The many roles of Coach Hardin

 

 

By Kyle Diller

Don Hardin has played many roles in his lifetime – a husband, a mentor, a best man and a best friend. Oh, and he’s a successful volleyball coach, too.

Well, at least until the end of this season.

“I feel like I’m leaving this program in an excellent condition, poised for immediate success,” Hardin said. “That really is one of the contingencies I had for leaving.”

For 21 years Hardin has been a head coach, 13 of which at Illinois, his alma mater. During his illustrious career, he has amassed an impressive 424-238 career record and 13 postseason appearances, seven with the Orange and Blue.

But Hardin isn’t just a coach. Meeting Hardin for the first time, it’s easy to realize that he’s a nice guy. Once you talk to people close to him, though, you realize just what an extraordinary person he truly is.

At the earliest stages of his coaching career, Hardin worked as an assistant for the Illini under Mike Herbert, who has had a major impact on Hardin’s coaching career. Under Herbert and Hardin, the Orange and Blue won back-to-back Big Ten titles in 1986 and 1987.

Although Hardin left Herbert and the Illini in 1987 for the head coaching job at Louisville, the two remained close friends and were each other’s best man when they renewed their vows with their wives.

“We went down to Key West and rented a house together, and we rented a boat and had a captain, she was a naval captain of some kind and had the power of marrying,” Herbert said. “So we were standing in the water off of Key West, up to our knees taking our vows again. It was just a remarkable sight … but those are the kinds of things the Hardins and the Herberts have done though the years, and it’s just been a wonderful relationship.”

Hardin went on to have a successful career at Louisville, leading the team to its first winning season in five years on the way to six postseason appearances. But he couldn’t stay away from his alma mater for long.

Hardin was the top candidate to take over as head coach for the Illini following Herbert’s departure. On Jan. 19, 1996, Hardin took over and immediately got to work making his mark in the team’s history.

In the 13 years since his arrival, he has posted a 234-162 record, averaged 20 wins per season, and was named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2001 and 2003. And while he will be remembered for all his accomplishments as a head coach, he will also be remembered by his players as a mentor.

Hardin is known for his emphasis on his players’ success in the classroom, and the statistics show just what an influence he has. During his time with the Illini, his players have had nearly a 100 percent graduation record. His players have also earned 67 Academic All-Big Ten honors for Illinois.

“He’s a great coach,” senior Lizzie Bazzetta said. “He cares not just about your volleyball development, but your development as a college student, as an adult, as a strong woman.”

Bazzetta is in her final season with the Illini and her departure and Hardin’s retirement end a nine-year relationship between Hardin and the Bazzettas.

Hardin coached Bazzetta’s sister, Kathleen, from 2001 until 2004, helping her earn Verizon/CoSIDA Academic-All District honors in 2003. The effect he had on Kathleen has trickled down to her sister.

“Her positive experience definitely made me want to come here, and I’ve had a great experience here and so that’s a big key,” Bazzetta said. “I wanted the whole package when I came into college, and he wasn’t just the (kind who) only cared about volleyball. He cared about all the other things and that was important to me.”

He can look forward to being sent out on a high note – the Illini have already punched their ticket to the Sweet 16.

“With the NCAA, we’re really focused on really trying to extend the season as long as possible, even just for him, so that we can really go out with a bang for him,” sophomore Laura DeBruler said. “So hopefully it won’t really affect us and we just use that almost as motivation to continue and play hard.”

However, for Hardin, just being able to work with this talented group of athletes and fantastic people has been enough for him, and any success in the tournament will just be a bonus.

“I know that some players and most of the team have been focused on me enjoying this last year all the way along,” Hardin said.

“My enjoyment of the season is not dependent on their wins and losses, it’s much more dependent on their attitudes and how they manage themselves on and off the court and how they commit themselves to getting better every day, and they’ve done that.”

He leaves behind a team full of young talent for his yet-to-be-named successor, a team capable of coping with the loss of their head coach, a team that finished third in the Big Ten and a team that is headed to the Sweet 16.

“My wife and I have loved this community and the volleyball program has been a big part of our life here since I was an assistant back in ’83 and since I graduated from Illinois. So, I’ll always be connected with it in some way and one of the program’s biggest fans. It’s been a wonderful experience here.”

One thing is for sure, though: when the season comes to an end, it will be an emotional goodbye.

“I think he’s in the same boat that I am,” Bazzetta said. “Yes, he’s retiring but I don’t think he’s ready (to leave) this team right now. This is a special team.”

As Illini head coach Don Hardin’s career comes to a close, here is a look at the Big Ten teams he has had the most and least success against during his 13 seasons at Illinois.

Most Success Team Record

Iowa 22-4

Indiana 20-6

Northwestern/Purdue 17-9

Least Success Team Record

Penn State 2-24

Wisconsin 6-20

Minnesota/Ohio State 9-17

Kate Munson contributed to this report