Tate: Illini on right track

Quietly, beneath your radar, the recently dormant Illini men’s track and field team is coming to life.

Once a source of pride on campus, attracting attendance and headlines — hosting the NCAA Championships in 1977 and 1979 — these revitalized males are drawing up alongside Ashley Spencer and the UI women as a major force in the Big Ten.

If you didn’t make it to the Armory in mid-January, you haven’t seen either team. There are no outdoor home meets. But while Tonja Buford-Bailey’s women were posting an anticipated Big Ten Indoor championship Feb. 23 in Ohio, Mike Turk’s youthful gang sent shock waves through the conference when it came within an eyelash of capturing the men’s first Big Ten track title since 1994 (outdoors).

In case basketball blurred your vision or you were otherwise occupied, the men only needed to finish two places ahead of Wisconsin in the final event, the 4x4 relay. This is a dominant event for the Illini, the outdoor quartet currently ranking No. 5 in the nation with Big Ten Indoor 400-meter champion Stephon Pamilton as anchor.

But Pamilton, a junior transfer from Bethune-Cookman, stumbled badly as he began the final leg and, after battling back into the pack, tripped and fell flat while Wisconsin managed to finish eighth.

“It is tragic that it slipped through our fingers,” Turk said. “But, yes, it shocked people that we came that close. At this time last year, people were saying: ‘Andrew Riley (NCAA hurdles champion) is going to graduate. What are you going to do?’ I already knew. We had guys coming up.”

And most of them are underclassmen, non-seniors producing a lion’s share of the UI’s 87.5 indoor points (Wisconsin had 90). Said Turk:  

“We can contend outdoors (May 10-12 at Ohio State). But our original goal has been to develop this team for 2014 and beyond. We feel like we have arrived early this year.”

Turning it around
Turk started as Wayne Angel’s assistant in 2005-06, just as the operation began to crumble. The Illini finished ninth in the Big Ten Outdoor meets of 2008 and 2009, and Turk began a difficult two-year term as interim coach.

“I was part of that failure, and I saw what the problems were as it was happening. When I took over, I was told not to simply manage but to treat the program like it was my own. Even as interim coach, I tried to build it from the ground up.

“The first job was to establish a better internal culture. I wanted the athletes who were here, regardless of ability or grade level, to experience a change in the program.”

Turk is banking heavily on in-state talent while also picking up Juan Paul Green, a crack sprinter from Miami, and Cameron Viney, star hurdler from West Virginia, both freshmen.

“We have a system that I learned from Jack Shaw, my mentor at Western Michigan, on how to build a roster for three and four years ahead,” said Turk. “If you are recruiting for next year, you’re probably in trouble.”

Drake has an audience
Illini men and women are competing this weekend at the Drake Relays, where UI track and field tradition is best exemplified. The Illini men hold the all-time record for victories in Des Moines, Iowa.

These Drake successes match a history that shows Illinois among the nation’s early leaders with frequent national contenders who won Big Ten Outdoor titles 12 times between 1907 and 1934, and 10 times between 1945 and 1960. National titles came in 1944-46-47. And the 29-year Gary Wieneke era brought 11 more Big Ten Indoor and Outdoor crowns, and corresponding successes at Drake.

“The trip to Drake is one of the secondary goals that we throw out,” Turk said. “We want to add to the list of Illini championships. These successes go back a long way, but we’ve been adding to it over the recent years.
“We have won the 10K two of the last three years with Colin and Hunter Mickow (Hunter ran his best time last weekend but will take the weekend off). We have a real good shot at the 4x4 relay, where I believe we’ll be the top seed.”

Bringin’ it home
Looking toward next season, Turk is intent on what he calls “the next phase,” which is offering home meets and bringing slumbering fans to life locally.

“It’s tough with the weather being what it is,” he said. “But we’re becoming competitive as a team, and we have a leg to stand on with the people in the community who know the sport. So we will try to market it better and be more visible within the community.”
Isn’t it easier to bring the fans indoors?

“Yes, but it’s getting harder because new facilities are changing the way things are done. With the new 200-meter banked tracks, it’s hard to get teams to come to the Armory. And we’re not able to pay teams like Alabama and Georgia guarantees to come here, as we did in the past. We are allocating our dollars where they do the most good.”

So, the good news is that the UI track programs are getting noticeably stronger. The bad news is that, for the most part, we’re obliged to watch them in our mind’s eye.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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