Happy Birthday, Craig Virgin!

Illini Legends, Lists & Lore

Leo Johnson


Today represents the 120th anniversary of the birth of Illini track and field and football coaching legend Leo Johnson. The Millikin University athlete and coach led the Big Blue football team to undefeated seasons in 1928 and ’34. In 1938, Johnson accepted the head coaching job for the Illini track and field squad, staying on the Champaign-Urbana campus for the next 27 seasons. His 1944 unit, led by Robert Kelley and Marce Gonzalez, defeated runner-up Notre Dame 79-43 for the NCAA track and field title, the school’s third such championship. In 1946 and ‘47, Bob Richards, Dike Eddleman and Herb McKenley helped Johnson’s team post back-to-back national championships. Both times the Illini edged talented Southern California for first place. Illinois earned NCAA runner-up honors in 1953 and ’54. Altogether, Johnson’s athletes captured 27 individual NCAA titles and 158 Big Ten crowns. Near the end of his career, he served as president of the Track & Field Coaches Association (1963-64). Johnson also is a member of the Drake Relays Hall of Fame and the Millikin University Hall of Fame. Many are unaware of Johnson’s talents as a football coach, serving as chief scout for coach Ray Eliot’s Illinois football team. Three times during Johnson’s tenure, the Illini football team upset the nation’s top-ranked team: 1950 vs. Ohio State, 1955 vs. Michigan and 1956 vs. Michigan State. Leo Johnson died in 1982 at age 87.

Illini Birthdays
Today: Meghan Kolze, softball (32)
Monday: Eric Siebert, wrestling (39)
Tuesday: Tim Brasic, football (30)
Wednesday: Amy & Anna Johnson, swimming (25)
Thursday: Mac McCracken, football (58)
Friday: Craig Virgin, cross-country/track & field (58)
Saturday: Dick Hyde, baseball (85)

By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore

Get Illini birthdays, trivia and historical tidbits daily on Twitter @B1GLLL and on Facebook at Big Ten Legends, Lists & Lore

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