A Life Remembered: Lee Eilbracht
By JEFF HUTH
When it came to baseball, Lee Eilbracht had an uncanny talent for predicting the future. So much so that one season his University of Illinois players started referring among themselves to their coach as Swami.
The nickname stuck.
“We always said he had a crystal ball,” said Lou Ryniec, who played for and later served for 13 seasons as an assistant to the winningest coach in Illini baseball history.
One spring, Eilbracht’s current and former players even organized a Swami Day at the original Illinois Field on the north campus. One common piece of attire that day fit the occasion.
“All of us wore turbans,” Ryniec said. “We gave him a plaque and everything like that.”
Eilbracht, who won 515 games and four Big Ten titles during 27 seasons as UI coach, died Wednesday at his residence at The Windsor of Savoy. He was 88.
Eilbracht’s ties to UI baseball were deep and longstanding. As an Illini player, he earned All-America honors in 1947, was his team’s MVP in 1946 and ’47, and led the Big Ten in hitting in 1946 with a .484 batting average.
Following a career in professional baseball as a player and manager in the Chicago Cubs’ minor league system, Eilbracht was named Illinois head coach in 1952. That season he guided the Illini to a conference title and the first of three NCAA tournament appearances during his tenure.
Eilbracht, who retired following the 1978 season, also worked as an analyst on Illini baseball broadcasts starting in the 1990s. He even served as an adviser for the movie “A League of Their Own,” tutoring such actresses as Madonna and Geena Davis on baseball skills. For several major league spring trainings, Eilbracht also was a consultant for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“As far as a baseball mind, he’s as good as it gets, I think,” said Jim Reed, who played for Eilbracht in the mid-1960s and later worked on his staff as a graduate assistant. “He understood and lived the game probably better than just about anybody that I’m aware of.”
Mental preparation was a focal point of Eilbracht’s coaching, his former players said.
“He taught all of us to think ahead,” said Doug Mills, an All-Big Ten pitcher in 1961 and ’62. “We did well because Lee preached thinking ahead. If it’s hit to you, you’ve got to know what to do with it. You can’t hesitate.
“It was part of his coaching technique, (like) ‘I’ve got to have a bunch of little Swamis out there.’ ”
The emphasis on preparation served a valuable lesson in life beyond baseball, several of Eilbracht’s players said.
“I took that into the business world with me — to think ahead,” said Mills, a longtime executive with Champaign-based Busey Bank until his retirement in 2010.
Eilbracht had a business background, too, working in the insurance industry before accepting the UI’s coaching offer. He also worked for a local moving and storage company.
“He taught me how to behave in the business world,” said Ryniec, a financial planner who recently marked his 50th year with the same company in Champaign. “A lot of it was his willingness to deal with bad things and make them turn out right. In other words, not blaming the problems (on others). Just taking the whole situation in hand and dealing with it.”
On the field, his former players described Eilbracht as “a no-nonsense guy.”
“He took his job very seriously and implanted that on all of us,” said Ryniec, a catcher who lettered from 1959 to ’62.
After leaving the UI, Reed started a new baseball program at Parkland College in Champaign. He says the lessons he learned from Eilbracht served him well in that task.
“Almost everything I learned with regard to baseball and baseball coaching came from Lee,” said Reed, a former Illini third baseman who graduated from a high school that did not offer baseball. “I took it almost all across town to Parkland, and I certainly was better for it because of that.”
Reed said he always appreciated that Eilbracht treated his players “as adults.”
“He expected us to do all the right things — be on time and all the typical coaching things — but he didn’t micromanage.”
That didn’t mean Eilbracht wouldn’t raise his voice when the occasion demanded it. In those instances, the range of that voice often would rise, too, forcing his players to muffle a laugh.
“When he used to get upset with us, the more upset, his voice always went up,” Reed recalled. “It got higher and higher and then, frankly, it was a little hard to keep from laughing. I know we were getting chewed out, but the voice going up made it hard to focus.”
Dave Loane, a longtime play-by-play announcer for Illini baseball, recalled the vast knowledge of the game that Eilbracht brought to radio broadcasts.
“The things he taught me about baseball, the things I learned about the Illinois program from him ... just invaluable information for me, not only as an announcer of Illinois baseball games but just as a fan who likes the little nuances of the game,” Loane said.
The pair sometimes traveled together to road games, particularly during Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. It was an opportunity for Loane to hear a multitude of stories about Eilbracht’s baseball career.
One of Loane’s favorites involved a move by a Michigan coach that rubbed Eilbracht the wrong way. With the Wolverines leading by a wide margin and a runner on first base with no outs, the Michigan coach ordered a bunt.
“(Eilbracht) didn’t think that was a situation where you ought to be laying one down,” Loane recounted.
Years later, when the same teams met and Illinois was far ahead late in the game, Eilbracht seized an opportunity to pay the Michigan coach back in kind.
As Eilbracht told it, he immediately looked at the coach in the other dugout to see whether there would be any reaction.
That coach “just tipped his cap to him.