Illini Baseball Coach Dan Hartleb on Approaching Milestones (Exclusive)

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Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb is closing in on second place on the school’s all-time wins list. With the Illini taking two of three against Iowa this past weekend, he’s now up to 472 total Ws, and that means he needs just three more victories to surpass his mentor, Richard “Itch” Jones, who led the program from 1991-2005.

In 2006, Hartleb assumed the reigns of the Illini, having been the associate head coach for the previous four seasons, and an assistant with the Ilini for nine years prior to assuming that associate coach position. Hartleb, who was named D1Baseball Big Ten Coach of the Decade for 2010s, isn’t too far off fron the number one position either. The penthouse suite, of this list, is currently occupied by Lee Eilbracht (1952-78) with 518 wins.

It’s looking like the 2015 Big Ten Coach of the Year and 2015 National Coach of the Year finalist will become the new school record holder for wins next season if the team is dominant or in early 2023. We had an exclusive by telephone with Hartleb this week, where we discussed the approaching milestone, as well as a multitude of other topics.

“It’s nice that I’ve had some longevity and nice that we’ve had some success, but you have to celebrate what the players do,” he said of his records, both those already accomplished and the others that are within reach.

“I guess those milestones are rewarding and things that you look back upon and feel proud of. 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.”

Hartleb has achieved the most NCAA Tournament appearances in program history, with four 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 2004-2005 team was to Illini men’s basketball.

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.

That team also produced the highest draft pick in Illini history, Tyler Jay, who went #6 overall to the Minnesota Twins.

illini baseball tyler jay

This year’s team has been very inconsistent, to say the least. At 17-19, with seven regular season games left, the Illini obviously are not at the level they had been during the 2010s peak.

The 2021 side is rather young, especially so in the pitching department. They have a lot of talent, plenty of potential future Major Leaguers, and a lot of great, smart guys, but they just haven’t been able to put it all together on a regular basis.

Hartleb diagnosed the problem:

“There’s a number of things, but the glaring portion of that is on the entire team, this includes offensively and defensively, we don’t have one player who has more than one year of division 1 experience and that’s very difficult.”

“You look at the teams that are performing at a high level right now- they have pitching staffs that have some experience, and we have just fallen short in that area of the game.

“This year’s been challenging, and I think when you have these challenging years, it’s important for the players to understand that it’s a part of life, and you’re going to have to learn how to battle through those and move forward.”

Things could change for the better with Illini baseball given the new training facility that they just broke ground on last month. It is expected to be fully up and running by early 2022, and when it is, should serve as a boon to recruiting.

The Atkins Baseball Training Center will be approximately 26,000 square feet with a large training space and an adjoining recruiting lounge. The training space encompasses an entire baseball infield with ceiling-mounted nets for hitting and pitching practice.

The $8 million facility will connect to the current clubhouse and locker rooms.

“It’s going to be a full infield that’s netted, we’ll have the capacity to drop nets in multiple areas so we’ll have multiple cages, so they can get in there every day and hit, regardless of what is going on with the facility, and we hope to be in there by this time next year.”

When the ground-breaking was announced, a statement from Hartleb read:

“This facility will give us an around-the-clock training center that will allow our athletes to excel at the highest level.”

illini basketball

Hartleb has made as many NCAA tournaments in 15 seasons as head coach (4), as the previous 42 years of Illini baseball combined. When the time comes for him to retire, he’ll go down as the program patriarch, like a baseball version of Lou Henson.

“I’ve always said when I’m done here, I want this place to be in a really good situation where the next person can continue to move forward.

“We’ve had some really good players, and good human beings and we graduate our players, these are the things I’m most proud of. The educational aspect is the most important part to me.”

Sometimes the teachable moments don’t truly take effect until years after the player graduates.

 

2015-mlb-mock-draft tyler jay

Hartleb said sometimes his players don’t realize the value of their edification they’re receiving in the moment, but then it kicks in later down the road.

“It is very rewarding when someone reaches out 5-10 years later and they’re very appreciative of what they went through when they were here,” Hartleb concluded.

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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