The biggest Illini stories of 2012:
1. Changing of the guard
On what surely was the most difficult and disappointing day of his coaching career, Bruce Weber still managed to depart with a smile on his face and the gift of custard for members of his final Illini men’s basketball team. It was typical of a coach with a well-deserved good-guy reputation. Minutes after reading a statement to the media following his firing by new athletic director Mike Thomas, Weber headed to one of his favorite local stops, Jarling’s Custard Cup, with family, friends and what were now his former players. When the 2011-12 season started, few would have anticipated it would end with Weber’s firing, particularly after the Illini got off to a 10-0 start. Then Illinois went into a 7-15 tailspin and failed to reach the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years, and Weber’s nine-year tenure at the helm came to an inglorious end. There had been plenty of glorious moments along the way, none more satisfying than the Illini’s run to the 2005 NCAA title game. But he couldn’t survive the program slippage and, ultimately, his last team’s meltdown. Weber was quickly snapped up by Kansas State. Illinois, meanwhile, turned to John Groce.
2. Football disaster
No one said it was going to be easy. There was a reason Ron Zook lost this job, paving the way for Tim Beckman (above) to take a crack at leading Illinois out of the football wilderness. Instead, the former Toledo coach, who arrived with such a cheery and enthusiastic disposition, endured one of the worst seasons in program history. The 2-10 record, including 0-8 in the Big Ten, only hinted at the dismal performances Beckman’s first UI team too often put on display for an increasingly grumbling fandom. There were even calls by some to pull the plug after one season. Of course, there was no such panicked move by Thomas. Now, the next move is Beckman’s.
3. Fast start
Unlike Beckman, Groce wasted no time endearing himself to Illini fans. Weber’s successor become the second coach in UI men’s basketball history to win his first 12 games. (You all remember the first: Fletcher Lane in 1907, right?). The season-opening surge was highlighted by a decisive win against Butler in the title game of the Maui Invitational (right). With his energetic sideline style, Groce can be as entertaining during a game as his team. Few expected the Illini to be 13-1 entering the Big Ten race, but that’s where an early candidate for Big Ten Coach of the Year has them.
4. London called
The 2012 London Olympics were must-see TV in Champaign-Urbana thanks to a sizeable local and Illini contingent vying for medals. Former Champaign Central swimmer Tyler McGill had C-U fans cheering as he earned gold for his contributions to the U.S. 400-meter medley relay title effort. After multiple attempts at qualifying for the Olympics, Centennial and UI graduate Gia Lewis-Smallwood saw her persistence rewarded with a spot on the U.S. women’s track and field team in the discus. Also, Deron Williams won his second gold as a point guard for Coach K's basketball team.
5. Raising the bar
For the first time since 2003, Illinois welcomed an NCAA championship team back to campus. Under former Olympian Justin Spring’s guidance, the Illini men’s gymnastics team fought back from a two-point deficit in the final two rotations at nationals to take the trophy. It was the program’s 10th title and first in any UI sport since the men’s tennis team won it all nine years earlier.
6. On track
Ashley Spencer (left) and Andrew Riley (right) put Illini track and field in the national spotlight with title performances at the NCAA Championships. Riley became the first male in NCAA history to win the 100 meters and 110 hurdles in the same year. Spencer capped her remarkable freshman season by becoming the first Illini female NCAA champion in the 400 meters.
7. Blazing a trail
Meyers Leonard had a firm grasp on his NBA future — and on commissioner David Stern’s welcoming hand — on draft night. After two seasons as a towering Illini presence, the 7-foot-1 center was snapped up by the Portland Trail Blazers with the 11th overall selection. The Pride of Robinson was the first Big Ten player to be chosen, the first Illini to hear his name called in the NBA draft since 2006 and 15th first-round pick in school history. Although Leonard rarely starts for the Trail Blazers, he is a fixture in the team’s rotation.
8. Small’s world
The trophy case of the Illini men’s golf team continues to add to its already-sizeable collection. In April, coach Mike Small’s program earned its fourth consecutive Big Ten team title. Senior Luke Guthrie (right) repeated, too, earning Big Ten medalist honors for the second year in a row. Then Thomas Pieters (left) kept the Illini ball rolling by capturing the NCAA individual title by 3 strokes — the second time in three years a UI player has achieved that feat. Hey, it’s a golf school.
9. Fatal mistake
Before making a terrible decision, one that cost Jerry Brown his life, former Illini Josh Brent was a productive member of the Cowboys. But it all went away one early December morning in a Dallas suburb, when the defensive lineman chose to drive despite having too much alcohol in his body. He has been indicted and faces a long prison term after causing the death of teammate and former Illini Jerry Brown. Sad doesn’t describe it.