After 10 years, Renee Slone still values lessons learned from her mentor

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After 10 years, Renee Slone still values lessons learned from her mentor

Photo courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Photo courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Photo courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Photo courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

By Benjy Sabitt

Renee Slone’s eyes light up when she talks about the woman who had her job before her.

Hall of Fame coach Paula Smith was Illinois’ women’s golf head coach for 28 years.EJ Slone took over in 2006 following Smith’s retirement. Slone played for Smith at Illinois from 1990-1993.EJ

“We maintain a strong relationship now, I’m in contact with her all the time,” Slone said. “I’ll still go to her for advice and to get another perspective.”

Slone tries to instill in her players the same values and ideas that Smith taught her.

“Paula is an extremely loyal person. People say she bleeds orange and blue and that’s true,” Slone said. “She cares deeply about this institution and its athletic department.”

When Smith started teaching in the counseling department in the early 1970s, there was no varsity women’s golf team. She remembers it as being more of a club and would often help Jody Davenport, the coach before her.EJ

Smith took over the program in 1978 and has seen it grow over the past 38 years into a full-fledged program.EJ

Smith’s loyalty for the athletic department at the University can still be found today. Smith resides in Champaign and closely follows Illini athletics.

“I still go to all of the football and basketball games,” Smith said. “Win or lose, I’ll be out there cheering them on.”

Slone said that Smith taught her the meaning of being true to something, and when you make a commitment you follow through on that no matter what.

When Slone was a player for Smith she accomplished quite a bit. She was the Illinois Dike Eddleman Female Athlete of the Year in 1991 and 1992, a three-time All-American selection (1991,1992,1993), and still holds the school record for averages strokes per round (75.35).EJ

As a sophomore, Slone finished in third place at the NCAA championships at Ohio State. Coach Smith remembers the feeling of seeing a player compete in a Championship tournament at Ohio State after doing so herself.

“It was very nostalgic seeing Renee play at Ohio State,” Smith said. “That’s a very special course to me and seeing her play it so well, at such a young age, years after I got the chance to play it was something I’ll always remember.”

Slone is one of the most decorated golfers and athletes to come through Illinois, but she’d rather keep her focus on the present.

“I want every one of my records to be broken, absolutely,” Slone said. “I want to be able to help our team members achieve whatever they can and rewrite the record books.”

When reflecting on her 28 years, Paula Smith found it hard to describe her experiences and relationship she had with Illinois athletics.

“It was a very special time, hard to put into words,” Smith said. “It was almost like a family, and not just the women’s golf team but the men’s golf team and all of the other teams.”

Slone has seen many things change since her time as a player at Illinois, and more has changed since she became head coach 10 years ago. She’s seen some major facility upgrades, but said the biggest change is the recruitment process for coaches and the decision process for players.

“The process of recruitment and college decision-making is starting earlier and earlier,” Slone said. “There are a lot more opportunities to get exposure.”

Through her time at Illinois as a player and a coach, Slone has seen opportunities for female athletes expand.

“When I was in high school I played on the men’s team,” Slone said. “We didn’t have enough girls for a team. Growing up I played in a lot of the Illinois Junior Golf Association events where I would be the only girl in a field of about 80-100 guys.

“The number of opportunities that are available now for females, it’s exciting to see. Not just the quantity of girls playing is changing but also the quality.”

It’s been 10 years since Slone agreed to become the head coach and her relationship with Smith played a major role in her decision-making.

In turn, Smith wanted to make sure her replacement would take care of the program.

“I was very protective of the team,” Smith said. “It was comforting having Renee take over because I knew I had someone taking over for me that would be as devoted and care for the players.”

Slone was working as a golf professional at a country club in North Carolina when Smith came to her with the opportunity.

“Coach Smith came to me 2-3 years before she retired and told me about her plans, trying to plant a seed for me.” Slone said. “I saw this as an opportunity to have an impact on young people’s lives and helping them improve as people, not just athletes”

Slone talks a lot about the opportunities for her players, and doesn’t want them to forget how lucky they are to be in the position they’re in. This is another lesson she took from Coach Smith.

She has her players write gratitude journals once a week on various topics. Last week they wrote about a support staff member they are grateful for.

“I want the players to realize how fortunate we are to have this opportunity, and not take that for granted.” Slone said.

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