Jay Bilas were almost speechless.

Inside the Allstate, the 17,000+ Illini fans -- in an announced crowd of 19,957 -- rose from the dread like dancing squirrels that suddenly had balky Spotify reconnected.

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Twelve hours later, Weber traveled the streets of Champaign alone.

"You can imagine what the aftermath in Rosemont was like," Weber told The Daily Herald from his current coach's office at Kansas State.

"We wound up doing interviews, hugging everyone in sight, celebrating, until close to midnight.

"Then the team and staff finally got on the bus to get back to Champaign.

"My wife Megan had driven to the game, so after the bus left, she and I finally started home.

"About 40 minutes later, (assistant coach) Gary Nottingham called from the bus and said, 'Coach, you gotta catch up with us. You can't believe it. There are people on the side of (I-57) and on the overpasses just waiting to cheer us.

"You gotta catch up.'"

Weber and wife never did.

But they did arrive near The Assembly Hall in time to see his team being engulfed by close to 5,000 more ecstatic fans -- at 2:30 a.m.


"It was amazing. To have the night start with such hope, then hit that ugh spot and then be around all of that."

He got home around 4 a.m. and spent a few blissfully spinning hours in bed.

"Megan was out, exhausted," Weber said. "So were my daughters -- Hannah, Christy and Emily.

"I got up, quietly, because I had promised ESPN a live shot around 9 a.m.

"Then I went to church alone.

"Finally, I had to pick up our dog from the dog-sitter.

"I was at a stoplight and it all hit me.

"Twelve hours before, on national TV, in an insane arena trying to push us (to The Final Four in St. Louis), we were so close to having a magical season suddenly end.

"Then I thought of my mom (Mrs. Dawn Weber of Milwaukee), who had died two weeks before when her heart gave out on her way to see us in a Big Ten quarterfinal at the United Center.

"I had talked to her the night before. And she said, 'Bruce, you're living a fairy tale.'

"And then I snapped back to the moment and realized our dog was waiting.

"But I knew my mom was right."

Eight nights later, it ended with a 75-70 loss to North Carolina in the NCAA championship game.

But Mrs. Weber still wasn't wrong.

EXTREMELY OMINOUS NEWS out of Arlington Park:

Management at the Churchill Downs Inc. property executed "temporary" furloughs Thursday that included racing secretary Chris Polzin and racing manager Valerie Riggs.

CDI did not announce furloughs of racing secretaries at its flagship track in Louisville or at its Presque Isle (Pa.) racino, the only other corporate tracks scheduled to race this summer.

Without senior racing department personnel in place, a hibernating racetrack can't process stall applications or cogently finalize myriad details necessary to stage a live meet.

CDI chairman Bill Carstanjen is expected to update news about 2020 openings of Churchill Downs, Presque Isle or Arlington next week.

Whatever time CDI's semantical rope-a-doping may buy, backstage and backstretch regulars at AP are bracing for the absolute worst.

STREET-BEATIN': Al Michaels told David J. Halberstam of Sports Broadcast Journal that he has no plans to retire after his current deal with NBC expires following Super Bowl 56 in February 2022. Big Q.: What kind of market will there be for a 77-year-old Michaels? ...

The Sinclair Broadcast Group -- the Cubs' partner in that increasingly ill-starred Marquee Sports Network -- is receiving some rough press over treatment of freelance production staff during COVID-19. (Prior to Marquee, Sinclair purchased 21 Fox regional sports networks from Disney for $9.6 billion in 2019.) ...

Billy Johnston -- a man the U.S. Trotting Association referred to as "a pillar of the sport in North America for more than half a century" -- died Thursday at age 84. (When both were in full flight, he and Dick Duchossois hobbied in very colorful wars of words.) ...

Mention of Dave Kingman prompted recall of a 1979 bet involving then-Chicago Tribune stars Gene Siskel, Gary Deeb and David Israel. Each put up $100 projecting the home run total for "Kong" with Deeb taking an injury-guessing low (28), Siskel middling (35) and Israel going high (42). Israel collected: Kingman finished with a career-best 48. ...

With FS1 airing a Westminster Kennel Club Marathon, can competitive reruns of "Rin Tin Tin" and "Lassie" be far behind? (Anyone with a spiffy pooch should be out looking for an agent.) ...

And irrepressible funnyman Phil Mushnick, on the void of TV sports metrics, deadpanned, "ESPN on Sunday will run through all MLB outfielders to give their coronavirus 'catch probability percentages.' "

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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