CHAMPAIGN – Days before Gary Winckler gave her a call in 2003, former Illini track star Tonja Buford-Bailey was enjoying life as a fourth-grade teacher in suburban Dallas.
Funny how one call can change the direction of your life.
Winckler called, the pair discussed the opening on his staff for an assistant coach and, suddenly, a new career was born. After a five-year apprenticeship, Buford-Bailey will take over for Winckler, the retiring head of the UI women's track and field program, after the spring season concludes.
"I never planned to go into coaching at all," Buford-Bailey said, "but it was obviously my calling. I've always been a teacher, and I knew that's what I wanted to do (since) high school.
"This is the same thing, it's just at a different level, and it's something I'm a lot more experienced at. I love being at track meets. It's a lot more of a passion than I felt when I was sitting in a classroom. I loved my students and I loved teaching, but this is a better fit, for sure."
The teaching aspect of his job is what Winckler has often referred to as one of the most appealing tasks. Buford-Bailey said the veteran coach is especially adept at the technical aspects of the sport, something she has particularly paid close attention to.
"That's what I think sets him apart from a lot of other coaches that are out there," said the three-time Olympian, who called Winckler the biggest influence on her career.
And while she plans to utilize her skills in that area, too – a good idea, considering her lengthy list of achievements as an athlete – Buford-Bailey has other areas in her coaching repertoire that could prove invaluable.
It wasn't long ago that Buford-Bailey was out there on the track doing the same things that her athletes are trying now. She can relate.
"I do a little bit more of confidence-building, and that kind of thing," she said Friday during the Big Ten Outdoor Championships at the UI Track and Field Stadium. "I'll figure out if an athlete is receptive to hearing a lot of the technical lingo. If not, then I'll back off. So I'm a little more observant. But I was a fourth-grade teacher, so I have a different kind of perspective."
Buford-Bailey left the UI in 1993. Athletes have changed a bit since her time on campus, but Buford-Bailey thinks the biggest difference is today's athlete faces more distractions than she did.
From cell phones to iPods to the Internet, current Illini can suffer from information overload. She does her best to keep her athletes focused on their own improvement.
"It's overwhelming," she said. "You can't be as tunnel-visioned as we were.
"We have a no cell phone (rule) at practice and competitions. I try to encourage them not to sit on the computer all day long and look at their competitors' results, and (tell them) to really try to maintain the focus on yourself. But that's about as far as you can go with that. The rest of it is in their hands."
Beckford-Stewart in the hunt
Illinois' Alecia Beckford-Stewart is in fourth place in the heptathlon after the first day of competition Friday.
Beckford-Stewart compiled 3,173 points after strong showings in the 100-meter hurdles (14.58 seconds), 200 (25.42), high jump (5 feet, 3 inches) and shot put (40-9 1/2).
Former Mahomet-Seymour product Laura Morris, now at Indiana, is in ninth in the heptathlon (2,925). Morris' best performance of the day came in the high jump (5-6 1/2).
The only other Illini to compete for the women Friday were Theresa Brokaw and Maggie Carroll in the 10,000. The pair finished 13th and 17th, respectively.
Illinois' Jacob Nachel (10,000) and Matt McHugh (hammer throw) each placed eighth in their events Friday.
Andrew Zollner is in 10th place after the Day 1 in the decathlon.