Update: Illinois-Springfield Athletic Director Rodger Jehlicka submitted his resignation, effective August 15, 2011.
I didn’t have the heart to ask him what he was thinking, feeling. I just told him I loved him and wished him well.
My investment in the program is only six years old, but seeing Milton Tennant watch the final seconds wind off the clock in the final game of his 25th year as a soccer coach at the University of Illinois-Springfield, I can only imagine the memories that were flying through his head.
Milt is the third coach to retire from a school and team that was once a soccer juggernaut in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), winning national titles in 1986, 1988 and 1993. After Aydin Gonulsen and Joe Eck, he is the final remnant from that incredibly successful staff.
But things have changed. With yesterday’s loss, the program has a total of three wins and two ties amid 28 losses since competing exclusively as a Division II member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) beginning in the fall of 2009.
The program’s demise isn’t a matter of coaching. Former coach Joe Eck’s final season saw a mass exodus of players during the provisional year of NCAA membership in 2009-10 (where the school was ineligible for post-season competition), and many of those players didn’t return this year as promised, leaving a limited and inexperienced roster for incoming coach Chad Jones.
It’s not a matter of tougher competition either. The program’s success in the NAIA came against many teams that regularly competed against and defeated NCAA teams. In the case of Illinois-Springfield, their final year as an NAIA member resulted in a 2-2 record against Great Lakes Valley Conference competition, the same league where they finished last or next to last during their initial two campaigns as a league member. One of those losses was in overtime.
So what happened?
It’s a consensus of opinion around Springfield that now-retired Chancellor Richard Ringeisen was a huge basketball fan, and cared little about the school’s soccer tradition. Despite the fact that Illinois-Springfield (and Sangamon State University before that) qualified for 20 out of 26 NAIA national championship tournaments from 1977-2002 (winning three, finishing second once, and reaching the semifinals five other times), Ringeisen showed little support for the program after arriving on campus in 2001.
The final straw for me was watching him exit the stadium among a few sprinkles at halftime of Joe Eck’s final game as coach last October. After Eck devoted 31 years of service to the university, was it too much to ask for the university’s top suit to don an umbrella and hang around for 45 more minutes?
Sadly, current Athletic Director Rodger Jehlicka is apparently cut from the same cloth. Not only was he not present for the post-game recognition at Eck’s final game last season, but in yesterday’s memorial dedication for former player Ron Sanlin, he left that duty to Coach Jones and his players during a halftime ceremony when they could have been resting and developing tactics for the second half of the game.
Jehlicka’s contribution? He stood by the fence beyond the north goal and away from the concession area, avoiding contact with Sanlin’s family and friends, as well as other soccer fans that came out to attend the ceremony and support the soccer program as a whole.
How insensitive was this to Sanlin’s young son Jaelon and the entire family? I’m sure the Eck family must have felt the same way the year before. Fortunately, Jaelon isn’t old enough to recognize the slight, spending much of his time playing on a stone monument that will recognize his father as a member of the Prairie Stars family for years to come. Sadly, “family” is an indefinite term at UIS these days.
Where does Illinois-Springfield soccer go from here? I know Coach Jones is working hard to build a program, actively recruiting within the limitations he faces. I don’t profess to know everything that’s entailed in running a college athletic department, but I do have eyes and ears, and what I see and hear in Springfield isn’t one of ongoing support. As a fan, I can only hope Jones can overcome the obstacles Ringeisen and his nominees have placed on the once storied program and return UIS soccer to a proud, or at a minimum, competitive status.
It will be an uphill battle when the university only funds about a third of the allowable scholarship limits, leaving the program at a competitive disadvantage against many conference opponents. I don’t understand why leaving the NAIA was so imperative, but if it was, why not become a Division III institution where scholarships don’t exist, and actually have a competitive advantage against most other school’s in that classification who’s private education offers big tuition bills to their recruits.
Doesn’t make sense? Take a look at the public schools in Wisconsin that regularly compete in NCAA Division III, and look at the success they have in most sports. National championships abound.
There are some very capable people in the UIS athletic department, some of which I consider friends. I recognize in writing this I won’t endear myself to the department as a whole, and perhaps won’t be welcome on the sidelines for awhile. But someone needs to question why this program has been relegated to stepchild status. How can anyone pledge allegiance to a university athletic program when its Chancellor and Athletic Director clearly don’t care about that same program?
There are no national championships at Illinois-Springfield in basketball. None in volleyball, golf, tennis or softball. Baseball has yet to play a game. Soccer has three national championships to their credit, and although the signs entering campus no longer proclaim this, the scoreboard in the soccer stadium has been reconfigured to recognize those championship teams of the past.
The same scoreboard Milt Tennant watched yesterday as it counted down the final seconds of his coaching career.
A year ago, former coach Gonulsen wrote a nice piece for the Springfield State Journal-Register. You only need to read it to get an insight into the construction of the program from the architect himself, and hopefully can understand how far the fall has been.
Ringeisen’s contract called for a year’s paid leave after retirement at a salary of $237,500, or nearly three times the $80,000 or so the soccer program has budgeted for athletic scholarships (source: Report of the Committee to Investigate Intercollegiate Athletics, although I’ve been told confidentially that figure is really $60,000). Three years of scholarship money to sit on a porch in North Carolina or whatever retired academics do after dismantling a proud tradition with no regard for the special place it held among a strong and diverse soccer community in Springfield.
His exit from the campus a couple weeks ago provoked thoughts I’ve experienced many times when my son’s team trailed by two goals before staging a late rally.
One down, one to go…..