Two decades ago, the intensity of track and field interest locally was such that Illinois was designated as host of two NCAA championships.
Today, we look to Saturday's nonscored competition – a lineup of "exhibition" events for men and women – as the only outdoor meet on UI premises this spring. Men's coach Gary Wieneke says 12 schools will participate, seven full and five partials.
What have 20 years done to the sport? You may begin to get an idea from some examples:
– On March 27, Stanford staged a special 10K race complete with pacing "rabbits" to help top runners meet the NCAA qualifying standard. Leading distance runners needed to be there, and they came from Wake Forest, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Oregon, Oklahoma State, wherever. It's nearly six weeks later, and 13 of the NCAA's 15 automatic qualifiers in the 10,000-meter run did so in that race.
"And that's just one event out of 21," Wieneke said. "Chasing after NCAA qualifying standards has become a science."
– Illinois has outstanding half-milers in seniors Bobby True and Cortney Lamb and freshman Jason Van Swol. True holds the NCAA record at 600 meters indoors and is the school's Big Ten Conference Medal of Honor winner. Van Swol won state 800 titles the last two years at New Lenox Lincoln-Way and shared Illini Newcomer of the Year honors with basketball player Cory Bradford. In a recent showdown, Van Swol finished three-tenths of a second behind True in the 800. However, wind levels will determine whether they seek an NCAA-qualifying time Saturday.
If they don't, Wieneke probably will send them to California for a special 800 race the next weekend rather than gamble on both qualifying in the Big Ten championships at Purdue May 21-23. The automatic qualifying standard is 1:47.2.
Coaching is a balancing act
"Coaching has become a job of building the full team for the Big Ten championships and juggling individual interests for the NCAA, and the blend now leans to the individual," Wieneke said. "You ask about home meets. Unless we can assure a great qualifying situation, which we can't because of high winds in the spring, coaches aren't going to send their full team here. They'll send a squad and ship their top individuals someplace else.
"That's why we need to make a change to regional sites for NCAA qualifying. All member institutions have been polled on their thoughts on this idea. With regional events, we wouldn't have to find warm weather for our top athletes."
If you're looking for feature attractions Saturday, Willie Williams' relay teams will put on display the squad's most outstanding athletes. In the 4x400, Williams could fit True and/or Van Swol with NCAA-qualified hurdler Sherman Armstrong, sprinter Tyrone Jones and/or freshman Kendall McCroy. In the 4x100, 25-foot long jumper Babatunde Ridley will team with footballer George McDonald-Ashford, team workhorse Armstrong and McCroy or Charles Burton. All have excellent credentials.
Champaign sprinter Quincy Washington is eligible (he is on football suspension only) but, Williams said, "is not now in our plans."
– Incoming quarterback Christian Morton has lifted his ACT score to 18 and will take the test another time in June as he strives to meet the sliding scale (test score and core grades) for freshman eligibility.
– The reasons Illinois didn't recruit high-scoring Galesburg ace Joey Range are apparent again as the Iowa freshman is under suspension for classroom and nonclassroom problems and isn't expected to return. New Hawkeye coach Steve Alford has added two juco transfers in Range's size range and is making it clear to Hawkeye alumni groups he won't hesitate to take Indiana transfer Luke Recker, regardless of what Hoosier folks think. But Recker may find North Carolina more appealing because he can't receive scholarship aid at Iowa.
– Rumors persist that Peorian A.J. Guyton would like to test NBA waters this month but is fearful of facing "the wrath of Khan" if he elects to return to Indiana before the NBA draft deadline. So the Hoosiers' three-point shooter is expected to stay for his senior season.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.