Dan Hartleb Passes Mentor to Become 2nd on Illini Baseball All-Time Wins List

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Saturday night saw Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb move up to second place on the school’s all-time wins list. With the Illini taking two of three against Penn State this past weekend, Hartleb is now up to 475 total Ws, meaning he’s now ahead of his mentor and predecessor, Richard “Itch” Jones, who led the program from 1991-2005.

With the Big Ten Tournament canceled, on account of the pandemic and the Illini not in frame for a NCAA Tournament berth, Illinois (21-20) will travel to Rutgers on the holiday weekend for their final series of the 2021 season. Should the Illini sweep that series, Hartleb would then be 40 wins shy of tying the program’s all-time leader in managerial victories.

That’s Lee Eilbracht (1952-78), who accrued 518 wins during his time in charge.

“I guess those milestones are rewarding and things that you look back upon and feel proud of,” Hartleb said by telephone in our exclusive conversation ahead of the makeup win overnationally ranked Indiana and the PSU series.

“And I’m proud of a lot things we’ve done with the program, but I don’t think you can get away from the fact that this is about the players, not about myself or the coaches or anybody in the department.

“It’s 100% the players and they’ve done a great job of preparing and working their behinds off to be successful and that’s how you build up the resume- by having people around you.”

The milestone win came Saturday night when the Illini blasted the Nittany Lions 14-8 in a game broadcast live on BTN.  Kellen Sarver was the big offensive hero, as he went 3-for-4, 2 HR, 6 RBI and 3 R, socking two home runs, including a grand slam in the fourth inning.

Ryan Kutt relieved starting pitcher Nathan Lavender and earned his first win of the season (1-4).

“It’s awesome,” said Hartleb after the game of achieving the milestone win.

“I’m blessed to have been here for a long time. This is all about a number of people. Administration has given us the opportunity and all the support people that we have. I have had unbelievable assistant coaches that bring in all of the talent, they develop the talent, and they work extremely hard. Then, it comes down to the players that go out and compete at a high level. I have been very, very blessed in my career.

“You have guys that play extremely hard and go out and battle. I stand here and get the credit for it, but it’s so many people that are involved. I can’t thank everyone enough for what they have done.”

Hartleb also took a moment to discuss his mentor, under which he served as the associate head coach for four seasons, prior to assuming leadership of the program in 2006. Hartleb was also an Illini baseball assistant coach for nine years prior to becoming an associate coach at Illinois.

“I’m one of the fortunate people who got to play for [Itch Jones]. He’s an unbelievable human being,” said Hartleb.

“One of the greatest coaches in college baseball history. I got to play for him, be a graduate assistant for him and then spend 15 years here at Illinois as an assistant with him. The thing that many people don’t know is that he retired so I could get the head coaching job.

“I wouldn’t be here without him. I’m blessed the way this whole thing unfolded.”

This season, adjusted for the pandemic to be an entire year of conference play only, has seen the Illini struggle through an up and down term. They’ve hovered back and forth around the .500 mark, which is a hallmark of mediocrity. The biggest issue with 2021 Illini baseball has been the young, inexperienced pitching staff.

However, Hartleb will most likely go down, eventually, as the Lou Henson of Illini baseball. He’s achieved the most NCAA Tournament appearances in program history, with his four coming in the last ten years, as well as the best single season in program history in 2015. That squad was basically to Illini baseball what the 2005 team was to Illini men’s basketball.

Both were essentially, in the words of 50 Cent, “a Champaign campaign.”

They were Big Ten champions (21-1), posted a school record 50 wins, as well as a Big Ten record 27 straight wins. The 2015 Illini were Champaign Regional champions, were they won three straight NCAA Tournament games, before falling to Vanderbilt in the Super Regional staged at Illinois Field.

For this year’s team, the goal will be to finish the season with a winning record.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports IllustratedChicago Tribune and SB NationFollow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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