June 12, 2012
LEXINGTON, Ky. – For Kentucky track and field head coach Don Weber, the memory stands out as if it were yesterday.
In the spring of 1986, Weber and an assistant coach were meeting with Lisa Breiding, who was about to compete for the national championship in the 3,000-meter run in Indianapolis.
“She was running that evening and (we were) in the hotel room and going over some basic race strategy – don’t take the lead until the last lap, and when you do take the lead, save something for the homestretch in case somebody wants to battle you,” Weber remembered. “We were talking about that and she was obviously nervous and I remember her lip just started to quiver.
“When we finished talking, she left and I remember turning to the assistant coach and saying, ‘I’m glad she’s going out there instead of me, because I’m nervous, too!’ ” Weber recalled with a chuckle. “But she did exactly that -- took the lead with 300 meters to go and won.”
It's a memory cherished by Weber, his first national champion as a head coach. There are numerous remembrances for Weber, who has announced his retirement after 34 years on the Wildcat staff, including the last 28 years as head coach of the men’s and women’s track and field and cross country teams.
“In my mind, I’ve equated this to passing the baton,” Weber said. “I’ve run a lot of laps – 34 years – and now it’s time to give it to a new person and let them run with it. However, it’s with mixed emotions, with all these new facilities, the new Shively Sports Center, the new track. It’s a very exciting time and I think a new coach can make hay out of that and enhance the program here pretty dramatically.”
The new coach will seek to build on the legacy of Weber, whose athletes have earned 10 individual NCAA championships, 225 All-America honors, 92 Southeastern Conference individual titles and one NCAA team championship in women’s cross country. Weber’s athletes also won Academic All-America honors nine times and numerous Wildcats also achieved a place on the SEC Academic Honor Roll
“Don Weber has served his University with nobility and great integrity,” said Mitch Barnhart, UK Director of Athletics. “He has coached numerous All-Americans and national champions. He is a critical component, not only of the past, but also of the future of Kentucky track. He has been vital in the development of our facilities at the Nutter Field House, the Shively Sports Center and the new track which is nearing completion and will benefit our program for years to come. We thank him and wish the best for Don and his family in his retirement."
The years of coaching passed quickly for Weber, who had been a track and cross country athlete at UK, gained experience elsewhere in coaching, then returned to his alma mater in 1978.
“Thirty-four years, that’s a long time, but looking back on it, it doesn’t seem like a long time at all, something you love to do every day, so it was never a job,” Weber said. “Coaching track at the University of Kentucky, there wasn’t much longevity to it, prior to me. I didn’t think too much about it (in 1978). I was pretty much in the present. I just wanted to coach here, I’d been given the opportunity and I was 100 percent content with that.
“I stayed at UK for the same reason I came here out of high school – just the notion of being associated with UK Athletics. I spent most of my youth (in Louisville) out on my driveway pretending I was Cotton Nash. He represented UK in its glory to me. Everyone in my family was UK fans. I was into basketball and I was into Cotton Nash and Pat Riley. Those two guys were my heroes, my idols.
“I remember the (UK) coach coming to my house and he was telling us in college they ran 100 miles a week and I ran about 30 miles a week in high school. That difference really didn’t register but I do remember thinking, ‘It didn’t matter to me. You could tell me we run 200 miles a week, I just wanted to be at UK, so I’ll do whatever.’ It was that kind of deal, a place that you just wanted to be a part of it.”
Weber's direct association with UK began as a student-athlete, participating in track and cross country at UK from 1968-72. In 1970, he helped his team to the SEC cross country championship, which led to an All-SEC honor in cross country. Weber also received All-SEC honors in indoor track from 1968-72. He was the SEC 1,000-yard champion in 1972, establishing a then-conference record with a time of 2:10.20. Weber received the UK Athletic Leadership Award the same year. In addition to all of his honors and records, he was named captain of both the cross country and track squads.
After receiving his bachelor's degree from UK in education in 1973, he began his coaching career at Jesse Stuart High School in Louisville. Following two successful years at the high school level, he entered the collegiate ranks as an assistant cross country and track and field coach at Murray State University in Murray, Ky. While coaching the Racers, Weber earned a master's degree in secondary education.
In 1975, the Concentracion Deportiva de Pinchincha (the Sports Committee of the Ecuadorian State of Pichincha) selected Weber as the National and Olympic Track and Field Coach and to guide the team at the Montreal Summer Games. Following the 1976 Olympics, Weber returned to the United States to serve as the assistant coach at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kan., before becoming assistant coach at his alma mater in 1978.
National success quickly followed after Weber was elevated to head coach in 1984. His 1985 women's cross country team finished fourth at the NCAA Championships. The Wildcats improved the following year with a third-place national finish, leading up to his crowning achievement.
In 1988, Weber guided the UK women's cross country team to the NCAA national championship title. The men's team finished eighth at the same event. In 1989, the women's squad returned to the championship as the national runner-up.
In recognition of the Wildcats' success on the cross country course, Weber was named NCAA Coach of the Year in 1988. Prior to that, he was honored as NCAA District III Coach of the Year in 1985. In both of those years, he was also named the SEC Men's Cross Country Coach of the Year. Weber has been named SEC Women's Coach of the Year three times (1985, 1988 and 1989) and was the SEC Men's Indoor Track and Field Coach of the Year in 1995.
In retirement, Weber will spend more time with his wife Camille and their three adult children, Jennifer, Katie and Robbie. He plans to help the new coach with the transition to UK and also play a role in the completion and opening of the new outdoor track.
“There are so many people to thank who have helped me along the way,” Weber said. “Alex Campbell, a Lexington businessman, has been a great help to me and the track program over the years. There have been countless coaches, athletes and administrators who have been a part of Kentucky track and I am thankful for all they have done.”
Asked about a most cherished accomplishment, Weber didn’t single out a team or individual accomplishment or honor, but instead took the long view of his coaching term.
“All of those things play a part in it but what I’m most proud of is the development of the individual athletes over the years; the number of people who came here, some with fairly modest credentials out of high school, and became very, very good – national champions and All-Americans and SEC champions.”