Kroner: Unity to honor longtime volleyball coach Osborn
TOLONO — Her father was an Olympic champion and a man regarded as one of the premier athletes of the first half of the 20th century.
Her own passion was with Girl Scouts, where she hoped to make her life's work.
Instead, Liz Osborn's career revolved around sports, though she had few opportunities as a teenager to play. When she graduated from Champaign High in 1958, interscholastic opportunities for girls did not exist.
They weren't even in place when she started teaching at Unity High School in 1962. It wasn't until Osborn was in her early 30s that Title IX was implemented and girls' athletics were born.
She immediately found her calling and began coaching sports that required her to do homework and learn as she went. It was a successful undertaking.
Her reputation as a coach didn't end with her retirement in 1996. She will be immortalized Tuesday night, when Unity's volleyball team opens at home (against LeRoy) and a ceremony preceding the varsity match will officially name the high school gym in honor of a coach who won conference championships 18 out of a possible 18 years and regional titles in volleyball 19 times in 22 years.
"It's an honor that is well-deserved," said Alice Myers, Osborn's assistant for the final 14 years she coached. "I can't think of anyone who deserved it more than Liz. She left a legacy that will be hard to beat."
While Myers thought it was an obvious choice, not everyone thought so.
"I was floored when I got the call," Osborn said. "I was kind of speechless, which is pretty good for me. Fifteen years away from Unity High School, it came out of the blue."
Though she coached basketball and softball, volleyball was the sport she coached the longest. She took five teams to state and secured trophies for second (1978), third (1980) and fourth (1977). Osborn's volleyball record was 503-156-1, and her 1981 team is still the school's winningest of all time, compiling a 37-5-1 mark.
"She made you feel successful, no matter the outcome," said 1991 graduate Dana Eisenmenger Good, now a doctor at Carle Clinic. "I don't remember her raising her voice or yelling or using negativity to motivate you. She had high expectations, and we worked hard for her."
Osborn never would have thought such recognition was possible after her first season coaching volleyball.
"We had a record of 5-5 and lost in the district at Atwood (to Villa Grove, 15-13, 15-5)," Osborn said. "We were beaten by a team that bumped the ball back to us. I was embarrassed we hadn't done a better job coaching the girls."
Osborn vowed there would be no repeat performances.
"I set out to learn more about volleyball and how to be a better coach," she said. "I went to a lot of workshops and programs that were offered at Illinois. I took my girls to see college matches so they could see what we were really trying to do.
"I had to learn the hard way from books and the hard knocks of things happening."
She had one staunch ally.
"I had the benefit of Oscar Hicks as AD and principal," Osborn said. "He shared a lot of coaching insights with me. I give him a lot of credit."
Harold Osborn, a University of Illinois graduate, was 25 when he became the first — and only — man to win an individual event and the decathlon in the same Olympics. His 1924 achievements at Paris included world records in the high jump (6 feet, 6 inches) and decathlon (7,710.775 points).
The 5-11 Osborn was described in newspaper reports as "the world's greatest athlete."
Liz Osborn, the third in a family of four sisters, wasn't inundated with stories about her father's heroics.
"You wouldn't have known it from him," she said. "He never talked about it. I found out what he did later through newspaper articles. I knew none of it from him."
Sounds familiar, Myers said.
"Liz would be the very last person to blow her own horn," said Myers, who spearheaded the move to get Unity's gymnasium named in recognition of the Hall of Famer. "The athlete came first for her. She wanted them to have a good experience — and also a winning experience."
The joy in coaching for Osborn wasn't the number of wins or championships she accrued.
"My main satisfaction was being able to bring groups of girls together who had a lot of different personalities and get them to play together as a team," she said. "I was very happy helping those kids achieve goals I couldn't."
As a youth, Osborn said, "I was the most competitive of my sisters, but I probably wouldn't have been a good athlete unless I was motivated to get in better shape."
She wasn't thinking about sports — or becoming a teacher — when she enrolled at Southern Illinois University.
"I was very active in Girl Scouts growing up," she said. "I was a camp counselor when I became 18. My goal was to become a professional Girl Scout. As I worked through my college classes, I realized if I were a professional Girl Scout, I'd spend most of my time working with adults.
"My adviser recommended I do student teaching. I really loved it."
She sensed that Unity wanted a long-term commitment when she was interviewed.
"One of the questions I was asked was whether I was planning on getting married soon," Osborn said. "They didn't want to hire a teacher that would be moving on soon."
She never left the district until ending her 34-year career in 1996.
"Right after I retired, I missed it a lot and probably wished I could have continued a few more years," Osborn said. "It probably worked out the best for me and for Unity to walk away from it. I have good feelings about Unity."
When she sets foot in the gym — the Liz Osborn Gym — on Tuesday, it will be the first athletic event she has watched at the school since retirement.
The honor, she believes, truly goes beyond her contributions.
"I look at it as recognition of the volleyball programs, not necessarily me as an individual." Osborn said. "There were a lot of girls and a lot of adults who were involved with the program that was put together."
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter @fredkroner.
What a career
A look at Liz Osborn’s highlights from her Unity coaching career:
Volleyball head coach 1973-96
Record: 503-156-1, six sectional titles
Girls’ basketball head coach 1972-79
Athletic director 1986-96 Also assistant principal and coach
State softball 1993-96 Member of state advisory committee
State track 1981-87 Official at girls’ finals
State volleyball 1976-77
Researched and proposed two-class finals, implemented in 1977-78
State volleyball 1988-94 Bench official at girls’ finals
Hall of Fame 2005
One of four charter members inducted at Unity High School
Sign of the times
A number of area schools have named one or more of their athletic facilities. A sampling:
SCHOOL FACILITY NAME
Arcola Basketball gym Nancy Stiff Gymnasium
Arcola Football field Thomas-Bradford Field
Argenta-Oreana Basketball gym Alva Kimler Gymnasium
Argenta-Oreana Football field Harry B. Munch Field
Argenta-Oreana Track Connie Casey Memorial Track
Armstrong-Potomac Basketball Gym Robert L. Bezely Gymnasium
Atwood-Hammond Football field Fred Boll Field
Bismarck-Henning Football field Peyton/Moss Field
Bismarck-Henning Basketball gym Clayton Wilcox Gym
Blue Ridge Baseball diamond Bruce Blumer Field
Blue Ridge Football field Kenneth Rittenhouse Memorial Field
Centennial Softball diamond Farris Weidner Field
Champaign Football field Tommy Stewart Field
Champaign Track Harold Jester Track
Champaign Central Basketball gym Harry Combes Gym (and Lee Cabutti Court)
Champaign Central McKinley Field fieldhouse Tommy Stewart Fieldhouse
Champaign Central McKinley Field fieldhouse Jeff Trigger Weight Room
Danville Football field Ned Whitesell Field
Fisher Football, softball complex Kellar Field
Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Football scoreboard Bob Benefiel Memorial Scoreboard
Georgetown-Ridge Farm Football field Ike Burch Field
Georgetown-Ridge Farm Track Derry Behm Track
Heritage Baseball diamond Don Stampini Field
Heritage Football field Scott Mayer Field
Heritage Basketball gym Fred Bohn Gymnasium (and Lyle Loman Court)
Hoopeston Area Football field Glenn Brasel Field
LeRoy Basketball gym Dud Berry Gymnasium
LeRoy Football field L.A. McKean Memorial Field
Mahomet-Seymour Football field Frank Dutton Field
Mahomet-Seymour Track Moose Handlin Track
Milford Football field Jack Shanks Field
Monticello Boys’ basketball gym Robert and Dorothy Miller Gym
Monticello Girls’ basketball gym Allen F. Moore Family Gym
Monticello Track Dwight Wilkey Sports Complex
Paxton-Buckley-Loda Football field Jerry Zimmerman Field
Paxton-Buckley-Loda Track Fred Guyot Track
Rantoul Football field Bill Walsh Field
Ridgeview Baseball diamond (Colfax) Lyle Sutton Field
Salt Fork Football field (Catlin) Herman Byerly Field
Salt Fork Football field (Jamaica) Bob Yeazel Field
Salt Fork Sports facilities (Catlin) Don Lashmet Recreation Complex
Salt Fork Track (Catlin) Tim Royce Memorial Track
Schlarman Basketball gym Paul C. Shebby Gymnasium
Schlarman Football field Drummy Field
St. Thomas More Basketball gym Thomas Harrington Gymnasium
St. Thomas More Football field Henneman Field
St. Thomas More Track Henneman Field
Sullivan Baseball diamond Lane Field
Tri-County Baseball diamond (Kansas) Ken Coffey Field of Dreams
Unity Football field Oscar Hicks Field
Urbana Basketball gym Oscar Adams Gym
Urbana Football field McKinley Field
Urbana Soccer field Randy Blackman Field
Villa Grove Football field Russell Ghere Field
Westville Football field Memorial Field