Ron Garner was ready to run, but his legs were shot out from under before the gun went off.
He had barely drawn a breath as UI women’s track and field coach when he learned that superstars Ashley Spencer and Morolake Akinosun will follow coach Tonja Buford-Bailey to Texas.
This looked like an inevitability since the Chicago Tribune’s Philip Hersh quoted the two young stars in their stunned reactions to Buford-Bailey’s move in late June.
Spencer: “I feel like I’ve been punched in the chest.” Akinosun: “It’s like the ground dropped out from under me.”
These aren’t your average athletes. Spencer, a rising junior, made the U.S. world championship team in the 400 by finishing third at the national championships. Spencer, who hit the ground running from Indianapolis, won two NCAA 400 titles in two tries, and Akinosun captured the U.S. junior title in the 100 in June.
These speedsters formed the heart of outstanding Illini relay teams that helped Illinois win the Big Ten Indoor and challenge for the Big Ten Outdoor. Ironically, both have older, less-talented sisters on the Illini team.
“I’m disappointed,” Garner said, “but this appeared to be the case prior to my arrival. I’ve had a good relationship with Tonja for more than 22 years, and I want them to have great careers. I’m proud of what she did here.”
Garner is busy hiring assistants and making contact with squad members, 12 of whom were on campus this summer.
“This changes our starting point,” he said, “but we’ll carry on with energy. I’m reaching out to them and meeting with team members.
“I can’t speculate about anyone else leaving. We’re very much in transition.”
This might not be final until school starts Aug. 25. The cross-country members report Aug. 19.
Going, going, gone
If the Spencer-Akinosun departure is a bombshell, it doesn’t match the stir caused when guards Allison Curtin and Anne O’Neil left Theresa Grentz’s basketball program in 2001.
Mind you, Spencer is a performer at the highest level, an international star. But, basketball being what it is, Taylorville’s high-scoring Curtin was more prominent on campus. She twice led Illinois in scoring, making All-Big Ten both years, and was Illini MVP in 2001 when she racked 35 points against Iowa in the Big Ten tournament. With 1,529 points in three seasons, she probably would have become the UI’s all-time scorer. She led Tulsa in 28 of 30 games in 2003, topping 30 points on six occasions.
The real significance of the Curtin-O’Neil transfers — O’Neil to Iowa State — was the impact on Grentz’s program from the high of 23 victories and burgeoning fan support in 2000. Performance and public perception sank, Grentz going 94-84 overall in her seven post-Curtin seasons.
Similarly hampered was softball coach Terri Sullivan after star pitcher Monica Perry transferred to Florida State in 2010. Perry had 49 wins in two seasons, averaging 6.38 strikeouts (per seven innings) and throwing 40 complete games. She struck out 12 against Indiana in 2009 and Penn State in 2010. It turned bumpy for Sullivan after the Perry-led 2010 team went 45-8 overall and 16-2 in the Big Ten.
James Lepp, a British Columbia product, drew far less attention when he “wanted to return near home” and transferred to the University of Washington. The UI’s Mike Small was so upset that he refused to issue a release, requiring Lepp to sit out a year. Lepp came back strong and captured the 2005 NCAA golf championship. Meanwhile, the Illini made a steady climb into the national elite.
Wait, there’s more
Football and basketball transfers are too numerous to mention. In most cases, members of these teams left because they either “got in trouble,” as New Orleans Saints receiver Joe Morgan said, or were looking for a less-challenging place to play.
That wasn’t the case for Jay Prosch, of course. The fullback, who cleared the path for Mikel Leshoure’s record 330-yard outburst against Northwestern at Wrigley Field, departed for family reasons in January 2012. He’ll wear No. 35 as a senior at Auburn this season.
Included in this diverse group — where NFL hopefuls like Brock Bolen and Hubie Graham pop up — is Marcus Mason. His arrival from Maryland caused Illinois to be investigated after it was learned that a graduate of his high school in Maryland, local businessman Brian Griffin, was involved in providing an unauthorized vehicle, lodging and pay for work not performed. Mason ran for 102 yards against Indiana in 2003 and soon departed for Youngstown State (where he starred) while Illinois began serving five years on NCAA probation.
Transfers have become so frequent in men’s basketball that they are routine. And many revive their careers.
One such was Awvee Storey, who signed with Tennessee, enrolled instead at New Hampton Prep, subbed for Illinois on the 1998 Big Ten champions and moved to Arizona State, where he had 16 double-doubles and led the Pac-10 with 9.1 rebounds in 2001. Storey had parts of several seasons with the New Jersey Nets, receiving a suspension from the Development League in December 2006 when he struck teammate Martynas Andriuskevicius so severely that he suffered a fractured skull and severe concussion, limiting his speech for weeks.
Scott Haffner, the Noblesville bomber who left after his freshman year at Illinois, set the Evansville record with 65 points against Dayton in 1989 and spent two seasons in the NBA.
Erstwhile Illini forwards Tom Schafer and Kyle Wilson revived their careers at Iowa State and Wichita State. As a senior in 1987, Schafer averaged 18 points for John Orr’s Cyclones. In 2006, Wilson averaged 11.3 points for a 26-9 Shockers team that won two NCAA games before falling to Final Four sensation George Mason. Wilson averaged 13.7 as a senior.
There are many others, all with stories to tell. Marc Davidson comes to mind. Jamar Smith and Brian Carlwell are remembered for multiple reasons. We’ll watch Crandall Head at SMU this season, and Mike Shaw and Myke Henry in future years.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.