Byrne 'missing link' for UI

CHAMPAIGN – The first time Gary Winckler asked Michelle Byrne to join his University of Illinois track and cross-country staff, the East Tennessee State coach answered thanks, but no thanks.

Now she's thankful the Illini head coach didn't take no as her definitive answer.

"I'll be honest: It didn't stay out of my mind," Byrne said, recalling Winckler's initial job offer in January. "Just because I have so much respect for the Big Ten and also the opportunity to work with Gary and (assistant) Ron (Garner)."

The timing, however, simply wasn't right, Byrne said. With the track season under way, she wouldn't have been comfortable abandoning her athletes in midstride. Besides, she had worked hard to get to that point – a second-year head coach after eight years as an assistant at Arkansas and ETSU.

"It just didn't feel quite right," the 1996 Southern Conference coach of the year said.

But when Winckler called back in April, the message that his offer still stood both flattering and intriguing to Byrne. The native of Dublin, Ireland, said yes.

"The fact that he approached me again made the position even more attractive to me because I felt this is the level of his commitment," Byrne said. "He's just not willing to put anybody in there."

In fact, Winckler wasn't willing to fill out his staff with just anybody since January 1996. That's when the NCAA reversed course on the issue of restricted-earnings coaches. With schools facing the threat of heavy damages from a class-action lawsuit, the NCAA removed all earnings limitations for those assistants.

Finally free to offer a competitive wage, Winckler could have acted immediately in search of a second assistant. But he was determined to settle for nothing less than a compatible and highly competent coach. Even if it meant he and Garner had to do the work of three until then.

They did as Winckler went about first identifying Byrne as the right fit and then convincing the former Arkansas distance runner to come on board.

"Ron and I have done a good job of recruiting," Winckler said. "We've got a good base of athletes here. We just need enough (coaching) personnel here to give them the kind of attention they need. Michelle was just the missing link."

Although Winckler still remains head cross-country coach, he has handed over the bulk of the duties to Byrne, whose background and expertise is in distance and middle-distance running.

The delegation will allow Winckler to devote more time to the track team during its fall training period. Winckler, who assumed UI coaching duties in cross-country in 1994, said doing double-duty each fall likely came at the expense of the track athletes.

"I'm gradually going to be stepping out of the picture," he said of cross-country. "You hire self-motivated people, and you turn them loose."

Byrne's Illini leave the starting gate for the first time tonight, when they travel to Normal for the Illinois State Open. For this meet and likely the next, however, Illinois will have to do it without talented sophomores Candace Nicholson and Tara Mendozza. Each competed far into the summer in track – Nicholson qualifying for the Pan American Junior Championships – so Byrne plans to bring them along slowly.

"These first weeks are definitely going to be very much experimental for me in that I'm seeing what I've got," Byrne said.

What she has is very few upperclassmen. And of the four seniors and juniors, only Jenny Heise and Danielle Fonzino have a college track record.

But the Illini have a solid group of sophomores, led by Nicholson, who was the UI's top finisher in four of the five meets she entered last year. Others who gained valuable experience as freshmen last year were Gina Marianetti, Sandra Meneses and Lindsay Speer.

Byrne also is looking for at least a couple of her 11 freshmen to contribute immediately. Breanne Bethke of Hinsdale Central, who was fifth in the Class AA state 3,000 meters last spring, has that ability.

"We are definitely young," Byrne said. "It's a double-edged sword. It can lend itself to a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of energy. But also ... you're going to get a little bit of inconsistency."

For the short term, Byrne's goal is to keep the group together and on the rise in the Big Ten. After tumbling to ninth in 1995, Illinois placed sixth last season.

"We need to solidify ourselves in that upper echelon of the top three, four," she said. "We can't just be a freshman team year in and year out. If that happens, we're never going to get to where we want to be."

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