CHAMPAIGN — Stanley Azie never has met or talked to the fastest sprinter in University of Illinois history.
That doesn't mean the Illini junior isn't well-acquainted with Anthony Jones' accomplishments on the track during his college career.
"He's the man," Azie said recently of the UI record-holder in the 100 meters and outdoor 200.
Turns out Danville native Jones, a three-time All-American in 1993 and '94, is up to speed on what Azie has achieved, too.
After Azie anchored the Illini 400 relay team to a school record-breaking time of 39.17 seconds at the Drake Relays in late April, Jones shot off a congratulatory email to UI interim head coach Mike Turk.
Jones, of course, had no small interest in this feat, having been a member of the relay that set the record in 1993 and then held a vice-like grip on it for 18 years.
"It was a nice surprise," Azie said of Jones' message, which Turk forwarded to Azie and relay compatriots Andrew Riley, Azeez Shogbuyi and Josh Zinzer. "It's cool. He's a 10.10(-second 100-meter) runner. I could only dream of running that fast."
If anyone should dream big, it's Azie. Originally an unrecruited walk-on who nearly was dropped from the team early in his career, Azie now ranks behind only Jones on the all-time school charts in two outdoor sprints.
"It's very impressive what he's doing," said Illini women's head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey, who works with the sprinters and hurdlers on both UI teams. "I was here when Anthony Jones was here. And Anthony was amazing."
Despite Azie's deferential comments about Jones, the gap between the two isn't nearly as big as the Bolingbrook native implies. In fact, it's blink-of-the-eye close. Azie trails Jones by one-tenth of a second in the 100. In the 200, the difference is eight-hundredths of a second.
Count Buford-Bailey as a believer.
"He's one of the best sprinters ever that have come through Illinois," she said of Azie. "He could potentially break those school records."
Few, if any, would have predicted Azie would be mentioned in the same breath as Jones. Or, for that matter, that he'd ever make an impact in Division I track and field.
In high school, Azie never qualified for state in an individual event (although he did run on two state-qualifying relays). In fact, he didn't even compete in the sport as a senior. Shin splints was one reason, but Azie admits that some personal issues — which he declined to identify or discuss — also kept him off the track.
"Things didn't work out the way they probably should have," he said. "I was in a different place back in high school."
Azie knew he wanted to go to college and compete in sports. Initially, the former Bolingbrook High School football player considered trying out at Illinois in that sport, as prep teammate and college roommate Wisdom Onyegbule successfully did. Ultimately, Azie opted for track. Almost immediately, he had reason to second-guess that choice.
While redshirting as a freshman in 2008, Azie trained with a sprinters group that included 60-meter school record-holder Dominique Worsley and Gakologelwang Masheto, a two-time All-American in the 400. Every day of workouts, Azie was reminded how far behind he was such talents, figuratively and literally.
"It was rough," he said. "I couldn't see these guys in workouts. I'd be in the back of the pack because their endurance level and speed level was so much higher than mine at the time."
When Azie reported back the following season, then-UI head coach Wayne Angel made it clear he was skeptical the walk-on ever would close that gap.
"I know he was real fickle about me," Azie said. "He didn't think I'd make it."
But Turk convinced Angel to keep Azie on the team, saying he would oversee the sprinter's training.
"Which was probably the best thing that ever happened to me," Azie said.
Indeed, by the end of the 2009 outdoor season, he was opening eyes — helping the 400 relay finish second in the Big Ten meet and coming within one place of scoring team points in the 200 at the same meet.
Last season, Azie made further strides, scoring nine team points in the Big Ten outdoor meet in the 100 and 200, finishing one spot shy of an NCAA Championships appearance in the 200, and anchoring a 400 relay that advanced to the NCAA semifinal round.
Still, Azie had yet to truly distinguish himself. Had yet to make the kind of splash that opened eyes and got folks asking "Who's that?" — a situation he readily acknowledges.
"Up until this year, I've kind of just been under the radar," Azie said. "Before Big Tens, I could say most people probably didn't know who I was."
They know now. Two weeks after anchoring that historic Illini performance in the 400 relay, Azie entered the school record book again — this time on his own — during the Big Ten meet. The one-time walk-on blazed to a 10.20-second clocking in the 100 and a 20.70 in the 200 — placing second in each event while vaulting to No. 2 on the all-time UI charts.
"That just tells you he's had the talent the whole time," Buford-Bailey said. "He just needed it to be groomed and he needed to work at it."
Azie profusely credits Buford-Bailey for her role in his breakthrough season as well as Illini assistant coach Fritz Nugent, who refined the sprinter's block starts and provided important guidance on diet and weight training.
Then there's Turk, without whom none of this would have been possible.
"When I got here, I was a project," Azie said. "My first few years here were rough, but Coach Turk, he always had faith in me. And I appreciate that for keeping me around and knowing eventually I'd come around."
In the spotlight
Azie's next stop is Des Moines, Iowa, for this week's NCAA Championships, in which he's qualified as an individual for the first time. Based on his times in the NCAA West Preliminary Round, Azie is seeded 10th in the 100 and 20th in the 200.
From what Buford-Bailey has learned of the sprinter, it's high-profile settings like these that bring out the best in Azie.
"I think he really wants to see his name in lights," the UI coach said. "Nothing at all wrong with that. That's how you become better, because you know you have to work hard in order for that to happen."
And who knows? Before the Illini junior is done with his college career, maybe Anthony Jones will have reason to send another congratulatory email or two.
At this point, especially considering the tenuous start to his college career, nothing Azie does would surprise Buford-Bailey.
"I thought he was ready to be cut," she said, "so to be one of the best sprinters in (school) history is just fascinating.
"But that just tells you about his motivation and his drive. That doesn't happen by accident."
In fast company
Junior Stanley Azie this season joined the ranks of the fastest sprinters in Illini outdoor track and field history:
Name Time Year
1. Anthony Jones 10.10 1994
2. Stanley Azie 10.20 2011
3. Lester Washington 10.33 1984, ‘85
4. Andrew Riley 10.40 2011
4. Babatunde Ridley 10.40 2000
4. Rod Tolbert 10.40 1989
1. Anthony Jones 20.62 1994
2. Stanley Azie 20.70 2011
3. Lester Washington 20.75 1984, ‘85
4. Dominique Worsley 20.77 2006
5. Dorian Green 20.82 1995
The schedule of Illinois qualifiers for the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Des Moines, Iowa:
5:45 p.m. — 400 relay semifinal (Andew Riley, Azeez Shogbuyi, Josh Zinzer, Stanley Azie)
7:30 p.m. — 100 semifinal (Azie)
8:30 p.m. — 400 hurdles semifinal (Cody Wisslead)
5:45 p.m. — 200 semifinal (Azie)
7:10 p.m. — 110 hurdles semifinal (Riley)
6:45 p.m. — 400 hurdles final
7:02 p.m. — 100 final
12:11 p.m. — 400 relay final
12:49 p.m. — 200 final
1:16 p.m. — 110 hurdles final
5:30 p.m. — 400 relay semifinal (Cheria Morgan, Ashley Kelly, Tamika Robinson, Melissa Bates)
6:45 p.m. — 400 semifinal (Kelly)
6 p.m. — 1,500 semifinal (Stephanie Morgan)
6:50 p.m. — 100 hurdles semifinal (Robinson)
7:30 p.m. — 3,000 steeplechase semifinal (Chantelle Groenewoud)
7:55 p.m. — 400 final
12:03 p.m. — 400 relay final
12:18 p.m. — 1,500 final
12:54 p.m. — 3,000 steeplechase final
1:09 p.m. — 100 hurdles final
TV: Friday 6:30-8:30 p.m. on CBS Sports; Saturday noon-2 p.m. on CBS (WCIA)
Online: Live results and video streaming at www.NCAA.com