CHAMPAIGN— Rod Cardinal worked with eight different Illinois basketball coaches during his 46 years in the athletic department, starting as an assistant athletic trainer for Harv Schmidt in July 1973. He'd ultimately become head athletic trainer in his 30-year run on that part of the Illinois basketball staff before his first retirement in 2003.
That, obviously, wan't the end of Cardinal's association with Illini basketball. He spent five seasons as director of operations for Bruce Weber and then transitioned to director of special projects for the 11 years working with Weber, John Groce and Brad Underwood. He saw two Final Fours and a national championship game appearance and developed relationships with nearly five decades worth of players.
Today marks the end of an era.
After 46 years with the #Illini and countless lives impacted, it's officially Rod Cardinal's last day on the job.
Thank you, Rod! pic.twitter.com/oIDJYeo5ud
— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniMBB) May 15, 2019
Cardinal's run with the Illini officially ends today with his retirement. Here's a look back at some of the highlights of his tenure and impact he had on the team ...
UI's Cardinal a real saint
CHAMPAIGN – Rod Cardinal can tape an ankle, which he's done a few thousand times in his career as an Illinois trainer. He can book charter services, handle the room keys and dole out the meal money, which he does as the Illini's travel manager.
"He always made sure the coaches got the big rooms," former Illini Kenny Battle said. "That's something we tease him about."
But Cardinal's impact on the men's basketball program is better reflected in his association with the players. And there might not be a more revered figure in the program's recent history.
"Rod is the man," Battle said. "He's always on top of things. But the thing about Rod is you can go to him and talk to him about any problem, whether it's your girlfriend or whatever situation. Rod is always there for you."
Celebrating past, present and future
CHAMPAIGN – As more than 300 former Illinois basketball players, coaches, managers and support staff began to stream into Champaign-Urbana on Friday, they marveled at the mix of circumstances.
The university this weekend is commemorating the 100th year of Illini men's basketball. Meanwhile, the current team – ranked No. 1 heading into today's home game against Minnesota – is making history of its own, off to a school-record 20-0 start.
Whoever is responsible for this, former Illini forward Eddie Johnson said, deserves a raise.
"Great timing," said Johnson, an Illini star from 1978 to '81. "I told (organizer) Rod Cardinal, 'You need a bonus, don't you?' You couldn't have written it any better."
Congratulations to fellow Illini Rod Cardinal on his retirement! Rod has been a part of the @IlliniMBB program for 46 years! He will be missed. Thank you, Rod! #illiniforlife pic.twitter.com/buVdTzIwbN
— Varsity "I" (@VarsityI) May 15, 2019
UI's Cardinal toast of Chicago
CHICAGO – Rod Cardinal always has been a big hit with Illinois basketball players.
Now Chicago politicians are singing his praises.
A resolution honoring Cardinal was signed by Mayor Richard Daley on Thursday and will be presented to the longtime trainer at this weekend's Big Ten tournament.
"It's certainly humbling and flattering to get something like this," Cardinal said. "I'm not sure I'm worthy of something like this. I appreciate the opportunity basketball and the university have given me."
Reliving a night fans of the Illini and Tigers won't forget
The smoky haze inside the St. Louis Arena.
The dingy smell of the locker rooms.
The missed free throws by Kiwane Garris.
The sight of Norm Stewart living up to his 'Stormin' Norman' nickname.
The three overtimes.
It's a night from the past that Illinois and Missouri basketball fans won't forget. And on the eve of another Braggin' Rights game between the two rivals, we let the key principals for Illinois relive Missouri's 108-107 victory on Dec. 22, 1993, that still resonates 25 years later.
Beloved former Illini coach Lou Henson: "I think it was (the best). It was probably the longest."
All-time Illinois leading scorer Deon Thomas: "Out of all the games I've played, that has to be (ranked) 1 or 2."
Longtime News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate: "Absolutely, from a Missouri standpoint, it's the No. 1 game."
Former Illini head athletic trainer Rod Cardinal: "It ranks really, really close to the top. I lived and died through many of those games with Missouri, and this was a tough one to take."