With Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb closing in on the school’s all-time wins record, we are re-publishing this piece, in two parts from May of 2021. The first part can be found at this link.
Tonight Illinois takes on the Missouri Tigers in the Braggin’ Rights Game at GSC Credit Union Ballpark in Sauget, Illinois (just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis). First pitch is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the home of the Gateway Grizzlies, a Frontier League franchise. Hartleb is currently tied with Lee Eilbracht (1952-78) with 518 all-time wins at Illinois, so obviously a W here gives him the record, all by himself.
“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 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, currently 11-9, the goal will be to finish the season with a winning record and make the NCAA Tournament.
Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Sports Bank. He’s also the author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America,” and “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.”
He’s written for numerous publications, including the New York Daily News, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune. He regularly appears on NTD News and WGN News Now. Follow the website on Twitter and Instagram.
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