Heffernan has drive to succeed

Heffernan has drive to succeed

Ask Asmussen, who covers wrestling for HQ, for his thoughts on the new coach here

CHAMPAIGN – He is hitting the ground driving. In that blue Dodge minivan he likes so much.

For 17 years, Jim Heffernan was the No. 2 guy in Mark Johnson's program. Promoted last week to replace Johnson, Heffernan isn't about to fall behind. His first week on the job included moving into his new office, calling recruits and meeting with the returning wrestlers.

"A lot of phone calls," Heffernan said. "A lot of e-mails. A lot of busy stuff. Long days."

The meeting with the returning Illini was especially important to Heffernan. The day he was hired, Heffernan didn't get a chance to talk to his wrestlers for very long. He had an hourlong meeting Thursday.

"I gave them my expectations, my goals across the board as far as school and social and wrestling and everything," Heffernan said.

"The biggest thing we talked about was the commitment. We've got to make sure whatever commitment we have, whatever gets these guys fired up, they've got to bring it out of themselves. If it's a personal thing, if it's a family thing, if it's us knowing when to push them. We need to find that for each guy to make sure that from this point on our production is as high as it can be."

Heffernan also helped organize a 700-wrestler youth tournament during the weekend. The new head coach knows one of those kids could grow up to be the next Mike Poeta.

"We kind of do the grunt labor," Heffernan said.

The congratulatory calls have been coming in from across the country. A couple of wrestlers from his days in Lehigh got in touch. So did one of top wrestlers from Heffernan's time at Oregon State.

But there isn't any time to relax. Not now. Not after taking over as a head coach, a position Heffernan sometimes wondered if he would ever reach.

There had been opportunities in the past that hadn't worked out. Heffernan wanted to stay at Illinois, where his wife Rebecca, son Sean and daughter Alex are happy and comfortable. Rebecca is a physical therapist. Sean and Alex are at St. Thomas More High School. Heffernan promised his kids they would finish high school here.

"My kids are excited," Heffernan said.

The back story

Heffernan was a star wrestler at Iowa, winning a national championship as a junior and helping the Hawkeyes to three team titles. He was a four-time All-American.

Heffernan has a vivid memory of his first trip to Illinois. He did not envision a future wrestling power in Champaign-Urbana.

In 1983, Iowa freshman Heffernan came to C-U for a dual. When the Hawkeyes arrived at Huff, the gym was bustling ... with intramural basketball games. Ninety minutes before the match.

"No signs of a wrestling mat," Heffernan said. "We changed in a classroom."

Illinois unrolled the mat and put it in the northwest corner of Huff. A small set of bleachers was put near the mat.

"There was a few people there," Heffernan said. "You could count them."

While on the staff at Oregon State in 1992, Johnson told Heffernan he was thinking about taking the job at Illinois.

"I was thinking, 'Why would anyone want to do that?' " Heffernan said. "It was a long way to go (programwise). Illinois absolutely wasn't a factor."

They made Illinois wrestling a factor. Johnson and Heffernan coached seven national champions during the past 17 years, including current assistant coach Carl Perry. Perry, one of the candidates for the job, will remain on Heffernan's staff.

"He does a very good job," Heffernan said. "I think the continuity is good with our guys. The bottom line is he's an Illinois guy. He loves this place and wants to see great things out of it. That's important to me. This program is a big part of his life and he approaches it that way in his job."

The future

Johnson's Illini finished in the top 10 in the NCAA meet 10 times during his 17 seasons. Heffernan wants the program to continue to improve.

It won't be easy in the loaded Big Ten. Iowa has more national titles than any team in the country and is the two-time defending NCAA champion. Minnesota and Ohio State have built powerful programs. And Penn State just hired a coach (Cael Sanderson) for a wrestling record $500,000 salary.

Because of his Iowa history, Heffernan knows what it takes to win an NCAA team title.

"I think it can be done here," Heffernan said. "When I was in school, we had set the standard. Everybody's chasing that standard still. I think it's a great blueprint."

Heffernan is taking from each of his mentors: Johnson, Iowa legend Dan Gable and others.

As he works on the Illinois program, Heffernan's success as an athlete helps.

"Wrestling's kind of strange that way where your credentials will actually get your foot in the door and lead to instant credibility," Heffernan said. "A lot of high-profile coaches were former high-profile wrestlers.

"It's a good thing to have done what those guys (current Illini) are looking forward to do."

For now, the program will be in Huff Hall. Heffernan likes the setup. His wrestling room has a high ceiling and large windows, which is unusual for his sport.

"A lot of wrestling rooms are tucked away in a corner somewhere in a basement," Heffernan said. "When we first got here, the marching band used to practice outside. There wasn't many wrestling programs that could say during practice you could open up the windows and hear the fight song as you were working out. It was great."

The Huff wrestling locker room has been fixed up. And the arena gives the Illini a home-mat advantage. Huff is located across the street from a dormitory where many of the Illini live as freshmen. The Irwin Academic Center is a block away.

But there have been talks about a multipurpose facility closer to the Bielfeldt Building. Wrestling would be one of the primary tenants, along with the volleyball and gymnastics programs.

"In this day and age, a new facility shows the importance for an Olympic sport," Heffernan said.

"The commitment to Olympic sports goes a long way in terms of recruiting. I think it would be great and I think it would add a little bit of a wow factor."

Taking over
New wrestling coach Jim Heffernan is the latest Illinois assistant to receive a promotion. Here is what happened to first-year coaches in other Illini sports:
COACH    SPORT    BEFORE    AFTER
Tonja Buford-Bailey    Women's track    Fourth at Big Ten outdoor    TBD
Brad Dancer    Men's tennis    Big Ten champion, NCAA round of 16    Big Ten runner-up, NCAA round of 16
Dan Hartleb    Baseball    33-23-1    29-29
Sue Novitsky    Women's swimming    Seventh in Big Ten    Ninth in Big Ten
Bob Starkell    Women's gymnastics    Fifth in Big Ten    Tied for fifth in Big Ten

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Wrestling, Sports
-