By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Minnesota. The Chicago YMCA. Rose Polytechnic Institute. Minnesota again. The Evanston YMCA. Wisconsin. Millikin. Butler. DePaul. Wisconsin again. Houston. Arizona State. Furman. Louisville. North Carolina.
… And Gonzaga?
The initial 13 schools – or, well, Young Men’s Christian Associations – listed above are the teams that handed the first losses to the last 15 men to have coached basketball at the University of Illinois. Meanwhile, the final school listed is the one that could hand current Illinois coach John Groce his first defeat tonight when the 13th-ranked Illini tangle with 10th-ranked Gonzaga out in Spokane.
Or Illinois (9-0) could again best the Bulldogs (9-0), who the Illini have beaten two years in a row, and push Groce one step closer to setting Fighting Illini history with the best-ever start by a first-year coach.
This past Wednesday, after Illinois survived an upset bid from Western Carolina at Assembly Hall, Fox Sports Midwest columnist Andrew Astleford wrote about Groce, “He’s the first Illinois coach to win his first nine games at the university since Fletcher Lane did so more than 100 years ago. That stretch includes a Maui Invitational title in November against a field that featured heavy lifters such as Texas, Marquette and North Carolina.”
Astleford then added, “Some perspective: Groce has achieved the feat by topping foes such as Hawaii and USC, Butler and Georgia Tech. Ol’ Lane, meanwhile, started 12-0 back in the 1907-08 season by winning 11 over YMCA and athletic club teams.”
That fascinating fact got me wondering about the starts of all the first-year coaches in Illinois history. What schools did they beat to begin their careers in Champaign? And how many wins did they rattle off before finally suffering setbacks? To answer those questions, I blew the dust off the Illini hoops history books. Here’s what I found:
Illinois’ first-ever basketball coach was named Elwood Brown, who guided the team in 1905-06 during an era when basketball positions included designations such as “right and left guards and right and left forwards” rather than “point, shooting, small and power.”
Brown started out 3-0 at Illinois, besting Champaign High School, Indiana and Purdue before falling Minnesota en route to a 6-8 season. The next year, 1906-07, Frank L. Pinckney, took over the Illini reins and started out 1-0 with a win over the Peoria YMCA before losing to the Chicago YMCA in his second game. Pinckney’s team didn’t win again that year, finishing 1-10.
In 1907-08, Illinois introduced its third coach in three years – the aforementioned Fletcher Lane – who topped the Decatur YMCA, Washington University, the Cairo Athletic Club, the Memphis YMCA, the Ft. Worth YMCA (twice), the Waco YMCA, the Temple (Tex.) YMCA, the Galveston YMCA, the Beaumont (Tex.) YMCA, the Mobile (Ala.) YMCA, the Columbus (Ga.) YMCA and the Birmingham (Ala.) YMCA for his 12-0 start before finally falling to Rose Polytechnic Institute in Terre Haute. Lane’s Illini finished the year 20-6.
In 1908-09, Illinois welcomed yet another new coach in Herb Juul, who started off 4-0 with victories over Shelbyville Business College, Mt. Vernon (Ill.), Indiana and Wisconsin before suffering a defeat vs. Minnesota. Juul’s first team compiled a 7-6 record.
Two years later, in 1910-11, T.E. Thompson took over the Illini program and lost his opener to the Evanston YMCA en route to a 6-6 campaign. Ralph Jones was the next Illini coach in 1912-13 and started off 3-0 with victories over Illinois Wesleyan, the Decatur YMCA and Rose Polytechnic (revenge!) before getting beat by Wisconsin. Jones’ inaugural club checked in at 10-6 at year’s end.
In 1920-21, Frank Winters took over as coach and promptly lost his first game to Millikin before bouncing back to post an 11-7 record. J. Craig Ruby the relived Winters of his coaching duties in 1922-23 and began 2-0 with wins over Washington University and Notre Dame (yes, Illinois used to play the Irish) before the Illini stubbed their toe against Butler. Ruby’s first year ended with a 9-6 record.
In 1936-37, Douglas Mills began his career as Illini coach at 3-0 with victories against Carroll College, DePauw and Notre Dame. His team then suffered its first loss to DePaul (the Illini used to play the Blue Demons, too), but finished the year an impressive 14-4.
Harry Combes was up next for Illinois in 1947-48 and rattled off seven consecutive wins to begin his tenure, topping Coe, Notre Dame, Pitt, Penn, Washington State (back-to-back) and Harvard before finally ending up on the wrong side of the score against Wisconsin. Combes’ rookie season ended with a strong 15-5 mark.
In 1967-68, Harv Schmidt succeeded Combes and then also succeeded in his first game, beating Butler. Houston topped the Illini in the next contest, however, as Illinois went on to an 11-13 season.
Gene Bartow then took over for the Illini in 1974-75, beating Iowa State in the opener before losing to Arizona State in his second game. Bartow spent just one year in Champaign, going only 8-18, but it was still enough to send him off to UCLA to succeed the legendary John Wooden after the season.
Following Bartow’s departure, Lou Henson took over at Illinois and started his career in orange and blue with a 3-0 record, beating Nebraska, Kent State and New Mexico before suffering a setback vs. Furman (on the road, for some reason). Henson’s first club went on to finish 14-13.
In 1996-97, Lon Kruger also enjoyed a 3-0 start with wins over UIC, Delaware State and TCU before tumbling against Lousiville. Kruger went on to post a 22-10 first-year mark.
Bill Self was the next Illini coach in 2000-01 and the third straight to go 3-0 – with wins over Maine, UNLV and Maryland – before falling to Arizona in the championship game of the Maui Classic. Self’s first team ultimately finished 27-8.
Three years later, Bruce Weber took over for Self and also started out 3-0, topping Western Illinois, Mercer and Temple before losing to North Carolina and going 26-7 for the season.
And that brings us to Groce, who can move to within two victories of Fletcher Lane’s record start with a triumph tonight vs. Gonzaga. That’ll be no easy feat, but considering Lane’s lackluster opponents, Groce really already set the “real” school record for career-opening wins when he surpassed the legendary Combes’ 7-0 start.
The new Illini coach now has a chance to extend his first-year run and, perhaps, start writing his own Illini legend in the process.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.