Pass the baton: Coach Winckler leaves legacy



By Anthony Zilis

Gary Winckler knew when he took the job as head women’s track and field coach at University of Illinois 22 years ago that it would be difficult to get the best athletes to come to the cooler Midwest as opposed to Florida, California or Texas, where training year-round is more comfortable.

He realized recruiting would be more of a challenge than it was in his previous job as head coach of Florida State, where he won two national championships.

If he was going to succeed at Illinois, Winckler knew he would need to look beyond pure times and athletic aptitude.

“You look for athletic ability, but I also look for some of those intangibles, like desire to succeed,” Winckler said. “If the individual has the desire to succeed … you can succeed here and you can succeed in life. That’s a lot of what I look for.”

It has been Winckler’s ability to find athletes who he can develop and mold into outstanding performers that has enabled him to coach more than 300 All-Americans and helped his teams win 11 Big Ten Championships. With this knack for finding hidden talent, he discovered Tonja Buford-Bailey.

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“(Tonja) was talented in high school but wasn’t by far one of the top kids in the country,” Winckler said. “But she did have a desire to really succeed and was very competitive, and I think in a lot of people’s eyes she was a big surprise with what she accomplished.”

A 10-time All-American and four-time Big Ten Athlete of the Year, Buford-Bailey will be Winckler’s replacement when he retires at the end of this season. She remains one of the greatest and most celebrated athletes in Illini history.

After she finished college, Winckler coached her to three Olympics in the 400-meter hurdles, winning a bronze medal in Atlanta in 1996. He calls this one of his proudest moments as a coach.

“We worked a lot of years together before she was able to achieve that,” Winckler said. “I just think you just reflect back on all the hard work, all the ups and downs. It’s that journey that makes it so satisfying, really.”

Winckler’s journey started long before this, when he decided early on he wanted to be a coach.

“Even in high school, my intention was to become a high school math teacher and coach,” Winckler said. “I just always enjoyed coaching, and coaches have been real mentors to me in my life and made a big difference in my life, so it’s just a role that I wanted to fulfill myself.”

Track was always a special sport to Winckler, one that deals with individual accountability and desire, skills he said not only matter in sports but in life.

“There’s no one else to pass the ball to in track and field, there’s no helmet to hide behind, there’s no uniform to hide behind. I mean, you are there in your lane and you’re exposing yourself to your competition and to everybody watching that competition. I think it’s the ultimate test of character,” he said. “That to me has made the sport really special.”

His first coaching job came when he volunteered as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Seattle Pacific University, one year after graduating. He then became a volunteer assistant at Oregon State University, where he attended graduate school.

Winckler landed his first full-time job as an assistant at Florida State in 1980, where he spent one year as an assistant before becoming head coach. After winning two NCAA National Championships at Florida State, Winckler found a better opportunity to coach at the University of Illinois.

“University of Illinois was a better academic institution, in the sense you could recruit good students here. There were a lot more majors offered, just a much more diverse institution,” Winckler said. “The Big Ten is a great conference, so it just seemed like a good fit for me and my philosophy.”

The rest is history, as Winckler has become known around the country as one of the most knowledgeable coaches in the NCAA. Along with winning 11 Big Ten titles, he twice coached the Illini to fourth-place finishes at the National Championships. He credits his success to great organizational skills, and stresses to his athletes how essential those skills are on the track and in life.

“I think they’re one in the same,” he said about life on and off the track. “I think if you have a good plan in your athletic training, in your competition plan and your racing plan, then I think those kinds of habits are going to reap the same kinds of benefits in your personal life and in your business life.”

The 10-time Big Ten Coach of the Year has always preached the importance of academics to his athletes.

“It’s the primary reason we’re here, we always have to keep that in mind,” he said. “As much as sport has become important in our society, 99 percent of the athletes that go through the Illinois program are not going to continue on to a professional career, so they need to prepare for something beyond.”

While he said it has been particularly satisfying to see his athletes succeed in life after college, his most rewarding moments as a coach have come when one of his athletes succeeds on the national and international stages.

“I think when I look back, probably the most satisfying are those individuals that have won National Championships and obviously gone on to win World Championships,” he said.

Winckler said his own desire to succeed comes from seeing athletes such as Buford-Bailey, Yvonne Mensah and former 100-meter hurdles world champion Perdita Felicien work hard to become world-class athletes.

“An athlete with a lot of desire … makes you want to work harder for them so you don’t let them down,” he said.

Buford-Bailey said she owes much of her success to the determination of her former coach.

“He was a mentor and a coach, and brought me so much knowledge to what I was doing as an athlete from a technical standpoint and from a competitive standpoint,” the former 400-meter hurdles world-record holder said.

When he made the decision to retire, Winckler felt confident in leaving the team with Buford-Bailey, who he said exemplifies his ideals more than any other athlete he’s ever coached.

While Winckler said with a few adjustments the Illini may have come away with multiple national titles during his tenure, learning from mistakes has made him the coach he has been for the last 22 years.

“I never wanted to be one of those coaches who had one year of experience 20 times,” he said. “I wanted to have 20 years of experience. I’m not afraid to try new things. Whether it’s coaching techniques or training techniques, I’ve constantly been experimenting and changing things and every year my program’s been a little different. I’m always trying to make it a little better.”

With this attitude, Winckler has built the Illinois women’s track and field team into a Big Ten powerhouse.

He plans to spend the next few years completely removed from the program, but Buford-Bailey said she’ll have the coach on speed dial.

“I’m definitely going to use him as a tool for advice and things that I’m going to encounter that I didn’t know existed as a head coach,” Buford-Bailey said.

The future head coach will have a lot to live up to, as Winckler will go down as one of the most successful coaches in Big Ten history.

Asked if he has any regrets in his long and storied career, Winckler quietly said, “I never look back much. I’m always looking forward at other things.”