Former University of Illinois track coach Gary Wieneke is already a living legend — winner of 13 Big Ten titles, coaching Hall of Famer, and inspiration to NCAA champions and Olympians like Craig Virgin and Mike Durkin.
He is, according to his former athletes, all about winning.
Now the intense Wieneke gaze they remember will forever be part of the new UI track and soccer complex on St. Mary’s Road.
A bigger-than-life portrait of Wieneke will be unveiled when the former coach is inducted into the UI’s Athletic Hall of Fame on Friday night.
Internationally known artist Rob Mango — an NCAA champion and one-time UI world-record-holder in the 2-mile relay — painted the portrait of his former coach and donated it to the university.
Mango and Jeff Jirele, a three-time All-American who graduated in 1977, got the idea a year ago at a dinner in New York with UI athletic officials. They agreed to include the portrait in the new building.
“We love him,” Mango said. “There’s nobody even close. He is legendary. I just wanted to give him a little touch of immortality.”
Mango, Jirele, Virgin and Durkin will be on hand Friday night, but Wieneke got a sneak peek Tuesday at his home in Champaign.
“He was in awe,” Jirele said.
The track itself is already named for Wieneke, who coached track and cross-country at Illinois from 1967 to 2003.
Jirele, who has stayed in close contact with the coach, said he and his teammates lived to please Wieneke — and win.
Mango, a 1973 graduate, helped take Illinois from last to first in the Big Ten. He was also a budding artist, and running fueled his art, helping him visualize images for his paintings. Wieneke always respected that creativity.
“He got the most out of me because he let me be me,” Mango said.
Before starting the portrait, Mango went through the athletic department’s photo archives. Wieneke was camera-shy and reserved — “unless you were one of his athletes, and he could raise hell with you,” Mango said — but the artist found a small black-and-white photo from the ’70s that captured the coach.
Wieneke was looking off at his athletes racing, and “I recognized the expression,” Mango said.
In the portrait, which Mango ultimately painted from memory, Wieneke is looking hopeful but concerned, he said.
Mango also did a second painting that is “a little more me,” with bold orange and yellow strokes touching Wieneke’s eyes.
“Coach Wieneke had an uncanny ability of looking at you and delivering a message without ever saying anything,” Mango said.
On the flip side of Wieneke’s portrait is an inscription, signed by the former athletes, that reads in part, “You are the spark of greatness in our lives. Right and wrong, we knew from your eyes. They guided us, we never doubted you.”
A stopwatch hangs around Wieneke’s neck in both photos — one with the world-record time from Mango’s relay, the other with Jirele’s Big Ten record at the Drake Relays.