CHAMPAIGN – At his first media day as head coach of the Illinois volleyball team, Don Hardin introduced his players class by class.
First, he asked the seniors to stand.
Kelly Scherr rose to her feet.
Then Hardin asked the juniors to rise from their folding chairs.
Heidi Coulter stood.
Two classes. Two players. One precariously unbalanced roster.
That was two years ago. A time preceded by years of premature departures, 14 in all from the seven recruiting classes from 1989-95. In one class alone – the 1994 group that included Coulter – six Illini left after two or fewer years.
It was imperative, Hardin said then, that the exodus stop.
"It was being used against Illinois in the recruiting process," said the one-time UI assistant, who returned here after eight seasons as head coach at Louisville. "I knew that. That was on the grapevine."
Now, as Hardin approaches his third season as Illini head coach, his roster has stabalized. From the group he started with at the beginning of the 1996 campaign – and all others who've been added since – not one has left early.
"Retention, retention, retention," said UI junior Tracey Marshall, recalling Hardin's mantra-like message to his team upon taking the job. "From the very beginning he was talking about keeping players in the program."
Said senior Mary Coleman: "Retention and trust were the two major things I can think of ... that he addressed immediately. ... It took a while, but he built it (trust) up with us."
Soon, Hardin believes, the image of Illinois as a revolving-door program completely will be erased.
"I think another year and a good season by this team and it will be wiped out," he said.
Although player turnover is a fact of life in collegiate athletics, Hardin said keeping it to a minimum is essential for several reasons:
Experience. Two years ago, Illinois was a startling example of how a program virtually can be stripped of upperclassmen. Hardin's first UI team, which finished 13-15 and seventh in the Big Ten, had two upperclassmen. The starting lineup included three freshmen and two sophomores.
"We were young, very young, and the Big Ten's a tough conference," said outside hitter Marshall, a starter since her freshman year. "We had a lot to learn."
Last season, with the lineup a year older but still including as many as four underclassmen, Illinois improved to 17-13 but again placed seventh in the league.
This year, with at least two seniors and three juniors projected to start, the Illini are picked by Big Ten coaches to finish fourth.
Had the players he inherited also departed, Hardin said, the process of molding an experienced unit capable of competing in the Big Ten likely would have taken years longer.
"I think at Louisville we could have a really talented freshman class that could impact our program," he said. "Here we're getting Fab 50 players coming into our program and they're freshmen. In this conference, a talented freshman still shows their weakness."
In contrast, Hardin said, experience in numbers can tip the scales even against presumably more talented opponents. He points to a UI men's basketball team that wasn't expected to make much of a splash last season. Instead, a team with five senior starters proved to be the surprise of the Big Ten, winning a co-championship.
"I think we all witnessed with men's basketball what can be done with a group of upperclassmen that's experienced," Hardin said.
Veteran leadership. Illinois finally has it in numbers, with five seniors and four juniors on a roster of 14.
It's a group fully familiar with what Hardin expects from them and what to expect of him. They know, too, what will be demanded of them in the rugged Big Ten, which sent six of its 11 members to the NCAA tournament last year.
It's knowledge that's typically passed down to underclassmen through example and word. But these have been atypical times for Illinois' program. Consider that the current senior class never played with more than one senior in any of their first three seasons. Or that the current juniors never had played with more than one senior until this year.
"So for the freshmen coming in this year and next year, they are at a really good advantage," Marshall said, "because they have a lot of experience here, a lot of people who will show them the ropes."
Recruiting. Even if the reasons are explainable and reasonable, numerous player departures can raise a red flag for recruits, their coaches and their parents.
It did with Barbara Spicer, mother of current Illini sophomore Betsy Spicer. When her all-state daughter was being recruited, some of her toughest questions were posed to Hardin.
"She knew the history, players not making it through four years," Betsy said. "My mom was worried about that sort of program. She didn't want me to fall into that also."
Although Hardin was able to convince the Spicers that Betsy would be entering a stable program, he said he routinely has been confronted with similar concerns while recruiting.
"Players and parents want to know that the commitment goes both ways," said Hardin, who in 10 years as a head coach has had only two players leave before completing their eligibility, both while at Louisville.
Bad experience, bad-mouthing. As Hardin has said, programs that can't hang onto their players can count on rival recruiters trying to use that to their advantage. But such bad-mouthing also can come from the departing players themselves. And potentially be just as hurtful.
Marshall recalls the case of a well-respected teammate on her Chicago-area club team that signed with one Big Ten school. It turned out to be a bad experience for the player, who after leaving wasn't shy about running the program down.
"She tells our club program what she disliked about (the school) and now no one wants to go there," Marshall said. "So it affects you hugely. It affects the school big-time."
Even if such complaints are sour grapes, Hardin said, it can be difficult to convince now-suspicious recruits otherwise.
For Hardin, advertising Illinois as a stable program has been a painstaking process. In his two recruiting classes at the UI – four players in all – Spicer is the lone one from the talent-rich Chicago area.
Although Hardin did pull off a coup this year in signing Cincinnati player of the year Shadia Haddad away from Ohio State and Penn State, he knows the future success of his program will depend on wooing in-state talent.
"We're starting to get some attention from some top recruits that we weren't getting attention from before," Hardin said. "And maybe one day soon we'll be signing the top player from the state of Illinois again."