CHAMPAIGN – Everyone but the shot putters, it seems, wants in on Illinois' 4x400-meter relay team these days.
Not long ago, sophomore sprinter Tunde Ridley was bending the ear of Illini assistant coach Willie Williams about getting in on the action.
"He says, 'Coach, I'd like to run that, too,' " Williams recalled. "So we have guys that are kind of waiting in line to get on that unit."
Little wonder. Since Williams' return to his alma mater 16 years ago, the 4x400 relay has become and remained a paragon of success under his guidance. Among its many achievements, Illini 4x400 has produced:
– 11 Big Ten Conference victories;
– Seven All-America awards;
– Two runner-up finishes in the NCAA Indoor Championships;
– The Big Ten Indoor Championships meet record.
"That's been Coach's stamp of pride throughout the years," Illini head coach Gary Wieneke said. "That group is going to step up every single time."
Even, it seems, when not all of the first-stringers are available. Last Saturday in a meet at Clemson, S.C., leadoff runner Chris Jones and anchor Matt Klima both were sidelined by injuries. So Williams had Cortney Lamb and Bobby True join regulars Tyrone Jones and Sherman Armstrong on the relay, shuffled the lineup around and came up with a winner.
It marked the seventh time in nine races since the start of the indoor season that Illinois' 4x400 entry had come in first. The Illini have not finished lower than second this season.
"We didn't expect what we got Saturday," admitted Williams, "but after what we saw there, we know that we have two athletes that can fill in admirably for the ones that are injured."
Truth be told, Williams didn't know what to expect out of his squad entering the year. The graduation of Dorian Green, a two-time Big Ten indoor champion in the 400, created what appeared to be a huge void in the group.
"You just don't replace that kind of athlete," Williams said.
Matt Klima, a four-year starter on the relay, also had his doubts even though he and two other regulars were returning.
"Sherman was the wild card," Klima said. "I had no idea what the kid was going to do."
It didn't take long to find out.
"Once we saw Sherman Armstrong indoor, we knew we had an exceptional talent," Williams said. "Then we looked at how we could put this together effectively."
Said Klima: "I've never quite met anyone like him coming in as a freshman, his maturity and ability. I think he's going to be one of the greatest to come out of here by the time he's done."
Combine Armstrong's emergence with the continued improvement of the other three, Williams said, "and we really are better than we were last year."
Better to the point, in fact, that Williams believes there's a school record or two in the group's future.
"If not this year, then next year and the year after," said Williams, who will have both Joneses and Armstrong together through 2000.
The current foursome already is putting pressure on the UI record book. A time of 9 minutes, 8.58 seconds on March 7 at a Last Chance Meet in Indianapolis was the second-fastest indoor time in UI history, 0.29 second off the record.
A week later, the group ran the fourth-fastest UI indoor time (9:08.75) while placing second in the NCAA Indoor Championships.
"That's definitely one of our goals," Tyrone Jones said. "Even though Matt is leaving, we have three people coming back so we're definitely looking forward to bigger and better things. We see the school record, and it's not that far off."
The standard by which all Illini 4x400 units are measured is the 1987 foursome of Tim Simon, Rod Tolbert, Kevin Brooks and Lee Bridges, who combined to set current UI indoor (3:08.29) and outdoor (3:02.30) records.
"We'll take a shot at it," Klima promised in reference to the outdoor mark. "That's pretty high. There were some pretty good athletes on that team, too."
Williams said Illinois has emphasized the 4x400 relay during his tenure. Since his days as the coach of a five-time state champion at Gary (Ind.) West Side High School, Williams has subscribed to the notion that other events naturally benefit from a potent 4x400 unit.
"If you have a strong 4x4(00) relay team, you're going to have some awfully powerful sprinters that can drop down into the 200, the hurdles and the 4x100 relay," he said. "If a guy can run that 4x4, he can be an asset up and down the lineup."
The current group is an example of that diversity, Klima holding the school record in the 600 and Armstrong running team-leading times in the short hurdles.
With time, Williams' emphasis on the 4x400 also has created a tradition learned early in Illini careers and then passed on to newcomers.
"Certainly, I've talked to a lot of the alumni who've told us that we've never lost on our home track," Klima said. "That at the Armory we've never lost. There's a great deal of expectations. I wouldn't want to be the one to break the streak."
Armstrong said he'd never heard of Simon and Tolbert before arriving at the UI. But the Chicagoan knows about them now.
"You most definitely want to keep it going," Armstrong said. "All that pride takes over."
When the Illini men's 4x400-meter relay team placed second in the NCAA Indoor Championships last month, it marked the seventh time since 1987 Illinois earned All-America honors in the event.
Year, Place, Runners
1994, 4th, Dorian Green, Anthony Jones, Ben Beyers, Scott Turner
1993, 8th, Anthony Jones, Earl Jenkins, Ben Beyers, Scott Turner
1988, 4th, Bryan Benso, Lee Bridges, Charlton Hamer, Tim Simon
1987, 8th, Rod Tolbert, Tim Simon, Kevin Brooks, Lee Bridges
1998, 2nd, Chris Jones, Tyrone Jones, Sherman Armstrong, Matt Klima
1991, 7th, Scott Turner, Arvella Brooks, Cully Welter, Earl Jenkins
1988, 2nd, Rod Tolbert, Lee Bridges, Charlton Hamer Tim Simon