Someone on Illinois' fan Website posed an interesting question the other day: Does Illinois' sports program--its total sports program, men and women--rank among the top 25 colleges in the nation?
While the high-profile Illini football and basketball teams battle to earn sports among the top 25, how does the entire Illini package--wrestling, tennis, track and field, swimming, gymnastics, volleyball, baseball, softball, all sports--compare to the rest of the Big 10 and to the best of the Pac-10, SEC, Big 12, ACC and Big East?
Sure, the Illini have never won an NCAA basketball championship and haven't ranked No. 1 in football since Red Grange. Unfortunately, it's all about image and perception and Illinois' national image isn't Dick Butkus as much as slush fund, not as much about Buddy Young as Deon Thomas, as much about Bob Zuppke as Mike White, as much about Lou Boudreau as Jamar Smith, as much about...well, you get the point.
I remember the way it was in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Before women's sports. USC, UCLA and Stanford were the NCAA's dominant all-sports programs. They still are. Michigan was about to climb onto the national stage under the leadership of its new athletic director, Don Canham, the former track coach, who also became a pioneer in merchandising at the college level.
Outside of football under Pete Elliott and basketball under Harry Combes, Illinois had only two teams that enjoyed national recognition--coach Mac Garret's fencers and coach Charlie Pond's gymnasts. I covered the gymnasts as a freshman reporter for the Daily Illini in 1958-59. Pond was on his way to a 10th consecutive Big 10 championship and the Illini were led by two members of the 1958 U.S. Olympic team, Abie Grossfeld and Don Tonry.
For a kid who came from a high school that didn't have a gymnastics team and didn't know a high bar from the parallel bars, it was quite an education. Pond was as entertaining as he was brilliant. The gold medal-winning Russian Olympic team came to Illinois for an exhibition that filled Huff Gym and Hal Holmes, a high school senior from Urbana, executed the first double-back somersault in a competitive atmosphere during his tumbling routine. Today, every 5-year-old can do a double back.
It was a great time. But Illinois' other so-called minor sports were struggling. Gymnastics and wrestling were housed in ancient Men's Old Gym, now Kenny Gym. Swimming and fencing were at Huff Gym. The baseball team played at old Illinois Field, now the site of the engineering campus.
Under the leadership of athletic director Ron Guenther, Illinois' all-sports program has made huge strides. Guenther has hired outstanding coaches and helped to raise funds to build first-rate facilities, as good as any in the Big 10. And the Illini are nationally ranked in several sports.
Top 25 in the nation? Yes. And within a few years, top 10 isn't beyond the realm of possibility. But, please, renovate Assembly Hall, don't replace it. Remember, image and perception are very important. And Assembly Hall, an architectural masterpiece, is the crown jewel of the program. No other college in the country has anything to compare to it.