Tony Yates

Former Illinois men’s basketball assistant coach Tony Yates, middle, with former Illinois head coach Lou Henson, left, and former Illinois assistant coach Les Woethke. Yates died on May 15.

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Yates integral part to successful Illini run

When athletic director Neale Stoner decreed “the ‘80s belong to the Illini,” he would have handed a good share of the credit to an assistant coach.

History shows that no non-head coach in the country did more in uplifting a drowning basketball program during his nine-year span than the late Tony Yates, who died in Ohio on May 15.

Yates was too important to fade quietly into the dustbin of UI sports history. When he arrived with head coach Gene Bartow in 1974, Nick Weatherspoon and Nick Conner had graduated the previous year, and the stays of Kris Berymon, Alvin O’Neal and Billy Morris were short-lived.

A 5-18 UI squad played the 1973-74 season without an African-American member at a time when the black stars at Cincinnati (with Yates as a player), Loyola Chicago, UTEP and UCLA had dominated since the ‘60s.

The Illini were dead in the water.

The 1973-74 lineup of Brad Farnham, Rick Schmidt, Bill Rucks, Jeff Dawson and Dave Roberts was overmatched, losing 14 of their last 15 games. That year’s average attendance of 6,632 stands as the lowest in the 59-year history of State Farm Center ... it hasn’t been under 13,000 since 1978.

Instant recruiting helpWhen Bartow arrived from Memphis State, he plucked a youthful Yates to help. In a brief period, Yates developed a close relationship with Bloom coach Wes Mason and landed the state’s top-rated player, Audie Matthews.

At the same time, he worked to attract two Chicagoans from a junior college in Burlington, Iowa: Mike Washington and Nate Williams.

When Bartow left for UCLA after an 8-18 season here, Lou Henson was presented with those three regulars and a lanky Yates pickup from Cincinnati, Rich Adams. They were the top four scorers on a 14-13 team, which lost six of the last nine games after the point guard, Williams, sprained his ankle in a 71-63 win over Purdue.

Directly thereafter, Yates stayed hot in the Chicago market with Morgan Park’s Levi Cobb, JC transfer Reno Gray and Westinghouse’s Eddie Johnson, while making roughly 20 flights to Florida in quest of blue chip guard Derek Harper. When he took the Cincinnati head job in 1983, Yates left behind rugged acquisitions Efrem Winters and George Montgomery, two Chicaogans who ruled the lane for the 26-5 Elite Eight team in 1984.

Thus, in terms of Chicago recruiting, Yates set the table for Jimmy Collins, and the Illini were well positioned to land Benji Wilson when the budding superstar from Simeon was killed in November 1984. Collins played a huge role in the Flyin’ Illini surge to 31 wins with an in-state roster in 1989.

That brought the victories in the 1980s to 233, even as standout UI teams fell in a series of tough NCAA tournament losses.

Johnson reflects on Yates

“Tony was the main reason I came to Illinois,” reflected Johnson, a Parade All-American who arrived a year after Cobb. “I hadn’t met Coach Henson when Tony started recruiting me. I was in search of a father figure, and he was it. Tony was never overbearing. I was considering Michigan (State), chiefly because of Magic Johnson, who I played with in Europe. I liked Joey Meyer at DePaul, in great part because of his dad (DePaul Hall of Famer Ray Meyer).

“When I made the trip to USC, Tony reminded me that it was a long way from home. Then when I got to know Lou, he was so honest. And it was over.”

Johnson teamed with Peoria’s Mark Smith for four seasons, and Johnson’s sideline jumper beat No. 1 Michigan State for the fourth-ranked Illini’s 15th straight victory in 1979, that streak snapped two days later in an overtime loss to Ohio State.

Johnson spoke fondly of Smith:

“People remember my shot. What they don’t remember is Mark Smith shut down Magic Johnson (eight points). Mark was so talented. He was in Lou’s rotation as a freshman when I was trying to get off the bench. He could do it all. He was better than everybody.

“When we lost to Ohio State, Steve Lanter injured his knee, and we were never the same after that. Lanter was our coach on the floor, one of the toughest I ever played with.”

Lasting legacy

Moving into the ‘80s, Yates remained tight with top Windy City coaches like Westinghouse’s Frank Lolino and Simeon’s Bob Hambric.

When the flamboyant Sonny Cox (who died May 5) ruled the roost at King High, he declined to meet with most assistant coaches. But not Yates. They were compatriots from Cincinnati, where Cox had once been a jazz alto saxophonist of note while Yates was a defense-oriented point guard on two Bearcat national championships and a runner-up.

Yates’ tenacity as a player was extraordinary. After playing for a high school champion, he was denied a full scholarship at Cincinnati, and joined the Air Force. Returning from service, he accepted a partial scholarship and became a Bearccat starter as a sophomore. He never averaged 10 points in a season, and he was often overlooked in a lineup with big-name stars like Tom Thacker, George Wilson and Ron Bonham, but he made third-team AP All-American as a senior.

Said former Illini Rob Judson, now on the staff at Marquette: “The league was highly physical back then, before the shot clock and the three-point shot, and Tony was one of the best in defensive fundamentals. He was an excellent instructor.”

Mark Coomes, just 23 when he followed Henson here, said he learned the ropes of recruiting from Yates.

“Tony knew how to build relationships,” Coomes said. “He was tight with Cox and others. But Tony needed Lou, just as Lou needed Tony. They worked well together. Lou’s work ethic was unbelievable. Nobody could keep up with him.”

Henson remains with wife Mary at their home in Champaign, the same home they bought when they moved here 45 years ago.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com