Title town: Illini gymnastics
NORMAN, Okla. — Justin Spring didn't get much sleep after his Illinois men's gymnastics team won the NCAA championship on Friday.
Another sleepless night was on tap after Spring's Illini enjoyed another banner evening at Saturday's individual event finals.
Fifth-year senior Paul Ruggeri tied for first place on the vault and freshman C.J. Maestas won the rings, capping one of the most successful weekends in the powerhouse program's storied history.
"When I got back to my room last night I had 83 text messages that I just couldn't get through," Spring said Saturday. "I started to tackle it a little bit, but at 1:30 a.m. I was like 'I need to go to bed.' "
Spring had more calls to take Saturday night. Ruggeri and Maestas brought the number of Illinois individual NCAA titles to 53. It marked the second consecutive year Illinois won more than one event. Tyler Mizoguchi (parallel bars) and current assistant coach Daniel Ribeiro (pommel horse) both won championships in 2011.
"If I could write you my storybook freshman year, this was it," Maestas said. "I'm just so blessed and honored to be a part of this team. These guys are my brothers now."
For Ruggeri, it was the fourth NCAA title of his career. He won the high bar in 2008 and 2009 and the parallel bars in 2009.
"It means the world to me, the whole purpose of being on this team for another year was to make a run at the NCAA title and we did it," Ruggeri said. "Tonight was cherry on top of the pie. I'm glad that I ended on a high note today."
The two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year, Spring made a national splash this weekend, delivering the program's first NCAA team title since 1989.
After a three-hour NCAA coaches meeting Saturday morning and a short team practice ahead of Saturday's individual event finals, Spring found time to thumb through his phone to respond to all Illini well-wishers.
"I got back to everyone eventually," Spring said. "I've still got a few calls to make but overall it's been an overwhelming amount of support. It's great to see so many people following the program and it was very cool to see the amount of support come from all over."
That includes first-year Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas.
"Mike has been very involved through our year. It floored me a little bit when I saw him at Huff Hall at our season opener and as we continued to have home meets, I saw him there every time," Spring said. "He's involved, that's great and awesome to see. I received a call from him three times since I've been here; one after prelims, one just before team finals and the night after team finals.
"He's been very supportive and I really enjoy his presence and I know it means a whole lot to the guys to know that he is not only watching and observing but he's right there afterward to say 'Congratulations and thanks for doing great things for Illinois.' "
Though he's on a year-to-year contract, unlike the coaches in the major revenue-generating sports, it appears as though Spring's job status is as secure as any coach's on campus.
"This is the pinnacle of everything we are trying to accomplish with all our sports," Thomas said, noting that duplicate national championship banners would be hung at Kenney and at Huff Hall. "It was great for people to wake up Saturday morning and realize that we are national champions. Hopefully we can duplicate that in other sports. It is great to do things the right way and get to the top.
"Justin Spring has always emphasized the team concept. That's how they won, with a team effort. Justin doesn't bring up individuals unless I initiate it."
Spring, a 12-time All-American at Illinois and a member of the United States' bronze-medal-winning team at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, said the 2012 national championship, Illinois' first since 1989, was the highlight of his career. Spring won the 2006 Nissen-Emery Award, the Heisman Trophy of gymnastics, and that year's team finished second in the country and is regarded as one of the best in school history not to win a national title.
"We have been a very successful program for 10 years. When you have a program that's good but hasn't won a national championship for so long, you're wondering 'What's going on? When are they going to get that?' " Spring said. "We had to really dig in deep this year to make sure that this again wasn't going to be a team that continued to let things slip away. To do that took a pretty significant closeness and attention to detail and taking ownership of their training and the commitment level that needed to be there."
Spring and a couple of his athletes might be headed to London for the 2012 Olympic Games. Ruggeri, the 2012 Nissen-Emery winner and one of five seniors on the roster, and Maestas are members of the U.S. senior national team. If either of them makes it through trials, Spring will be on the U.S. coaching staff.
After that, it's back to work on another national championship.
"As far as the talent we have coming in and what we're able to do with training to get these guys built up to be tremendous athletes with the time allotted over the summer, I think that we're going to be in contention to do some very big things again. I'm very excited for that," Spring said. "The freshmen coming in have been texting me all weekend saying they can't wait to be a part of this. This freshman class for next year is very passionate, very well-rounded and very committed and I know that I can expect big things from them and they're going to take it on."