Wieneke UI''s marathon man

Wieneke UI''s marathon man

   CHAMPAIGN  In the spring of 1967, Bob Wright was becoming an all too familiar figure at Rockford Guilford High School.

   The University of Illinois track and cross-country coach made recruiting trip after recruiting trip in single-minded pursuit of a state champion in the mile.

   Or so Gary Wieneke assumed.

   "Little did I know that he was checking me out," the then-Guilford head coach said.

   Wright ended up landing his man, all right. But it wasn''t standout miler Dave Calvert.

   During the recruitment of the Guilford senior, Wright had held off on approaching Wieneke about joining his staff, wanting to avoid the appearance of a package deal. But when Calvert decided to attend Tennessee, the UI coach felt free to pop the question to Calvert''s coach.

   "As he tells the story," said Wieneke, "it took about 30 seconds to answer."

   Thirty years after Wieneke said yes, Wright''s choice still is on the Illini job, still guiding the fortunes of the school''s track and cross-country programs.

   It is the second-longest coaching stint in UI history, exceeded by the 39-year tenure of swimming coach E.J. Manley (1912-17, 1920-52). Only two other Big Ten Conference coaches, Michigan''s Dick Kimball (diving) and Penn State''s Joe Paterno (football), have been in their current posts longer.

   Such longevity in the coaching profession appears to be a fading phenomenon for a number of reasons. The successful ones always are in a position to pursue greener pastures  with bigger paychecks  or are themselves pursued by other schools. Conversely, the ever-increasing pressures to be successful cut short the stays of those who don''t measure up in the eyes of their employers. And then there''s the common inclination to try something new and different after being in the same job at the same place for years.

   "Gary is one of that rare breed that found a home," said Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther, a graduate assistant with the UI football team when Wieneke came to the school in 1967.

   "I think Gary has always believed in Illinois, always wanted to contribute to Illinois. Today, sometimes coaches are in the building ... then want to get to another institution and rebuild. That''s somewhat inherent in a number of coaches I see today."

   Over the years, Wieneke says, he''s had a number of opportunities to move on. His answer''s always been the same: Thanks for the interest, but no thanks.

   "I just simply thought  and still think  that Illinois is one of the better jobs and places to be in America," said Wieneke, now 59. "I really did not see a reason to go somewhere else."

   Certainly, Wieneke has taken the UI''s running programs places. His cross-country teams have finished in the top 10 at NCAA meets six times, produced an NCAA individual champion (Craig Virgin in 1975) and finished in the upper division of the Big Ten meet 26 of 30 years (including a title in 1984).

   Since taking over for Wright as head track coach in 1975, Wieneke has produced six outdoor and five indoor Big Ten crowns, a runner-up finish in the 1988 NCAA Indoor Championships and a fourth place in the 1995 NCAA indoor meet. Nine times, he has been named NCAA District IV coach of the year; once, NCAA national indoor track coach of the year.

   "Running for him, I learned so much," said former Illini Ron Phillips, a Big Ten champion in the outdoor 800 meters in 1971 and now a middle school principal in Detroit. "It was unbelievable how much he knew about preparing for track."

   The track Wieneke traveled into the coaching profession was hardly a straightaway. Upon graduating from East Moline High School in 1955, the 17-year-old had no inclination to go to work at one of the giant farm implement factories in the area, as his father had and as many of his friends would.

"I just knew I wanted to get away," he said.

   The quickest and easiest route was to enlist. So Wieneke joined the Army, which trained him to be an X-ray technician and assigned him to a M.A.S.H. unit. It was during this time that Wieneke began to seriously consider going to college.

   Upon leaving the service, Wieneke returned to the Quad Cities area and enrolled at Augustana College. A physical education major, he lettered for four years in both track and cross-country, in the process setting a school record in the 880-yard run.

   Then it was on to Bowling Green (Ohio) State University to work on his master''s degree and cut his coaching teeth as a graduate assistant. He''s been coaching ever since, moving on to a job at a middle school in Wilmette before being hired as head track and cross-country coach at Guilford.

   It was an exhilarating time for the 20-something coach. In his second year at Guilford, Wieneke guided the cross-country team to second place in the state meet, although the near-miss rankles him to this day.

   "We should have won that meet," he said, frowning at the thought. "We had four in the top 20 and lost the meet."

   Meanwhile, he was rising quickly through the ranks in the school''s hierarchy.

   "I never dreamt at that time of leaving," Wieneke said. "I was having a great time. Got bumped up and was chairman of PE, and we had a great coaching staff and teaching staff. Things were going along fine."

   But when Wright came calling, the opportunity was too good to pass up. He would be cross-country coach, allowing Wright to concentrate on track, while also assisting in the latter sport.

   Wright, hired by the UI two years earlier, had warned Wieneke there was much work to be done. It didn''t take long for Wieneke to learn his boss wasn''t exaggerating.

   "That first year, we had a meet out at Savoy," Wieneke said. "We were just terrible."

   Afterward, the new cross-country coach told his team he would post a roster list the following Monday. If your name isn''t on it, Wieneke told his runners, consider yourself excused from the team.

   "I kept six guys," Wieneke said, "and they weren''t the best runners. But they did have the best attitude. We went to the Big Ten meet that year and finished last."

   Wieneke''s introduction to UI track was no less an eye-opener  or in the new coach''s case, a stomach-turner. At that year''s Big Ten indoor meet, not one Illini qualified for the second day of action. That night, Wright told Wieneke they''d be attending a coaches meeting.

   "I told Coach, ''I''m too embarrassed. I can''t go,'' " Wieneke said. "I was devastated. I had never been that bad in anything."

   But things would get better, in fact rather quickly in cross-country. In three years, Wieneke guided the Illini from 10th place to sixth to second in the Big Ten meet.

   Track took longer to round into shape, but by 1972, Wright and Wieneke had elevated the Illini to second place in both the Big Ten indoor and outdoor meets.

   When Wright decided to call it a career after the 1974 campaign, Wieneke was promoted to head track coach. The next spring, at the Big Ten outdoor meet, Illinois captured its first conference title in 15 years.

   "I only wish we could have won that before Bob retired because that''s what we had worked for," Wieneke said. "It was just as much his as mine."

   The changing of the coaching guard went so smoothly, Wieneke believes, because Wright had delegated a variety of duties to his young assistant.

   "Bob gave me a pretty free hand," Wieneke said. "I did a lot of the scout work, recruiting, a lot of the administrative stuff. So it really wasn''t a major transition into that."

   One thing Wieneke would learn on his own  learn the hard way  was to temper his tongue when dealing with the media. Back in Rockford, he hadn''t exactly been deluged with interview requests. So, after his first Big Ten meet, Wieneke told a reporter exactly what was on his mind, not thinking much of it at the time.

   Then he saw his quote in print the next day.

   "I said, ''We couldn''t have done any worse with six grandmothers," Wieneke recalled. "I go, ''Whoa, I can''t be sayin'' that stuff.'' "

   Nor can Wieneke say, as his 31st season at the UI officially begins Saturday with the annual alumni meet in Savoy, how much longer he''ll remain in coaching.

   "I have no time frame," he said. "I do know this. It''s a young man''s situation and if I thought I''m losing any effectiveness and fairness with the athletes, I''d get out."

   Wieneke knows, too, that time hasn''t dulled his enthusiasm for what he does.

   "A lot of people ask if coaching is boring," Wieneke said. "There''s always a challenge. You have new people every year. By the time you get to know them, they''re gone."

   Gone much too quickly. Just like his career.

   "You love what you do and you do it," Wieneke said. "And 30 years went by."

Wieneke career highights

   Illini track and cross-country coach Gary Wieneke was asked by The News-Gazette to pick the top 10 highlights of his 30-year career at the school. Here are his choices:

   1.) Longevity: Only E.J. Manley (39 years) has longer coaching tenure at UI

   2.) Olympians: Has coached three at UI  Craig Virgin, Mike Durkin and Marko Koers; Virgin also was two-time World Cross-Country Championships winner

   3.) Half-milers: Since ''71, 12 Illini have totaled 22 Big Ten titles in 800 meters, 880 yards or 1,000 yards; Has coached four of the six-fastest half-milers in Big Ten history

   4.) Milers: Coached first Big Ten undergraduate (Lee LaBadie in ''71) to run a sub-4-minute mile; Five other Wieneke-coached milers would follow suit

   5.) Relays: UI distance medley teams have finished third, fifth and fifth in last three NCAA indoor meets; the ''97 relay clocked second-fastest time ever by an American team

   6.) Big Ten titles: 12 in all, six in outdoor track, five in indoor track and one in cross-country

   7.) NCAA team success: Four top-four finishes indoors; three top-10 finishes outdoors; six top-10 finishes in cross-country

   8.) Streaks: Six straight Big Ten titles (indoor-outdoor sweeps in 1987, ''88, ''89) longest by any league team since UI took eight straight in 1951-54

   9.) NCAA champs: Has coached five Illini individuals who won total of 10 NCAA crowns; also coached NCAA relay winner

   10.) NCAA spotlight: Brought NCAA championship meets to Champaign in 1977 and ''79

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