URBANA – From 1994 to 1996, it was Yoshi Hayasaki's task to oversee University of Illinois gymnastics.
Toward the end, the former NCAA Coach of the Year could not bear to watch.
"It was very difficult for me to see," Hayasaki said, recalling the decline of his beloved and once-powerful Illini men's program. "Sometimes I didn't even go (to the meets). I went to the women's competition most of the time. I could not watch this team start to go down because they do have a great tradition here."
A tradition unmatched in the history of UI athletes:
– Nine NCAA team championships, a number matched only by Penn State;
– 22 Big Ten team titles, the most in conference history;
– 40 NCAA individual champions;
– 124 Big Ten individual champions;
It's a tradition Hayasaki inherited in 1974 from Illini coaching greats Hartley Price and Charlie Pond. It's a tradition the two-time NCAA all-around champion from the University of Washington steadfastly upheld, guiding Illinois to one NCAA championship, one national runner-up and four Big Ten titles before stepping back into a supervisory role following the 1993 season.
And it's a tradition Hayasaki has revived in just two years since returning to coaching in 1997. For the first time since 1993, Illinois has a men's gymnastics team in the NCAA Championships. Starting Thursday, the Illini and five other schools will vie for the national team crown at State College, Pa.
If others are surprised, the Illini's 22nd-year coach is not.
"From the beginning, I mentioned several times this is probably the best (Illinois) team since 1993," said Hayasaki. "I kept saying that. I felt this team was as good as that team."
He was confident for several reasons.
First, Hayasaki knew he would have solid veteran leadership from a trio of seniors: three-team All-Big Ten performer Yuval Ayalon, second-year co-captain Jon Corbitt and two-time All-Big Ten academic pick Brad Panozzo.
Hayasaki also knew he had a truly special talent in sophomore Travis Romagnoli. After one season, the Canada native already was a two-time All-American, tying for third in the NCAA all-around and placing third in the vault.
"We need somebody like that," Hayasaki said. "But you can't win a national championship with one person."
To that end, Hayasaki hit the recruiting trail with a vengeance after last season, bringing in seven freshmen. At least four – perhaps five – will be on Illinois' 12-man active roster for the NCAA Championships.
"I had to bring in some good freshmen," Hayasaki said. "I went nuts recruiting."
Such energy was a trademark of Hayasaki's coaching career since he succeeded Pond after the 1973 season. The two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year poured himself into keeping the UI among the nation's elite.
But as the years and the victories piled up, Hayasaki began to question whether he could continue to muster up the necessary energy. Began to question whether he even wanted to try.
"I was at the stage where I maybe was a little bit burned out," Hayasaki said. "After coaching 20 years, I felt I'd accomplished what I'd wanted to accomplish. At the same time, I was tired. No question about it."
After the '93 campaign, he went to Illini athletic director Ron Guenther to discuss his concerns. Hayasaki said he was ready to step away from coaching and from the UI.
Instead, the AD and coach came up with an alternative. Hayasaki was named to a newly created position: director of gymnastics programs. His duties included handling administrative duties for both teams and making his expertise available, particularly to a women's program in need of revival.
In his new role, Hayasaki slowly made an important personal discovery: His love for gymnastics and for coaching had not diminished. After 20 years, he simply had needed a break.
"It was one of the best things that happened to me," Hayasaki said. "I was refreshed, rejuvenated, got my energy back.
"And now I feel like when I first started coaching."
While Hayasaki was recharging his batteries, however, the Illini men's gymnastics team was sputtering. During Hayasaki's first tour of coaching, the Illini finished as low as fifth in the Big Ten only once. Under successor and longtime Hayasaki assistant Don Osborn, Illinois placed sixth, fifth and sixth in the conference meet 1994-96. The last two of those years, the Illini failed to qualify for the NCAA regionals.
Ayalon, who competed for Osborn for two years, said Hayasaki's successor was as knowledgeable and technically competent a coach as you'll find in gymnastics. However, the UI all-arounder said, Osborn had shortcomings interacting with the team.
"Bringing a team to a national championship requires more than just coaching skills," Ayalon said. "Because Don had great coaching skills. ... But altogether, it's how you deal with the freshmen, with the seniors, with school, the whole combination."
Fellow senior Corbitt wouldn't comment directly about Osborn, but he did say Illini teams during his freshman and sophomore years should have been more successful than they were.
"On a talent level, we had excellent, excellent teams," Corbitt said. "When you had the kind of talent we had, there had to be something else going on in order for the team not to produce the way it should be.
"Yes, a change needed to be. It's not my business to say what the change needed to be."
But it was Guenther's business. In the summer of '96, he announced Osborn's contract would not be renewed and that Hayasaki would return. Hayasaki quickly learned he was inheriting one dispirited group.
"Very low moralewise," Hayasaki said. "Very uninspired, very unemotional. No unity, no cohesiveness, no high goals set. ... They all came here with a desire to be a championship team. They all had that, but they kind of lost it."
His time away from coaching, Hayasaki said, proved beneficial in tackling this restoration project.
"When you step back, you see more things clearly and so much more objectively," he said. "I knew exactly what I had to do to change that. I went one after the other: from discipline to training rules to goal-setting to how hard you have to drive these kids.
"And they want that, too, setting a direction for them. Luckily, I had good kids. They listen well, and they are motivated kids."
A change in atmosphere, Ayalon said, was evident almost immediately.
"I think Yoshi's personality is very, very important to this," the UI senior said. "He has this authority without enforcing it. It comes natural to him.
"Since he came here, our training changed quite significantly. Not only the fact that we enjoy practice, but all the setting of goals and trying to achieve them really got better the last two years."
The 1997 Illini met one goal by reaching the NCAA regionals for the first time in three years. And although the team's season ended there, Romagnoli and then-senior Greg McGlaun went on to the NCAA Championships and returned as All-Americans.
The improvement whetted the appetites of returning Illini and raised the bar of expectations for '98.
"I think our first three years, we really didn't expect more out of ourselves than regionals, and maybe we had a chance to make it to nationals," Corbitt said. "This year we really put pressure on ourselves to make it to nationals."
There was reason for some concern after Illinois finished a disappointing fifth in the Big Ten Championships last month, primarily because of a teamwide slipup in the pommel horse. However, because the Illini were uniformly solid in every other event made the outcome easier to swallow.
Besides, Corbitt said, "The whole season we weren't really as concerned with Big Tens as we were with regionals and nationals."
If that was the target, then credit Illinois with shooting a bull's-eye April 4. Seeded sixth in the East Regional at Amherst, Mass., the Illini stunned the rest of the field by placing second, finishing ahead of Big Ten champion Iowa and league runner-up Penn State in the process.
After a four-year absence, Illinois was headed back to the NCAA Championships.
"This is by far the greatest achievement I've had as an athlete," Corbitt said.
Said Ayalon: "This has been our dream since our freshman year."
Hayasaki, who recruited the current seniors but did not coach them until the last two years, said he's happiest for this class.
"These guys deserve to experience something like that," he said.
Hayasaki knows, too, how valuable the experience can be for the underclassmen. He remembers an Illini class that went to nationals as freshmen in 1986. By the time they were seniors, they were national champions.
"So I know what it does to them, instead of them sitting at home, not participating," Hayasaki said. "Regardless of the outcome, they are going to experience the national championship. It's something that can get them going again to the next level."