Memory Lane: Meet Dan Hartleb

Memory Lane: Meet Dan Hartleb

EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE

This week: With Dan Hartleb about to receive a contract extension — read the story here — a look at how his head coaching career got started at Illinois.

Date: Feb. 23, 2006

Headline: Tough shoes to fill motivating — not intimidating — to Hartleb

By JEFF HUTH

CHAMPAIGN — At a time when Dan Hartleb was first discovering the joys of baseball, a Cincinnati Reds team that came to be known as the Big Red Machine was coming of age.

Like many kids growing up in Ohio in the 1970s, Hartleb became smitten with the dominant major league team of its era. And with one Reds player in particular.

"Johnny Bench was my idol," the first-year Illinois baseball coach said.

So when Hartleb reported for his first Little League practice in Hamilton, Ohio — and coach Neil Burtis asked his players which of them wanted to catch — at least one didn't need to think twice before answering.

"I didn't know what I was getting into, but I jumped in there," Hartleb said.

No one would dare say the same of the 40-year-old's latest rite of passage in the game. When Hartleb was named to succeed Hall of Famer Itch Jones as Illini head coach last June, it was a promotion 17 years in the making. Having spent 15 of those on Jones' Illinois staff — including the past four as the associate head coach — Hartleb knows exactly what he's getting into. And what's now expected of him in his new role.

"I would say it's a dream come true, but I don't think it's where the dream stops," Hartleb said. "There are things we want to continue to do with the program and try to push forward."

The 10th head coach in Illinois' 127-year baseball history will direct his first game Friday, when the Illini open their season against the host team in the Stetson Invitational at DeLand, Fla.

So far, says eighth-year Illini assistant Eric Snider, the transition from mentor (Jones) to longtime pupil (Hartleb) has been nearly seamless.

"I really don't see a whole lot of things changing, except Dan has to get here early in the morning and do interviews and those kinds of things," Snider said. "I really feel we haven't missed a beat."

The journey begins

Hartleb's journey from Little Leaguer to head coach of an NCAA Division I program received its early impetus from his hometown.

Hamilton was a baseball hotbed during Hartleb's formative years, and he was among its many youngsters who caught the fever.

"Baseball, growing up, was something that was always very strong both in the city and in my life," he said. "Great coaches all the way through, and you grew up playing against great competition."

His first coach, Burtis, had a particular knack for igniting an enthusiasm for the sport in his impressionable players.

"He just made everything fun, and he was knowledgeable about the game," Hartleb said.

It was with the Irene's Doughnut Shop Senators that Hartleb first experienced the exhilarating highs — and tearful lows — that baseball can bring. With a future college coach behind the plate, that west side Little League team made it all the way to the Hamilton city finals one year.

"And lost," Hartleb said.

There would be happier endings.

In high school, Hartleb caught for Dan Bowling's powerhouse Hamilton High program. Among his teammates were six other future Division I college players, a future second-round pick in the major league amateur draft, and a future Division II All-American.

During Hartleb's junior year, the all-conference catcher helped the Big Blue win Ohio's large-school state title. And his summer traveling team, the Cincinnati Storm, captured the Pony League World Series title the summer after he graduated.

College coaches at Indiana and Miami (Ohio) took notice, as did some smaller schools, of the strong-armed 1984 graduate.

But Hartleb astutely recognized he would need to improve his hitting to attain his major-college goals. He could go straight to a Division I program and likely sit on the bench for several years. Or he could start out at a junior college, where the opportunity to play immediately — and face live pitching — was far greater. Hartleb opted for the latter, signing with John A. Logan College in southern Illinois. He didn't know it at the time, but Hartleb would make the Land of Lincoln his home to this day.

Crossing paths

The junior college decision worked as planned. It also set up a connection to Jones that would prove critical to Hartleb's future career.

Logan was coached by Jerry Halstead, one of Jones' former players at Southern Illinois. When Hartleb earned all-conference honors, Halstead made sure his former coach was aware. Jones liked what he saw, and Hartleb signed with the Salukis after two seasons at Logan. Although his bat kept Hartleb from earning a starting job, Jones made frequent use of his defensive skills. Hartleb had only 29 at-bats in 1988, but the then-senior played in 56 of the team's 60 games, primarily as a late-game replacement for future major leaguer Joe Hall.

"I was kind of like the closer, except behind the plate," Hartleb said.

Recognizing there wasn't much call for a hitting-challenged catcher in the pros, Hartleb returned to SIU in the fall of 1988 to continue work on his bachelor's degree. That might have been his last connection to baseball if not for the departure of Jones' lone full-time assistant, Kirk Champion, for a job with the Chicago White Sox.

No, Hartleb wasn't the replacement. But he did pitch in during fall practice before Jones had located Champion's successor. And although SIU did not have the financial resources for a baseball graduate assistant, Hartleb agreed to stay on as a volunteer aide while pursuing a master's in higher education administration.

He quickly learned that Jones was no micromanager, giving Hartleb significant responsibilities. Among them was coaching third base during the 1989 season, when Jones decided he could be of more value to a young Saluki team by remaining in the dugout and providing immediate feedback and instruction during games.

"From my career standpoint, that first year was good because I was doing everything," Hartleb said.

It was a learning experience for more than just an eager young coach. That youthful team ended up losing a school-record 38 games. But one season later, SIU racked up a school-record 49 wins, capturing its eighth Missouri Valley Conference title under Jones and advancing to the NCAA tournament.

Next stop: Champaign

In September 1989, Jones was offered the Illinois job. To Hartleb's surprise - and delight - the new Illini coach asked if he'd like to come along, this time as a full-time assistant.

"I didn't even think about it," Hartleb said. "I said, 'Sure.' I was extremely excited just because I liked baseball and I didn't know if I'd ever have the opportunity to stay in baseball. It was just a great opportunity."

Timing was in Hartleb's favor. With school already in session and the start of fall practice almost upon him, Jones felt compelled to act quickly to hire a staff. He realized finding an experienced college assistant on such short notice would be difficult.

"As I looked around, I probably was not going to be able to come up with a person at a four-year school that is willing to move out in a few weeks," Jones recalled.

In addition, Hartleb had made a good impression in his short time with Jones. Whatever task the veteran coach assigned, Hartleb tackled it eagerly and competently.

"I saw in Danny a person who was very conscientious, knowledgeable, wanted to learn, very sincere, got along with people very well," he said.

Jones asked Hartleb which area of the team he'd like to coach. Although his expertise was limited, Hartleb said he wanted to direct the pitching staff.

"My whole thought was, if I ever had the opportunity to become a head coach — as a player and volunteer assistant I had done the offensive and defensive things — in doing the pitching, I would have a feel for both sides of (the game)."

Both Jones and Hartleb understood there would be growing pains for the novice assistant.

"He went out on a limb to give me that opportunity to advance my career," Hartleb said. "You probably mess some things up and you learn on the run."

But that didn't discourage Hartleb, who seized any opportunity to learn about pitching and about coaching it. He attended clinics. Read books on the subject. Picked the brains of experts like Champion and ex-major league pitching coach Ray Ripplemeyer, another former Saluki.

Two areas in particular challenged Hartleb in those early years.

"Learning to deal with the players mentally — the things they go through — and also trying to identify (mechanical) faults and knowing how to correct those things," he said. "Those are the things that took longer. It took two to three years where I was completely comfortable, but I still asked a lot of questions."

When Hartleb did hit his stride, Illinois began producing a string of high-end pitchers. From 1998 to 2001, Illinois produced an All-America pitcher every year. In that same span, three Illini were named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. Since 1993, UI pitchers have been selected All-Big Ten 21 times.

"The years we had real good years were the years when we had good pitchers,"Jones said.

As those years passed, the one constant on Jones' staff was Hartleb. While he says he always kept his ears open, Hartleb did not actively pursue other coaching opportunities. One reason: In private conversations with assistants in other programs, Hartleb heard an earful about how good he had it. "You'd hear bad complaints," he said. "They didn't like the head coach. Didn't like this. Didn't like that."

Nor do all Division I programs operate with the same level of support that Illinois baseball enjoys. Being a head coach at another school, Hartleb discovered, might include plenty of duties that have nothing to do with baseball.

"I looked at the support we have from our administration and the things we don't have to do as far as fundraising and field maintenance — this is just a great place to be,'" he said.

"Plus, a (job) title has never meant that much to me. It was always about trying to be successful here, and I thought everything would take careof itself if we were successful."

Fifteen years later, it has.

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tyler25il wrote on May 31, 2010 at 10:05 am

Good guy but another mediocre hire. For what he and his staff are paid, and the quality of the facility..another .500 season and no Big 10 tourney, let alone no NCAA berth, should not be tolerated. As it has been for quite sometime, the best baseball coaches and team are across town at Parkland.

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