Former Illini quick to give coach credit

   Greg Dykstra, then a junior at Rockford Guilford High School, was biding his time before the start of the mile run at a conference track meet when his coach came storming up to him.

   "He comes up with this rolled-up newspaper in his hands and says, ''Did you read what they wrote about you in the paper?'' " the former University of Illinois runner said recently. "He had this really disgusted look on his face."

   Naturally, a startled Dykstra asked Gary Wieneke to enlighten him. Was it some nasty comment about his running ability? Some snide dismissal of his shot at winning by a rival runner or coach?

   "He goes, ''Oh, never mind,'' turns around and walks away," Dykstra said.

   Dykstra, by his own admission, wasn''t much more than a dark horse in this particular race. But the brief exchange with Wieneke had riled up the indignant Dykstra so much that he went out and left the rest of the field in his dust.

   Afterward, Dykstra went up to his coach and pressed him for details. What exactly was in that article?

   "Nothing," replied Wieneke. "That''s the point!"

   This and other stories no doubt will be flowing as freely as a certain adult malted beverage tonight at the Chancellor Hotel and Convention Center in Champaign. That''s where Dykstra and about 150 other former Illini athletes and friends of Wieneke will gather to honor him for 30 years of coaching at the UI.

   While Wieneke undoubtedly will be subjected to some stinging  but good natured  barbs during the evening, many heartfelt testimonials are sure to be heard, too.

   "He was almost a father figure," said Jeff Jirele, a UI letter winner from 1975-77. "You always strived to please him, always wanted to do well for him. I think most of us did."

   "I owe the lion''s share of the credit to him for any success I had," said Mike Durkin, the 1975 Big Ten champion in the outdoor 800 and a U.S. Olympic team member in 1976 and 1980.

   His former athletes variously describe Wieneke as intense, witty, organized to a fault, as knowledgeable as they come in his profession and a tireless worker.

   "I certainly had confidence in him and certainly had respect for him," said Neal Gassmann, who ran cross-country at the UI from the mid- to late-1980s. "He would put his all into it. ... You could pick his brain about anything  How do you think this race is going to be run?  and a lot of times he was right on."

   Ron Phillips, who ran track at the UI when Wieneke was an assistant coach, says he was impressed by the expanse of Wieneke''s knowledge of the sport and how he put it to use.

   "I don''t know where the workouts came from, but he had a workout for every occasion and situation, and everybody improved," said Phillips, who held the school outdoor record in the 800 from 1972-93.

   "From a mechanical standpoint and a technical standpoint, you''re not going to get a much better coach in the the middle distances," said former Illini Craig Virgin.

   Virgin, a three-time Olympian and two-time world cross-country champion, repeatedly used the word meticulous in describing Wieneke''s approach to his duties.

   "Anything Gary had a hand in technically was run very well," said the 1975 NCAA cross-country champion. "Very organized, very attentive to detail."

   Wieneke''s intense and sometimes stern demeanor could quickly get an athlete''s attention, say his ex-athletes.

   "Many of my compatriots back in those days were afraid of him, I''m sure," Durkin said.

   Said Virgin: "I think he had a hard time understanding athletes that don''t have a good work ethic. He always wanted to be successful and was always willing to pay the price."

   But Wieneke also was always approachable, says Durkin, and certainly not humorless.

   "I''ve spent a lot of time with him and I see a great sense of humor, a dry humor, a dry wit," Durkin said.

   Current Illini assistant Willie Williams can attest to that. Several years ago, Williams headed out on a recruiting trip to Fayetteville, Ark. Problem was, the travel agent had purchased a ticket for Fayetteville, N.C. Williams didn''t learn of the mistake until he was already in the air. Upon landing, Williams checked in by phone with Wieneke to let him know about the snafu before heading to his intended destination.

   When Williams returned to the office early the next week, there was a gift waiting for him on his desk.

   "He had gotten me this plaque," Williams said. "Something about, ''Good luck in North Carolina.'' "

   A list of the longest current head coaching tenures at each Big Ten Conference school through last season:

Coach   School   Sport   Years

Dick Kimball   Michigan   Diving (M&W) 38

Joe Paterno   Penn State   Football   31

Gary Wieneke   Illinois   Track, C-C (M) 30

Sam Bell   Indiana   Track, C-C (M&W) 28

Fred Roethlisberger   Minnesota   Gymnastics(M)   26

John Daly   Ohio State   Tennis (M) 25

Karen Langeland   Michigan State   Basketball 21

Dennis Tiziani   Wisconsin   Golf (M&W)   20

Laurie Schiller   Northwestern   Fencing   19

Sharon Drysdale   Northwestern   Softball   19

Hayden Fry   Iowa   Football   18

Gene Keady   Purdue   Basketball   17

Comments

News-Gazette.com embraces discussion of both community and world issues. We welcome you to contribute your ideas, opinions and comments, but we ask that you avoid personal attacks, vulgarity and hate speech. We reserve the right to remove any comment at our discretion, and we will block repeat offenders' accounts. To post comments, you must first be a registered user, and your username will appear with any comment you post. Happy posting.

Login or register to post comments