Tate: Buford-Bailey is a star — here and abroad
— Mike Small qualified for golf's prestigious PGA Championship (Kiawah Island, S.C., Aug. 9-12) by finishing fourth Wednesday in the PGA Professional event in Seaside, Calif. He plays in several tour events every summer.
— Janet Rayfield spent three weeks last summer scouting soccer opponents for the U.S. National team in the 2011 World Cup in Germany.
— NCAA Coach of the Year Justin Spring expects to attend the Olympics with the U.S. gymnastics staff unless the imminent birth of a son precludes his departure.
— Tonja Buford-Bailey is serving as assistant Olympics track coach in charge of the U.S. women's strongest events, sprinting and hurdling.
These are a few examples of Illini coaches involved in extracurricular duties that don't apply directly to the coaching of UI contests but contribute in various ways to the success of their teams.
"It says a lot about our program and the influence our coaches have at the Big Ten level and on the national scene," athletic director Mike Thomas said.
"It helps that our coaches are well-known nationally, and it pays big dividends in our ability to recruit. Young golfers know who Mike Small is. Our freshman 400-meter champion, Ashley Spencer, knew Tonja Buford-Bailey before she was recruited. We encourage all our coaches to be involved in this way."
Buford-Bailey spreads her wings in several directions. UI sprinter-hurdler Andrew Riley, the school's Eddleman winner and recently named the top collegiate track athlete, was more than pleased to have her step over from the female side to serve as his Illini coach.
"It's been a great experience working with her," Riley said. "She took over in my sophomore year, and six months later I was a national hurdles champion."
Three weeks ago he topped that, becoming the first collegian to win the NCAA 100 and 110-meter hurdles. He will compete for Jamaica in the Olympics and is the last male athlete Buford-Bailey will coach at Illinois. He spoke during a recent workout with her on the UI track.
"She's been there, and she understands," Riley said. "She is like a mom to me. When I got beat up in classes or when I wasn't 100 percent, she remodeled workouts to help me. I kept improving. She is special."
From coast to coach
As a star in the DIA ensemble, Buford-Bailey is the UI's most internationally prominent and locally overlooked. If TV could revive "What's My Line?" — bring back Dorothy Kilgallen — the Illini great would be an ideal mystery guest.
Just as track and field was slipping away from community consciousness in the 1990s, she won 25 Big Ten titles — TWENTY-FIVE! — as a sprinter, hurdler and relay member. She was four-time Big Ten Athlete of the Year and won the NCAA 400-meter hurdles.
In Sweden in 1995, she ran second in the World 400 hurdles with a time of 52.62 to winner Kim Batten's 52.61. She was a three-time Olympian, finishing third in her specialty in 1996. She has served as a coach in the 2009 World Championships in Berlin and with the nation's Pan American Juniors in Brazil in 2007.
With the 30th Summer Olympics around the corner, Buford-Bailey spent the last 10 days at U.S. Trials in Oregon, and she now takes charge of a group of female speedsters who will be favored to make the biggest U.S. splash in London.
Under her care are such proven international stars as Carmelita Jeter, Sanya Richards-Ross, Allyson Felix and Lashinda Demus.
"In every sprint and hurdle event, we have one or two in medal contention," Buford-Bailey said. "We are very strong in this area. I won't be involved with the relays. We have a separate coach for them. I'm happy about that. Anything can happen when you are going that fast and have to exchange the baton."
Important (Ohio) import
Illinoisans can thank Gary Winckler for Buford-Bailey. The former UI coach, who captured 11 Big Ten team titles, attracted her from Ohio.
"I didn't even know how to pronounce Illinois at the time, and I knew nothing about history of the Big Ten Conference," she recalled. "Gary made a home visit, and I believed he could make me a better hurdler. The campus was fantastic at the time, with the 1989 Flyin' Illini going to the Final Four and people going crazy over basketball. My visit here was great. I loved the campus. It was fantastic."
She became an instant star, capturing two Eddleman awards as the school's top female athlete. She rejoined Winckler on the staff and replaced him as head coach after the 2008 season. Her strong recruiting has Illinois on the rise, the team finishing second in the Big Ten Outdoor this spring.
"We lost by seven points, and we have most of our top athletes returning plus an incoming class with three state champions," she said. "Our only major point losses are Latoya Griffith and Ashley Kelly. Our chances of winning the Big Ten next year are very good."
But, she admits, "it's hard to be a fan when we don't offer any outdoor meets. I talked to Mike Thomas about it, and I'd like to host, but we'd have to find teams willing to come in during a tough month (April) when climate is such an issue. We have some good indoor meets, but it bothers me that no one gets to see our athletes run in the spring. Seeing a news article doesn't give a real sense of what is happening. But we simply can't guarantee weather."
Ashley Spencer's stunning triumph in the NCAA 400 created a mild stir for Buford-Bailey and the freshman from Indianapolis. By prior agreement, Spencer passed on the Olympic Trials in order to compete in the IAAF World Juniors in Spain.
"Ashley just completed high school the previous May, and she wasn't at the Olympic level," Buford-Bailey said. "We discussed the Juniors along the way, and she was pointed toward it. She demonstrated talent in everything from the short hurdles to the 800 and, at first, we didn't even know which event she would run. Our initial plan was to see what would be best for her.
"We decided to stick to the 400. And when she won at the nationals, someone said, 'You should run on the relay team in the Olympics.' She replied that she would like to. That started the talk. It wasn't like she begged me and I said no. I explained that there is a process. They don't just give out relay slots. You have to compete in the Trials against a lot of veterans. Are you going to skip the Juniors? It's hard to do both. It's been a long season, and she mentioned in the warmups at the NCAA how tired she was. On top of this, she had a sore hamstring and she wanted to spend some time at home in Indianapolis.
"All things considered, the Juniors are right for her. She really didn't want the Olympic commitment."
Buford-Bailey will travel with Spencer on July 9 to Barcelona for the IAAF World Juniors. The coach will fly to London in mid-July, with the Olympic track and field portion scheduled Aug. 3-12.
Aiming for the top?
Quietly, in her friendly, non-pushy way, Buford-Bailey nourishes a dream of someday being head Olympic coach. Meanwhile, she takes it one year at a time here with husband and former NFL receiver Victor Bailey, son V.J., and daughter Victoria.
"We are comfortable, and we aren't looking," she said. "V.J. will be an eighth-grader in Urbana, and Victoria will be a fourth-grader."
Her son isn't likely to follow his dad's path. At this point, he prefers basketball and, in the words of his mother, "is a natural left-handed pitcher ... we'll encourage him to stay with baseball."
But not football. His dad suffered concussions during three seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs, and the mother has also seen it at the youth level.
"V.J. played football when he was younger, but he's steering away from it. I saw little boys carted off the field and going to the hospital. I remember when Victor got hurt and they told me, 'Don't let him go to sleep.' I didn't know what to do," she said.
Victor will be in full charge of home duties for the next six weeks, a hectic time of international travel and coaching duties for his wife. She is under the gun with pressure heavy for the U.S. sprinters and hurdlers to produce.
"This is rewarding work, but it was more fun when I was running," she smiled.
To look at her, you'd bet she still could.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.