URBANA — He spent much of his time shaking hands and thanking dozens of well-wishers who stopped by to offer kind words and welcome him back to town.
But when Craig Tiley had a second to spare Saturday afternoon, he surveyed the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex with a satisfied look on his face as the NCAA men’s Elite Eight matches went on around him.
Thousands of fans filling the Illinois tennis facility watching the best teams in the country doing battle for the right to play for a national championship. That’s the vision Tiley had for the Illinois program when he took over in 1992.
“We had a plan, and it’s so great to come back here and see this,” Tiley said. “This is the pinnacle of college tennis. To see it right here at the University of Illinois is great. This is like the chapter of a book from the journey we started. It’s fantastic.”
Tiley was back on the UI campus this weekend to see firsthand the fruits of his labor and to take part in a reunion with his 2003 Illini team that won the program’s first and only national championship. Tiley and the team were recognized on the north courts in between quarterfinal men’s matches Saturday at Khan.
“It’s been great to catch up with everyone. You stay in touch throughout the years, but you don’t get to see everyone because we’re all in different parts of the world,” he said. “It’s nice to see the former student-athletes with their families and their kids.”
It was a quick trip for Tiley, who was scheduled to leave town today after arriving Friday to resume his duties as the director of Tennis Australia, a position he’s held since leaving Illinois in 2005. Tiley and his staff have taken it upon themselves to grow and improve the game in Australia. In his eight years at the helm, he’s pleased with the direction of the movement.
The Australian Open is popular among players now because, since Tiley took over, the prize money has increased annually and is now the highest-paying tennis tournament in the world with a purse close to $30 million.
It was Tiley’s belief that professional tennis players should make a decent living and be able to afford the high cost of travel, coaching, etc.
“The Australian Open has grown as an event, and the sport is doing really well,” Tiley said. “It’s similar to the 10-year plan we had at Illinois. I’m happy that the world’s very best players say the Australian Open is their favorite place to play.”
Tiley’s vision for the Illinois program was considered a pipe dream when he began mapping it out early in his 12-year tenure. There was no history or tradition of winning, as the Illini hadn’t won a conference title since 1946 before breaking through to win the first of nine straight in 1997.
“Illinois really broke the mold as far as the traditional powerhouses of West Coast, Florida, Texas when Craig Tiley really built the program,” UCLA coach Billy Martin said. “Since then Ohio State’s done a good job, Virginia’s done a good job, Georgia’s done a good job. For so long, it was dominated by the California schools and the Texas and Florida schools. Craig really opened up the doors, in my opinion, in letting schools know they can recruit guys and have good facilities and compete with perennial top schools.”
Tiley remains loyal to the Illinois program headed by his former assistant Brad Dancer and said he checks in online to keep tabs on the Illinois athletic department as a whole. He caught up with former volleyball coaches Mike Hebert and Don Hardin during his visit as well as current coach Kevin Hambly. He even got to meet athletic director Mike Thomas for the first time.
While traveling the world seeing thousands of players at all levels throughout the year, Tiley keeps an eye for players who might help Dancer’s program and tips the current coach off about them.
“We stay in touch, and Brad’s always looking for players,” Tiley said. “I’ll do whatever I can to help them out.”
For now, Tiley will resume his duties in Australia, though a return to the States isn’t out of the question. His wife, Ali, is a UI graduate who grew up in Naperville.
“We’ll always look at the options,” he said. “I love the job down there, you never know. I’ve lived in South Africa, America and Australia. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that.”
If history is any indication, wherever Tiley ends ups, he’ll likely be a success and leave a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten, similar to the footprint he left at Illinois.
“He’s a leader, a great people manager,” former Illinois All-American Amer Delic said. “He was the best coach in the college game, and he’s gone on to do bigger and better things.”