Top Illini of Title IX: No. 1 — Tonja Buford-Bailey

Editor’s note: June 23 marks the 40-year anniversary of the passing of Title IX, a resolution that sought to stop gender discrimination in educational activities; athletics was one of those programs most affected. In honor of the 40-year anniversary, The Daily Illini is recognizing the athletes that have forwarded female athletics in the wake of Title IX’s passing. The Daily Illini summer staff sat down and sifted through a list of more than 30 nominees to name and order the top 9 female athletes of the past 40 years in terms of cultivating excellence for women’s sports at Illinois.

The murmurs of skepticism originated in Champaign, progressing sporadically throughout the country.

When Wayne Angel resigned after six seasons as head coach of the Illinois men’s track and field team in November of 2009, he left a vacancy for the roles of head coach and sprinting coach. Five-year assistant coach Mike Turk was soon hired as Angel’s replacement, and the Illini’s new interim head coach negotiated with then-athletic director Ron Guenther that the volunteer sprint coaches that worked with Angel be let go, leaving the position of sprinting and hurdles coach wide open. Head women’s track and field coach and former Illinois standout Tonja Buford-Bailey was instated as the new coach the next day.

Turk said hiring Buford-Bailey was an administrative idea that he was “absolutely comfortable with.”

At the time of the hire, Andrew Riley was a sophomore who showed promise in the 60-meter and 110-meter hurdles. Angel’s resignation in the middle of the track season was inconvenient for many involved, including Riley.

He had seen Buford-Bailey’s poster hanging at the indoor track located in the University Armory, but wasn’t familiar with Buford-Bailey the athlete. He then took to the Internet to gain a more extensive understanding of what his new coach had accomplished during her days as an athlete.Riley soon learned that his new coach was the most decorated athlete in Illinois history. Buford-Bailey has won more titles than any other Illinois athlete, male or female, and holds more titles than any other student-athlete in the history of the Big Ten. In 1992, she was an NCAA champion in the 400-meter hurdles, and she was named Big Ten Athlete of the Year in all four years of her college career. Not to mention that, along with her 10 All-America accolades, Buford-Bailey appeared in three Olympics, becoming the first female Illini athlete to win an Olympic medal when she claimed the bronze medal in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

“She was a stud,” Riley said.

But for other members of the men’s sprinters and hurdlers, Buford-Bailey’s status as a woman and a women’s coach caused some to be reluctant in buying what she was selling.

“Some of the guys weren’t believers right away,” Riley said. “A lot of people were skeptics. She had never coached guys before. I think a lot of guys were worried about that and about the direction they wanted to be going.”

“I heard that some of the guys weren’t so sure about having me coach them,” Buford-Bailey said. “That happened more often than I knew it was going on. … But I did find out that a lot of them were like, ‘I don’t know about this. I can’t have a woman coach me.’ Some of them were flat-out, ‘I can’t have a woman coach me.’”

Turk said that while some of the men’s sprinters and hurdlers were indeed hesitant to accept Buford-Bailey as their coach, he likened the situation to that of a substitute filling in for the regular professor.

“There were some issues that I had to address pretty quickly when we first put that together, and there were some — not major issues — but there certainly were some problems,” Turk said. “And I don’t think it’s anything unusual. … Young adults and teenagers, what’s the first thing they’re going to do? They’re going to test boundaries … as far as what they can get away with. Being accountable, being on time and doing what they’re supposed to do. Simple stuff like that.”

Riley said the quality workouts Buford-Bailey put her new athletes through legitimized her in his eyes.

“I’ve been through a lot of coaches, and I know when a workout is good or a workout is bad,” Riley said. “My high school coach was a very good coach. When Tonja started taking over and started giving me workouts, I obviously knew back then that it was good stuff that was going to help me in the end.”

Riley and his teammates began to see improvements in their times and started setting personal bests. Buford-Bailey said she didn’t put much stock into the men’s sprinters and hurdlers reluctance to work with her because she felt confident she would be able to help them improve.

“My son, his first-ever baseball coach was a female. So for him, he has that. And he knows I’m a coach, and he sees me coaching men, so I think for him it wouldn’t be an odd thing if he showed up for basketball and his coach was a female,” Buford-Bailey said. “But I think for most of those boys, they hadn’t experienced it, hadn’t seen it and probably didn’t trust it.”

Buford-Bailey was slowly convincing her team that she could succeed at coaching men, but the doubters weren’t completely eliminated. Buford-Bailey and Riley both said coaches and teams from around the nation denounced Riley, who was quickly gaining national recognition, because his coach was a woman.

“I didn’t care because I knew I could coach and that he was going to be fine,” Buford-Bailey said. “But that was three years ago. A lot has changed since then.”

By the end of his sophomore year, Riley was a national champion in the 110-meter hurdles. He finished his collegiate career as a four-time NCAA Champion, 12-time All-American, two-time Dike Eddleman Award winner, two-time Big Ten Outdoor Track Athlete of the Year winner and the owner of school records in the 60 meters, 60-meter hurdles, 100 meters, 110-meter hurdles and 4×100-meter relay.

Riley credited much of his success to working with Buford-Bailey.

“A lot of our teammates were worried, but after the first couple of track meets they started to see their times go down, and they started to do whatever she said,” Riley said. “She says A, I do A. She says B, I do B. … And after six months I was an NCAA champion. So we shut those guys up.”

On Saturday, Riley secured a spot on the Jamaican Olympic team. He qualified for the second-place spot in the 110-meter hurdles with a career-best time of 13.19 seconds.

Buford-Bailey was in Eugene, Ore., working with Team USA, constantly refreshing her computer for the results. But the results weren’t coming in.

“I was in a straight panic,” Buford-Bailey said. “I just really wanted it for him and I was really kind of going crazy and hoping and praying that when it finally refreshed that he would be in the top three.”

Riley’s agent finally called five minutes after the race to alert her of the news.

“This was going to be the ultimate notch, and the next step is getting in the finals,” Buford-Bailey said. “With everything you have to take one step at a time. At this point, that was making the top three and making the team.”

When asked what type of potential she saw in Riley when she first started coaching him, Buford-Bailey said that her expectations were through the roof.

“It’s not a big surprise,” she said. “He’s got the ability, he’s got the mindset and he’s just a really good kid to coach. And from that vantage point, he was way more serious and way more focused and dedicated than your average sophomore in college. But even with the whole coaching change, he was one of the ones who embraced it the fastest. He didn’t worry about this woman coaching him. So I knew right away that he showed maturity.”

“She’s like my mother,” Riley said of Buford-Bailey. “I grew up mostly close to my mother, so I’m a mother-son guy. She’s been through the system of collegiate and pro. She knows all of the ups and downs. Sometimes she’s more passionate emotionally than other guys who, even if your body’s tired or you stay up late at night, they’ll try to push you through. But if you go to her and tell her you’re not feeling good, she might shut you down for the day and then say come back fresh tomorrow to workout. A lot of guys would say, ‘Go kill it,’ you know? ‘Tough it out.’ And I think that might make the difference over the years. She has been that type of person to me.”