Coach cultivates Illini cheer team

 

 

By Laura Hettiger

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on coach Stephanie Record and the Illinois cheerleading team. Five, six, seven, eight. Shrug one, two, bounce three, four, flip five, six, stand seven, eight, and clean. Do it again. This time go higher, tuck tighter, rotate quicker, stand up straighter, defy gravity.Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on coach Stephanie Record and the Illinois cheerleading team.

Five, six, seven, eight. Shrug one, two, bounce three, four, flip five, six, stand seven, eight, and clean. Do it again. This time go higher, tuck tighter, rotate quicker, stand up straighter, defy gravity. Again: five, six, seven, eight. Shrug one, two, bounce three, four, flip five, six, stand seven, eight, and clean. Don’t put your hands down, don’t bail. You can do this, come on, everyone is watching. Flip over, just flip over. Make your body jump five feet in the air, pull your hips up high, tuck your knees to your chest, fall out of the rotating ball. Just flip over. …

These daunting thoughts run through the heads of every college cheerleader during a standing back flip. As with every aspect of the sport, it’s all about “five, six, seven, eight.” No holding back and always challenging the human body. And as gals fly through the air, guys flip down the floor; chants are reverberating off the walls of Huff Hall. It’s just another day at the office for Stephanie Record, head coach of the Fighting Illini cheer team. The team is treated as a varsity sport, but the athletes are constantly trying to prove their worth. It’s all in a day’s work, though, and the 36-year-old Record treats her team as a “business” she is helping to build.

“The reason to be a cheerleader is because you love athletics,” Record says. “And I absolutely love Illinois athletics. For my collegiate program, I want role models recognizable for what we represent. But no matter how much we progress, we still fight.”

Before a screaming crowd of 57,000 orange-clad football fans packed into Memorial Stadium or 17,000 basketball faithful in Assembly Hall, the simple-looking flip isn’t simple, and Stephanie Record knows it. Fourteen years ago, she was standing in front of a packed Memorial Stadium doing flip after flip. From 1990 through 1993, she was a varsity member of the Illinois cheerleading team. She earned a psychology degree and went on to receive her master’s in social work. She’s now in her 12th year of coaching the team.

Growing up in rural Illinois, Record first cheered for the Green Wave at Mattoon High School. Originally not making her middle school cheer team, she focused on other sports like dance, basketball and softball before donning her own cheer skirt in the ’80s.

For the past 22 years, cheerleading has played an active role in Record’s life. In the distant past, cheerleading took little more than a nice smile. In today’s world, however, no longer do images of cute, blonde women bouncing up and down in short skirts come to mind for the five-foot-one, brown-haired, brown-eyed Record.

Cheerleading is now about “coordination, balance, dance and gymnastics.” Since Record cheered for the Illini more than a decade ago, cheerleading is being treated as an official “sport” across the country and for the Illini. It’s a sport that has become increasingly athletic, a sport that requires precision and practice, practice, practice. Some universities even give out scholarships to cheerleaders.

But not Illinois. Here, the 15 men and 15 women on the Fighting Illini team cheer for a little more than pride and free tickets to the game. Here, they practice in crowded Huff Hall. Here, the team is not offered any scholarships and is not included in Title IX funding. Here, if a cheerleader falls and isn’t hurt badly, he will be asked to hold a swab to the bleeding wound and drive himself to the hospital. Here, Stephanie Record earns $18,500 for her part-time coaching job. Big Ten foe Ohio State’s head cheer coach’s salary is $40,000.

Although Record does not get much compensation, one thing has stayed constant: “I do this because I love Illinois athletics and Illinois cheerleading.”

On this particular night in muggy Huff Hall, with the Illinettes dance team practicing nearby and strangers walking in and out of the gymnasium, Stephanie Record is all business.

“Bring it in over here,” she says, frustration overtaking her normally perky voice as she watches her squad going through the Illinois school song. “There is lots of forgetting. It should be solid by now.”

The eight new women on the team are lined across the south end of the Huff. With orange pompoms in tow, the women resemble well-manicured robots practicing the cheers and dances they must master before ever zipping up an orange Illini cheer uniform. A small boom box blares a taped Marching Illini rendition of “Illinois Loyalty,” and the physically fit, toned women focus on hitting each move of the legendary dance on beat.

“The more this stuff is in your brain, you guys,” Coach Record bellows, “the less frazzled you’ll be when you hear it at the game.”

“Five, six, seven, eight,” Record counts the beat aloud as she restarts the CD player. This time there is no room for error – it is too close to game day.

“Make sure your ‘V’s’ aren’t too wide,” the coach screams over the crackling music. Seeing this new crop of cheerleaders incorrectly perform the school’s song brings a shallow frown to Record’s round, freckled face.

“Illinois Loyalty” and “Oskee Wow Wow” are the two most notable songs the Marching Illini play on game days. Both are Illinois traditions and are considered “old-school” by today’s cheerleading standards. The songs require crazy arm movements and unnatural feet placements, and the songs often trip up and confuse even veteran cheerleaders.

“You have to constantly be smiling and selling it to the crowd,” Coach Record tells her team’s “newbies.” Remember: Everyone is watching.

The music starts over. Five, six, seven, eight.

After a full day at Champaign Central High School working as a truancy social worker, Record is in the middle of her second hour of her second weekly cheer practice. She devotes a minimum of 20 hours a week throughout the academic year to the cheerleading program as a part-time employee. Record wishes she could be a full-time coach with a full-time salary to help support her two daughters and husband, but she said she doesn’t coach for the money.

“If this was a full-time job, and the pay was comparable to a full-time coaching job, absolutely I would only do this,” she says with a broad smile.

“No matter what, we are always fighting for our place,” says Record. Illinois’ main athletic donation fund, Varsity I, does not financially support the team in any way: no scholarships and no financial burden or benefit to the University.

Spending eight hours a week practicing, three hours a week in the weight room, six hours a week at the Irwin Academic Services Center and anywhere from four hours at a basketball game to seven hours for a football game, Record’s team members cheer for the love of the sport.

“No matter how much we progress, we still fight. We are valued when it is convenient. Everyone wants to see the cheerleaders, but we have to maintain our reputation that much more than everyone else because we have something to prove. I want the cheerleaders to be recognized as athletes.”