Illinois notebook: Mark Johnson put Illinois wrestling on the map
Thanks to Illinois wrestling coach Mark Johnson, filling the vacancy created by his surprise retirement announcement Monday shouldn't be hard. The top coach in Illinois history, the Rock Island native made Illinois wrestling relevant again.
He took over a sleepy program and turned it into a national player.
"Illinois wrestling wasn't anywhere near the map,'' said Matt Lackey, who won an NCAA title in 2003. "Not only did he put Illinois on the map, he took them to prominence.''
During Johnson's 17-year tenure, he guided the Illini to more wins (203) and produced more NCAA champions (seven), NCAA qualifiers (120) and All-Americans (45) than any coach in school history. In 2005, Illinois won its first Big Ten title in 53 years. Johnson's teams posted a 203-44-3 record in dual meets.
"I really enjoyed the relationships with my athletes and staff, and I think this program is in great shape for the future,'' Johnson said in a written statement.
Johnson informed his team Monday and scheduled a news conference for Tuesday to formally announce his decision and perhaps unveil his plans for the future.
A two-time NCAA runner-up at Michigan, Johnson earned a spot on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team but didn't compete in the Moscow Games because of the U.S. boycott. He later worked as an Iowa assistant under Dan Gable, then earned Pac-10 coach of the year at Oregon State in 1992.
"Mark has done an exceptional job in leading our wrestling program,'' Illinois athletics director Ron Guenther said in a written statement. "Over the past few years, he's expressed a desire to explore other opportunities. I am pleased for Mark that an opportunity came up to hold him in our community.''
When Illinois placed eighth at the NCAA championships earlier this month, it was the 10th consecutive season the Illini finished in the top 10. Lackey's national title was the last for the Illinois wrestler. Nevertheless, Johnson left the program on solid footing.
Two-time NCAA runner-up Mike Poeta was a senior, but the Illini return six of the nine wrestlers who qualified for the NCAA meet. The school will conduct a national search. Illinois placed fifth in the NCAAs in 2001, its highest finish under Johnson. The top four teams take home a trophy.
"I really wish we could have gotten a trophy for him,'' said Lackey, who finished third that year as a sophomore. "We had two firsts, a second and a third. We scored 90-some points. This year, that would put us in second place.''
But Johnson's legacy goes beyond the wrestling mat. Four of his wrestlers earned the Big Ten medal of honor and 18 were academic All-Americans.
"He hasn't changed the wrestling world,'' Lackey said. "He changed the world. He's been so influential in so many young lives. Outside of my father and mother, he's the biggest influence in my life.''
Johnson's act might be hard to follow. Because of a tradition built by Johnson, it shouldn't be hard to find his replacement.
Junior center Jenna Smith earned team MVP for the second consecutive year, serving as the reliable star on a program trying to gain respectability. A first-team all-Big Ten pick and a member of the all-Big Ten Tournament team for the second straight year, Smith finished third in the Big Ten in scoring (18.5 points a game) and led the league in minutes played (38.7 per game).
Smith set a single-season school record with 63 blocks and also broke the career mark with 157. Smith also received the most inspirational award and the free-throw shooting excellence award after hitting 80.1 percent overall and 82.7 percent in Big Ten play.
Junior forward Lacey Simpson was named the best defensive player. Simpson already has earned a spot on the all-Big Ten defensive team, led the league with 3.1 steals per game and set a school career record with 255 steals. Simpson also received the coaches award for leadership and taking an active role in the community.
Freshman guard Fabiola Josil (most improved), redshirt freshman Lydia McCully (most courageous) and junior Whitney Toone (sixth man) also received awards.
The Illini were 10-21 overall and 5-13 in the Big Ten to place ninth in the conference.
In other news
- Sophomore left fielder Hollie Pinchback received Big Ten player of the week in softball after hitting .556 and slugging 1.222 during a three-game stretch last week. A native of Katy, Texas, Pinchback belted her first career grand slam and scored three runs in a 13-3 victory over Michigan State on Saturday. Illinois (18-8 overall, 3-0 in the Big Ten) is off to its best start in Big Ten play in the program's history. The Illini play at Iowa on Wednesday (5 p.m.) in a doubleheader aired live on the Big Ten Network.
- Freshman right-hander Will Strack earned Big Ten pitcher of the week in baseball after throwing a four-hit shutout Sunday to send the Illini to a three-game series sweep of Michigan State on Sunday. Strack, of Sycamore, faced just three more hitters than the minimum in his third career start. Illinois (16-5, 3-0) plays at Illinois State on Tuesday. After hosting SIU-Edwardsville on Wednesday, Illinois faces visiting Indiana in a three-game series beginning Friday and concluding Sunday.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.