'75 Illini finally get their rings

Mike Durkin has wonderful memories of winning a Big Ten track and field championship in 1975 at Illinois.

What he didn't have — at least until Saturday night — was a ring commemorating the accomplishment.

"We thought it was a pretty big deal, winning the conference championship," said Durkin, a captain of the '75 Illini and future Olympian. "Well, the AD at the time (Cecil Coleman) sprung for some inexpensive plaques that fell apart five years after we received them."

No biggie. Until the '77 Illini, who also won a Big Ten title, started flashing their championship rings at track and field reunions.

"Imagine how annoyed a few of us were," Durkin said. "It had been simmering for all those years until we did something about it."

With the school's approval, Durkin led a fundraising effort to provide rings to the '75 Illini, who ended a long Big Ten title drought — in any Illini sport — by winning it all in Iowa City, Iowa. Durkin said about 30 athletes and two coaches would receive them at a banquet Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.

A celebration that still might be going as you read this section.

"A unique group," longtime Illinois coach Gary Wieneke said. "You can count on a lot of fellowship and storytelling."

Like what the Illini did on the Iowa track after claiming its first Big Ten title since 1960.

"We took a victory lap and dunked the coaches in the steeplechase water pit," Durkin said.

Or what they did upon returning to campus.

"The legal drinking age in Illinois at the time was 18," Durkin said. "You can imagine we found a way to have a few cold ones."

Wieneke remembers taking the team to dinner before heading back to campus. He still has a napkin signed that night by many of the athletes, one that he planned to bring to Saturday's reception.

"I still remember everything about that meet," said Wieneke, 74, who retired in 2003 but remains a regular around campus, living in White Heath where he tends to 8 1/2 acres. "Everyone who was in that meet contributed. We won by the skin of our teeth, so everyone's contribution counted."

Led by Craig Virgin, Charlton Ehizuelen and Durkin, the '75 group kicked off a glorious 20-year run at Illinois that included six outdoor and five indoor league championships. Finally, they have the rings to prove it.

"One of the closest teams you could imagine," Durkin said. "There was no separation from the sprinters to the field to the distance runners. And we've stayed that way."

— Jim Rossow

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