My second Illini Coaches Rankings here at IlliniInquirer.com provides the biggest shakeup since I started writing this column with OrangeandBlueNews.com in 2012.
Six of the Illini's 19 programs experienced coaching change during the last calendar year. Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman dismissed both basketball coaches, John Groce and Matt Bollant, after five years of poor performance. Successful volleyball coach Kevin Hambly left to take over the defending national champion at Stanford. Women's track and field coach Ron Garner was let go as part of a reorganization of the track program that now puts Mike Turk in charge of both the men's and women's programs. Women's gymnastics coach Kim Landrus surprisingly left after 15 years in Champaign for North Carolina State. Interim women's tennis head coach Evan Clark was promoted to the permanent role.
It was quite the busy year for second-year athletics director Josh Whitman.
"We feel like we're at a more of a settled place this summer," Whitman told Illini Inquirer. "We got one more hire to make. We're in the process of trying to identify our next women's gymnastics coach. Once we get that done, that'll be the sixth head coach we've hired in 15 months. Certainly didn't expect that and certainly wasn't hoping for that. But that's what we've done, and we have an opportunity any time there's change to make improvements and grow the program. I feel so strongly about our coaching staff, and it's not just the six new faces, but it's the returning faces. You go top to bottom ... and it's an impressive collection of professionals, really dedicated people to our student-athletes."
Despite a lot of turnover -- and thus a lot more projection on this year's rankings than last year's rankings -- the man at the top of the Illini Inquirer 2017 Illini Coaches Rankings is no surprise.
Editor's note: These rankings obviously are not scientific. They are completely subjective and based on a combination of past success (weighted more) and future potential impact on Illini athletics during the next calendar year.
1. Mike Small, men's golf
Last year's ranking: No. 1
This is Small's fifth straight year as the No. 1 coach, in my rankings. Kevin Hambly is the only other coach to have held the top spot in the six years of these rankings, and that was in 2012 after he led Illini volleyball to a national runner-up finish. Since then, it really hasn't been all that close. I said this last year -- and it's not any different now -- and again that is not a knock on the other Illini coaches. It's just that Small is on the very short list of best coaches in Illinois athletics history. Really, former tennis coach Craig Tiley -- who led Illinois tennis to a rise that led to a 2003 national championship -- is the only guy with an argument on Small. Like Tiley, Small has lifted a warm-weather sport at Illinois, a northern school, into one of the premier programs in the country with some of the premier facilities in the country. Tiley just has that one thing that small lacks: a national title.
Small has led the Illini to match play, golf's equivalent of the Elite Eight, in six of the last seven years -- including five straight, the longest streak in the country. He has made the match-play semifinals, golf's equivalent of the Final Four, in four of the past five years, including three straight. Small has led the Illini to nine conference titles during the last 10 years and has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year nine times.
Small has recruited, developed and produced several Big Ten Players of the Year and individual Big Ten and NCAA champions. Dylan Meyer became the sixth straight Illini to receive Big Ten Player of the Year honors, the ninth player to receive the award under Small. Several others have turned into pros, including Luke Guthrie, Scott Langley, Thomas Pieters, Brian Campbell, Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry. He's also now recruiting top prospects. Though that national championship trophy remains elusive, Small has somehow made a northern school into a national power -- one that will continue to compete for national championships.
2. Justin Spring, men's gymnastics
Last year's ranking: No. 3
The only current Illini coach with a Division I national championship continues to keep the Illini among the perennial national title contenders. The Illini have dealt with a myriad of injuries the last few seasons, but the Illini still managed to finish fourth at the NCAA Championships in 2016 and third in 2017. Four Illini earned All-America honors this past season: Bobby Baker (rings and vault), Alex Diab (rings), Chandler Eggleston (floor exercise and high bar) and Brandon Ngai (pommel horse). Spring, a member of the 2008 U.S. national team that earned a bronze medal, continues to attract some of the country's top talent, including incoming recruits Max Diab (Glenbard West) and Joel Diaz, a Texan and two-time national champion in the vault. Spring competes against just 15 other Division I men's gymnastics programs, but the former Illini great and Olympian still is among the best in his business.
3. Brad Dancer, men's tennis
Last year's ranking: No. 4
Rinse, lather, repeat. Brad Dancer continues to keep Illinois men's tennis as one of the better programs in the country. While it isn't among the country's elite, Illinois has now made nine Sweet Sixteens in Dancer's 12 seasons. Ohio State has owned the Big Ten for the last decade, but Dancer's team has been there to push the Buckeyes, winning a share of the conference title in 2015 and winning the conference tournament title in 2012 and 2015. Dancer returns a potentially great team next season. Senior Aleks Vukic (94-13 overall record, 28-1 Big Ten) is one of the best athletes currently on campus, and Aron Hiltzik also has been dominant in the Big Ten (21-2). Sophomores Zeke Clark, Aleks Kovacevic and Noe Khlif all played key roles late in the season for the Illini. Fellow freshmen Gui Gomes and Kris Ortega also were top-75 recruits in 2016, and Dancer adds four more recruits this fall. Dancer's program is the model of consistency.
4. Tyra Perry, softball
Last year's ranking: No. 9
At least Mike Thomas got one right. Thomas' final hire, Tyra Perry made the biggest jump in this year's rankings and continues to revitalized a once-lagging Illini softball program. She is 73-41 overall at Illinois after taking over a program that was 50-53 i Terri Sullivan's final two seasons. She has led the Illini to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments after the program (which now has six NCAA Tournament appearances in the program's 18-year history) hadn't made one since 2010. Players say Perry has brought about higher expectations within the program, and she got the most of some of Sullivan's recruits, including All-Big Ten outfielder and program HR record holder Nicole Evans and workhorse starting pitcher Breanna Wonderly. Now, we'll start to see what she can do with a team of mostly her recruits.
5. Brad Underwood
Last year's ranking: N/A
Sure, he hasn't coached a season yet. His roster currently has just 10 scholarship players, and his team is expected to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten. But Brad Underwood's resume his too difficult to ignore. He was a slow-riser in the business, but he learned under some of the country's best coaches, including Bob Huggins and Frank Martin. He has a distinct style: up-tempo and relentless on offense and in-your-face and physical on defense. And it's worked -- really, really well. While his predecessor (John Groce) shot up the ladder as a recruiter whose Ohio teams got hot at the right time, Underwood's Stephen F. Austin teams dominated its Southland Conference opponents (53-1 during conference play during his three seasons at SFA). He transformed an Oklahoma State team that went 12-20 in Travis Ford's final season in Stillwater into a 20-12, NCAA Tournament team last season (despite a 10-8 start). Underwood has proven himself as one of the better basketball minds in the country. He's an unproven power-five recruiter, but landing Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith was a statement of a start.
6. Lovie Smith, football
Last year's ranking: No. 6
Other coaches have proven more. And Lovie Smith's first season -- 3-9 overall, 2-6 Big Ten -- was underwhelming and really just looked like more of the same for Illinois. But his name still resonates, and Smith has brought some relevance to Illinois football. He welcomed a top-35 national recruiting class that should -- and must -- make an immediate impact. His current roster is still very limited due to his predecessors recruiting mistakes and shortcomings. Smith still needs patience. Turning around a basketball program is like turning a tugboat. It can happen relatively quickly. Turning around a football program -- especially one like Illinois -- is like turning an aircraft carrier. Smith needs more of his recruiting classes, and he needs an improved football facility, which is scheduled to be completed in 2019. But Smith himself also must spark recruiting, which doesn't have as much momentum as some hoped. And he must show some excitement on the field this season so he can gain some of that momentum that originated from his surprise hire. We're still bullish on long-term success so we'll keep Smith here for now. But he'll either move up or down in next year's rankings. Which way do you think it'll go?
7. Jim Heffernan, wrestling
Last year's ranking: No. 7
The Illini finished 11th at this year's NCAA Championships, which were a disappointment due to junior Isaiah Martinez's runner-up finish -- his only loss of the season which kept him from winning his third straight NCAA title. Despite the loss Martinez has lost just two matches during his career and is one of the most dominant and entertaining athletes in his sport. He still has the chance to become the first Illini to win three NCAA championships -- and become one of the most decorated Illini athletes ever, in any sport. The Illini must replace All-Americans Zane Richards and Zac Brunson. Heffernan also lost top assistant and recruiter Mark Perry, who left to become the head coach of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, a post-collegiate wrestling club.
8. Dan Hartleb, baseball
Last year's ranking: No. 5
Just two years ago, Illinois baseball appeared ready to take a big leap. But following a record-setting 2015, Illinois has a 51-51 record (21-27 Big Ten) and has missed two straight Big Ten Tournaments (failing to finish in the top-eight of the conference standings both years).The success of the 50-win team two years ago helped the Illini load up on talent in recent recruiting classes, but Hartleb's youth has struggled the past two seasons. And losing starter Doug Hayes to injury prior to last season really hurt. Hartleb has been at Illinois for 12 years and still hasn't received the facilities backing to truly become a Big Ten power. There are early plans for a $15 million renovation of Illinois Field, but Whitman is more focused on the football capital project at the moment. That's part of the reason 2017 is a big year for Hartleb. He needs to show growth and create more excitement for Illinois baseball within the donor network to get those facilities.
9. Nancy Fahey, women's basketball
Last year's ranking: N/A
If you're a Hall of Famer in your sport, you get a spot on this list. Fahey has never coached at the Division-I level, but her record at the Division III level was absolutely dominant. In 31 years in St. Louis, Fahey (pronounced FAY) led the Bears to a 737-133 overall record, 29 Division III NCAA Tournaments and 23 conference championships. Fahey was the fastest NCAA women's basketball coach to 600 wins (accomplishing it in 706 games) and currently ranks 22nd all-time in career wins and is 13th in wins among active coaches. Of course, her predecessor, Matt Bollant, was highly successful at a lower level when he arrived at Illinois -- except Wisconsin-Green Bay is a Division I program. Fahey kept Bollant's two top assistants, LaKale Malone and Tianna Kirkland, to aid in the recruiting transition. Whitman hopes Fahey can improve an Illinois women's basketball culture that has seemed lost since Theresa Grentz left in 2007. She has a chance to shoot up this list next year.
10. Mike Turk, track and field
Last year's ranking: No. 8
A streamlining of the men's and women's track programs will give double duty to Turk, head coach of men's track for six seasons, starting this summer. The Illini men finished sixth at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships and ninth at the Big Ten Indoor Championships. That's a step up from 11th and 10th place finishes, respectively, the year prior. These have been two rebuilding years for the Illini, who in 2015 won the Big Ten outdoor title and finished second at the indoor conference championships. In its last season under Ron Garner, the women finished 12th at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships and 12th at the Big Ten Indoor Championships. Turk now takes over the women's program and has a lot of work to do. But he's shown during his tenure that he can lift up a program. Can he do it again for both programs?
- Janet Rayfield, women's soccer: She was a mainstay in the top-10 during the first five rankings. But Illinois soccer has missed the NCAA Tournament.three straight years after last season's team finished with a 6-11-2 record. Rayfield has led the Illini for 14 seasons and has been a part of the U.S. women's national team too. But the program has lost some momentum.
- Chris Tamas, women's volleyball: Unlike Underwood and Fahey, we have no record of Tamas as a head coach. But he certainly has the pedigree to rise up this list fast. He spent two years as an assistant at Big Ten power Nebraska, two years at Cal Poly, two years at Minnesota and two years at UC-Riverside. He was an All-American at Pacific and was a former captain of the U.S. men's national team. He's off to a good start recruiting, and while Illinois didn't make the NCAA Tournament last season, Tamas does inherit a program with talent and recent history of winning.
- Evan Clark, women's tennis: After leading the Illini to a 15-9 season with an interim tag in 2015-16, Clark led the Illini to a 14-13 record in his first year with a long-term head coaching contract.
- Renee Sloan, women's golf: In her 11th season as Illinois head coach, former Illini star Renee Sloan led the Illini to a seventh-place finish in the Big Ten.
- Sue Novitsky, women's swimming and diving: During her 16 years as head coach, Novitsky always has had a tough task since there is no men's program and the Illini facilities lag behind other Big Ten programs.
- Jake Stewart, men's cross country; Scott Jones, women's cross country