The Illinois connection: The transition from athlete to coach

Colleges are like hometowns. They are places associated with happiness, comfort and good times. When we return it’s to fill that need for nostalgia, to remember that time you and your buddies went streaking across Frat Park, or beat the Big Fat Ugly challenge at Fat Sandwich after the third time trying.

I like to think this is the same for all colleges. Students have a connection to where they complete their undergraduate education, no matter where it is. They choose to spend four years there for a reason. Because it’s home.

Athletes feel the same way, and that’s why they come back to their alma mater to coach.

The first is women’s golf coach Renee Slone. Slone hails from Metamora, Ill., only about an hour and a half outside of Champaign. She is in her eighth season as head coach of the Illini women’s golf team, taking the reigns after her former coach Paula Smith retired in 2006. Under Smith’s tutelage from 1990-1993, Renee was a three-time all-American and 1993’s National College Player of the Year. Quite the résumé, no?

In her seven years as head coach, Slone has revitalized the women’s golf team. In the 2010-11 season the Illini advanced to the NCAA Regional Championship for only the third time in school history. 2012 saw a repeat showing at the NCAA’s as well as a fifth place finish at the Big Ten Championships — their best with Slone at the helm.

Slone’s counterpart in men’s golf, Mike Small, has similar Illinois ties. A native of Danville, Ill., just down the road from the University, Small comes from an Illinois family. His father played basketball in the ‘60s and his brother Andy was a Big Ten champion infielder for the Illini baseball team in the ‘90s.

Small played golf for the Illini from 1985-88, and is largely recognized as one of the most successful golfers to come out of the state of Illinois. After a decade of professional play where he saw considerable success, Small returned in June of 2000 to coach.

Now in his 14th season, Small has brought the men’s golf program to soaring heights. Just last year the Illini finished as the NCAA runner-up after winning their fifth Big Ten Championship in a row.

To top it all off, Small was inducted into the Illinois Men’s Golf Hall of Fame this month.

While working as an assistant for the volleyball team, current head coach Kevin Hambly completed a bachelor’s degree in Recreation, Sport and Tourism at Illinois in 2006. Hambly served as an assistant coach from 2004-08, succeeding Don Hardin as head honcho in 2009. Since then, Illinois volleyball has remained prominent on the national stage. Hambly won Volleyball Magazine’s National Coach of the Year in 2011 after his team’s narrow loss to UCLA in the NCAA championship match.

Justin Spring has only ever known the University of Illinois. He never left after coming here as a freshman in 2003. He is also one of Illinois’ gymnastics most famous success stories.

During his collegiate career, Spring was a 12 time All-American, winning both Big Ten and National Championships. He was also the proud recipient of the 2006 Nissen Emery Award, college gymnastics highest honor, given to that year’s most outstanding senior gymnast. You can’t get much more decorated than that.

Spring went on to have an impressive professional career, helping the U.S. Men’s Gymnastics team to take home a bronze medal in the team all-around.

After one season as associate head coach in 2009-10 he was promoted, meaning he would retire from competitive gymnastics and focus on coaching full time. Since taking the job, Spring has only experienced success with his team. In 2012, the Illini won their tenth NCAA title, and although 2013 experienced rough patches, the program is considered one of the best in the nation.

Spring also strengthened the Illinois coaching connection when he hired former Illini standout Daniel Ribeiro as an assistant, perpetuating the program’s “hire-from-within” tradition. It’s worked out in the past, so why not, right?

These coaches just keep coming back. Why?

Maybe they miss their glory days. Maybe they felt a void that only Illinois athletics can fill. Maybe they wanted to come home.

Aryn is a senior in LAS. She can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @ArynBraun.