Illini Legends Lists and Lore: Feb. 3, 2019

Illini Legends Lists and Lore: Feb. 3, 2019

The 1975-76 Illinois Coaches Basketball Association All-State Team was an amazing collection of future collegiate stars. Lawrenceville's Jay Shidler (who would sign with Kentucky) and East Leydan's Glen Grunwald (Indiana) were two of the crown jewels of the class, but Eldorado's Mike Duff (Evansville) and St. Laurence's Steve Krafcisin (Iowa) also received ample acclaim.

Four all-staters — Morgan Park's Levi Cobb, Mascoutah's Steve Lanter, Oak Park Fenwick's Neil Bresnahan and Zion-Benton's Rob Judson — would eventually sign with Coach Lou Henson's Fighting Illini. Illinois, however, initially missed out on a fifth prospect, Derek Holcomb.

The 6-11 center from Peoria's Richwoods High School envisioned himself as Kent Benson's heir apparent, and signed with Coach Bob Knight's reigning national champion Indiana Hoosiers.

"Indiana was coming off its undefeated season but had lost most of its players to graduation," Holcomb said. "I saw a great school, a great record and playing time. It was a high bar that had high expectations."

Holcomb would play in 22 of IU's 27 games as a freshman, but underwent surgery during the summer of 1977 as doctors removed the sesamoid bones from both of his feet.

"The prognosis from the doctors wasn't necessarily sunny because they had never done that kind of surgery on an athlete before," he said. "There was even some talk that I might not ever play again. I wanted to transfer and I was definitely sentimental over Illinois. And with (former Richwoods teammates) Mark Smith and Kevin Westervelt joining Illinois, there was a real gathering of the Knights."

NCAA regulations forced Holcomb to sit out the 1977-78 season, but he retained three years of eligibility. As a redshirt sophomore, he averaged 7.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and nearly three blocked shots per game, the last one an Illini record. His high-water mark for blocks came on December 8, 1978 when he swatted away 11 South Carolina shots, a mark that still stands today.

As a team, Illinois won its first 15 games in 1978-79, but struggled through the second half of the season due to some crucial injuries.

Holcomb's junior team (1979-80) made it to the National Invitational Tournament semifinals in New York, then his senior-year Illini (1980-81) earned a spot in the NCAA tournament. Holcomb wound up his UI career with a school-record 174 blocks.

After graduating in 1981 from Illinois, "Dr." Holcomb went on to earn master's and doctoral degrees from Southern Illinois. He began his career at South Florida as a visiting professor, worked at Purdue for five years and has been at Eastern Kentucky since 2000 where he teaches health classes."

"Human behavior and health have always been interests of mine," Holcomb said. "EKU has been a really good fit for me. While many universities have been shrinking in terms of a health program, we've added a master's program and several pre-med classes. Our students will eventually work at public health departments, in health promotion at businesses and, with a master's of public health, they can become hospital administrators."

Holcomb and his wife live near Richmond, Ky.

Illini Birthdays:

Today: Craig Swoope, football (55)

Monday: Zane Richards, wrestling (25)

Tuesday: Kris Jenner, football (57)

Wednesday: Tracy Abrams, basketball (27)

Thursday: Justin Hardee, football (25)

Friday: Ryan Moore, football (44)

Saturday: Nancy Panagiotopoulou-Andritsopoulou, women's basketball (20)

By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore (Third Edition now available in stores). Get more Illini birthdays, trivia and historical tidbits daily on Twitter@B1GLLL. His website is www.SportsLLL.com.

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