?Illini Coach of the Year: Dan Hartleb

By Joey Figueroa

When a team doesn’t perform well for an extended time, the coach often takes the blame. When a team is successful, the players usually garner most of the credit.

But when a team wins 24 consecutive games and has been as successful as the Illinois baseball team has this season, recognition is deserved at every level. ssAnd while he would never admit it, head coach Dan Hartleb has been the driving force behind arguably the best team to ever play at Illinois Field.

At 43-6-1, Illinois is off to its best start in school history and is seven wins away from tying the program record. Hartleb has coached his team to the best winning percentage in the nation and hasn’t seen a different number in the loss column since March.

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Since his first year as head coach in 2006, Hartleb hasn’t come close to the type of success he’s experiencing this season. He insists nothing has changed, though.

“We haven’t done anything different,” Hartleb said. “I think you get in trouble when you do too many things different. Obviously you tweak some things at times to try and keep things fresh, I think if you look at good programs at any level, there’s some continuity there and they do things the same the majority of the time.”

Hartleb has been on the Illinois coaching staff since 1991, when he came over from Southern Illinois as an assistant coach for head coach Itch Jones.ss Upon Jones’ retirement in 2005, Hartleb took over the helm in 2006 and has experienced consistent success. Since Hartleb’s promotion, Illinois has yet to finish a season under .500, has made the Big Ten Tournament all but two seasons and has a conference record of 130-104.ss

Back when the streak was at a mere five games, the 49-year-old achieved his 300th career coaching win to finish off a sweep of Northwestern. Following a celebratory Gatorade shower, a humbled Hartleb gave credit to everyone except himself.

“It’s nice,” Hartleb said of his milestone. “It means we’ve had good players. It comes down to having great support from the administration here, having a number of good players that have done a great job during their careers and again having great players this year.”

Hartleb’s coaching style is calm and collected, just like his demeanor. Even in the midst of school record win streak, it’s rare to see Hartleb’s modesty break to crack a smile. He’s a skipper who never gets too high or low, but doesn’t stand in the way of his players when they want to celebrate.

“When you continue to win, it’s always a lot of fun,” senior outfielder Will Krug said. “You really don’t feel the pressure.”

With the pressure that undoubtedly comes with a streak as long as the Illini’s, Hartleb has done a great job managing expectations and keeping his players level-headed throughout. He has consistently stressed the importance of maturity and not panicking, and with 20 comeback wins on the season, it is apparent Hartleb’s tranquility has rubbed off.

That lack of intense pressure to keep the streak alive may be the defining reason why it has lasted so long.

“No one’s going to win every game,” said sophomore outfielder Pat McInerney. “You come to the ballpark thinking you’re going to win, but one of these days we’re not going to win and it’s not going to be the end of the world.”

Once the day does come when the Illini finally lose a game, Hartleb will allow his players an hour to reflect, just as he allows them an hour to celebrate every win. And then it’s on to the next streak.

[email protected]?@joeyfigueroa3