EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE AND SPORTS EDITOR JIM ROSSOW'S AUDIO.
This week: Craig Tiley, who turned Illinois into a tennis power, leaves campus to run the sport in Australia
Headline: Tiley's gone but far from forgotten
Date: June 12, 2005
By JIM ROSSOW
What was more surprising: That Craig Tiley left for another job or how fans of Illinois tennis reacted when he did?
No temper tantrums. No "I hope Australia never wins another Davis Cup match" rants. No charges of betrayal. No march on Atkins Tennis Center.
Basically, it was the folks of Whoville still having fun on Christmas morning, even after the Grinch took all the Xboxes.
"With his new job, he's in charge of a continent," said John Wagner, who as the president of the UI tennis booster club has a right to be upset but clearly isn't. "How are you going to turn that down?"
That was the first sound we heard when Tennis Australia named Tiley its new boss earlier this week.
Good for him.
That was the second.
Somewhere in Kansas, Bill Self is wondering, "What did I do wrong?"
"Maybe they would have reacted differently," Tiley said Friday night, "if I had gone to the University of Michigan."
Man about town
Like rivers, hills and "We Love Gov" signs, there don't seem to be any adversaries of Tiley in town.
If there were, now'd be the time to speak up.
"Not a mean bone in his body," said Jan Winters, Tiley's secretary and team mom. "You won't find anyone to say anything bad."
Even after ditching the program he built from scratch?
"This is good for him," said Pramod Dabir, a junior who will play for a new coach next season. "We're sad, but we're happy."
An informal survey of those who know their topspin shows Tiley's post-Illinois approval rating as high as those balloons Saturday in Vermilion County. Winning an NCAA championship has a lot to do with it. So does dominating the Big Ten, running a clean program, recruiting like the dickens and dressing up like a floozy.
On Halloween, Tiley often showed up not in orange and blue but in a long blond wig, short skirt and plastic breasts. If you played for Tiley, your birthday present was a bucket of water to the head, dumped from a balcony at Atkins. If you were a freshman for Tiley, you at some point got a pie in the face. If you worked for Tiley, you got the wrong horse at the wrong time.
Taking a break during a team tennis trip to South Africa, Tiley assigned then-assistant Bruce Berque a horse he assured was no more rowdy than Mr. Ed. When Berque hopped on, Secretariat took off.
"He told me it was a beginner's horse," Berque said. "Obviously it wasn't because it started bucking like crazy, and the guys kept slapping it on the (butt). Lucky I wasn't killed.
"He was always doing things like that."
More than pranks, Tiley will be remembered as someone who gave tennis meaning in these parts.
Mac MacGregor, a longtime player in town, said when he travels for business the topic of Illinois tennis usually comes up shortly after, "Welcome to town, Mac." MacGregor said Tiley's presence had a part in invigorating the local amateur scene, more and more 9-to-5ers grabbing rackets and wristbands.
"Craig never said he'd be here forever," MacGregor said. "There's so much respect for him you can't begrudge him."
The next step
Tiley begins his job with Tennis Australia on July 4. That might not be enough time to get his goodbyes in.
Vacationing in the Caribbean this weekend, he's due in Champaign on Wednesday. He was conducting a clinic in Portugal when news broke of his resignation.
"In a way, I was happy I was away and unavailable," Tiley said. "Personally, that was best for me because of how much I love the University of Illinois."
By all accounts, the love was mutual. Everyone on campus – from the basketball coach to the president – used Tiley's methods and accomplishments to motivate their own charges.
So why leave? He won't say it, but those close to Tiley said the coach was ticked about A) expansion delays at Atkins Tennis Center and B) the NCAA for its confused stance on tennis recruiting. Plus, being top dog of Australia, where tennis is wildly popular, is one of the sport's plum jobs. Kind of like Kansas in college basketball.
"I didn't make a decision to go to a competing institution," said Tiley, who had chances to jump to tennis powers Stanford, Texas and UCLA. "That might have something to do with the reaction."
Tiley is doing what he can to keep the positive vibes flowing. He said all of the underclassmen are expected to return, making Illinois a legitimate NCAA title threat. He's developed a stable of capable coaches (Brad Dancer, Berque) and former players (Mike Kosta, Cary Franklin) who would be perfect fits for the job. And the second he lands in Melbourne he'll start bragging about Dee Brown, Krannert Center, Nobel Prizes and the most beautiful tennis facility a college campus has ever seen.
"If it doesn't get done in a few years, I'll come back," Tiley said. "And I'll bring a shovel."
Jim Rossow is sports editor of The News-Gazette.