Tate: UI on track, weather permitting
Call it a Freudian slip.
We hold here the men's track media guide, with its glossy cover, its in-depth reports on current athletes and loads of historical record-keeping.
But no schedule. Nowhere in 44 pages is it mentioned where Gary Wieneke's tribe will compete this season.
Was this an oversight? Or is it further evidence the most prominent sport of the Olympics has become a victim of Midwestern spring storms?
"We're at the mercy of the weather," Wieneke said. "As of this weekend, we must go where we have a guarantee of good, hot weather that will provide the best opportunity for some of our guys to meet NCAA standards."
That's the way the game is played. The Illini won 10 events and double-scored in seven in a strong effort at Bloomington, Ind., last weekend. But weather was so bad it virtually was impossible to improve marks.
"Each guy had to compete to win, not to post top times," Wieneke said. "As of this week, we're priming our best athletes for one NCAA event. Each one is chasing a certain standard. Later on, we will host the Big Ten meet (May 23-25), and we'll probably ask Dorian Green to run seven races (qualifying and finals). That's because the emphasis then will be on the team score."
Scoring meets are disappearing
Wieneke is the first to concede his sport has shot itself in the foot from a spectator standpoint.
"When we reduced from 14 scholarships to 12.6, coaches felt they couldn't field a full team for 19 individual events and two relays," he said. "So team scoring virtually disappeared. I could make 15 calls right now, and Indiana would be the only other one willing to keep score.
"Emphasis at this stage is on individuals trying to reach NCAA standards."
And then there is the problem of the presentation of the meets. With men and women alternating races, meets have become tedious with too much dead time. Everyone wants to see a flashy relay event, but few will wait through a men's 5,000 meters and a women's 3,000 meters to see it.
Solutions may be obvious, but they aren't about to happen:
– Conduct NCAA regional qualifying to take the pressure off cold-weather competitors in the East, Midwest and North. Then there would be no need to break up teams and send individuals in all directions seeking sunshine.
– Reintroduce competitive scoring meets and quick-hitting dual meets between top teams. Some of the best meets in UI history were the old duals with Michigan and Southern Illinois.
– Either cut events, a poor solution, or allow men and women to compete separately. Ask how basketball fans would feel if they were presented with a quarter of men's basketball, then a quarter of women, and so on.
Illini host Big Ten meet
So, in the face of a generally negative outlook, Wieneke hopes to spark interest in the Big Ten meet here with a team that is a spectator's delight. The Illini have six former All-Americans who'll compete for top honors in a string of racing events.
Heading Willie Williams' sprint corps is Dorian Green, a darter from Cleveland who is a 200 and 400 champion and joins Chris Jones, Charles Gibson and rookie long jumper Babatunde Ridley on an eye-blinking 4x400 relay team.
Then there's Oak Park junior Matt Klima in the hurdles, Bobby True in the 800, Nebraskan Cortney Lamb in the metric mile and Georgetown's Barry Pearman in the steeplechase.
"We have a lot of individuals who figure to finish among the top three, but we have a depth problem," Wieneke said. "We had no fourths, fifths and sixths in the Big Ten Indoor. That prevented us from challenging Wisconsin.
"Wisconsin will again be the favorite. How we do will be dependent not only on how we compete but how Michigan and Ohio State cut into Wisconsin points and how Minnesota does in the field events. We have five teams capable of taking a big cut of points."
Klima, who'll run the 400-meter hurdles at Clemson this weekend, says regardless of anything else, the team is pointing at the Big Ten.
"Our goal is to win the conference," he said. "I'll do my best at Clemson, but I don't want to do anything to throw off my rhythm, that's for sure. We're all focused on the Big Ten meet."
It's unfortunate for the sport there aren't more events like it. A community that poured out to host the 1977 and 1979 NCAA meets has seen a lot of interest wane in the meantime.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.