Season of change: 10 biggest area stories of 2011
1. Changing of the guard
After a 6-0 start and a rise to No. 16 in the national rankings, the Illini football team went into a free fall, costing seventh-year head coach Ron Zook his job. One day after Illinois concluded the regular season with its sixth straight loss, first-year athletic director Mike Thomas dismissed Zook, who had two years remaining on his contract. In his second major act as Illini AD, Thomas handed the football reins to Toledo head coach Tim Beckman on Dec. 9. The initial reaction among fans looking for a bigger name was lukewarm at best. But there's a history of Mid-American football coaches achieving Big Ten success. Thomas is counting on Beckman being the latest.
2. A spike in success
Before the season began, Illini volleyball coach Kevin Hambly wrote this on the dry-erase board in his office: We are winning the NCAA championships! Now! This year! Illinois almost did, marching to the national title match before falling to UCLA. Along the way, the Illini spent four weeks at No. 1 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, won 32 of 37 matches, drew more than 42,000 fans to Huff Hall and sparked a level of interest in the program not seen since the early 1990s.
3. Change at the top
After nearly two decades at the helm of the Illinois athletic department, the longest-tenured AD in the Big Ten announced in mid-May he was calling it a career. Ron Guenther's 19-year legacy included unprecedented facilities expansion and renovation, financial discipline in an era when other schools were struggling with red ink, and a culture of compliance integrity. In his place, UI officials chose Mike Thomas, a 26-year vet of college athletics administration whose most recent stop was at Cincinnati. Guenther left some unfinished business, and it's now up to Thomas to tackle two of the biggest: fixing football and renovating the Assembly Hall.
4. Into the Lions' den
Mikel Leshoure was under the radar as a college football recruit, but by the time the Centennial graduate had completed his junior season at Illinois, there could be no ignoring this rampaging running back. The Detroit Lions certainly didn't, selecting the second-team All-American and UI single-season rushing leader in the second round of the NFL draft. The former Charger would have to wait another year, however, to join fellow Illini running backs Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendenhall on fall Sundays. An Achilles tendon injury early in training camp abruptly sidelined Leshoure for his entire rookie season.
5. Headed in the right direction?
Fans of a recently stagnating Illini men's basketball team are certainly hoping that's the case. Impatience was starting to show and grow during four years without an NCAA tournament win — two of those without an NCAA invitation. The drought ended in March, when Bruce Weber's guys manhandled a UNLV team guided by ex-Illini coach Lon Kruger in their postseason opener. Although No. 2 Kansas ended Illinois' tournament run in the next round, the current Illini have shown signs that the arrow continues to point up by winning 11 of their first 13 games.
6. Tale of two seasons
On April 23, after losing the first game of a doubleheader at Michigan State, the Illini baseball team was 12-21 and seemingly going nowhere. Then Dan Hartleb's squad won the nightcap, igniting one of the most remarkable back-from-the-dead runs by any team in any sport in school history. By the time Illinois was done, it had clinched a share of the Big Ten title, won the conference's tournament and was one of two teams left standing in the Fullerton (Calif.) Regional before finally succumbing to Stanford. Even with that loss, the Illini won 18 of their final 24 games.
7. Hail to the champions
Illinois produced three individual NCAA champions during the 2010-11 school year, and two of them needed no directions to the top of the national podium. In March, junior Andrew Riley won his second national track title, this time in the 60-meter hurdles. In the process, Riley broke his own school record and completed an undefeated indoor season. In April, senior gymnast Daniel Ribeiro captured his second NCAA title in three years in the pommel horse. The same night, junior teammate Tyler Mizoguchi earned the parallel bars crown. It marked the second time in three years that coach Justin Spring's Illini produced at least two national champs.
8. NFL owner in our midst
In 2010, Shahid Khan was denied in his first attempt to buy an NFL team. However, the owner of Urbana-based automobile parts manufacturer Flex-N-Gate Corp. was not deterred after failing to land the St. Louis Rams. In November, the University of Illinois graduate with the signature handlebar mustache hit pay dirt, reaching agreement to purchase the Jacksonville Jaguars. When the deal received unanimous approval from other team owners this month, the Pakistani-born businessman became the first minority owner of an NFL franchise.
9. Join the crowd
Trips to NJCAA tournaments have become routine for the Parkland College volleyball and women's basketball teams. Last season, the Cobra men's basketball squad joined in the fun. In coach Nate Mast's second year at Parkland, the Champaign native and former Illini guard guided the Cobras to a regional title and their first trip to the NJCAA Division II Championships since 1994. Parkland won one of three games in the double-elimination tournament to cap a 22-13 season that put Cobra men's basketball back on the national map.
10. A sweet ride
Baseball wasn't the only sport on the UI campus to sprint to the finish line in 2011. Before losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament to host Oklahoma State, the Illini women's soccer team was undefeated in its previous 12 matches. The 11-0-1 run was the longest unbeaten streak in program history and yielded Illinois its first Big Ten tournament title since 2003. Not that it was easy, Janet Rayfield's Illini prevailing in three nail-biters at the league tourney — two decided in overtime and a third by penalty kicks. By defeating defending national champion Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Illinois set a school record for single-season victories with 17.