Illinois men's gymnastics coach Justin Spring won four NCAA individual titles during his competitive career with the Illini before earning a bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As it turns out, Spring can also coach them up. In his third full season, Illinois won the NCAA team title Friday night for the first time since 1989.
CHAMPAIGN -- Illinois men's gymnastics coach Justin Spring won four NCAA individual titles during his competitive career with the Illini before earning a bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
As it turns out, Spring can also coach them up. In his third full season, Illinois won the NCAA team title Friday night for the first time since 1989. The championship was the first in any sport for an Illini program since men's tennis won the national title in 2003.
On Saturday, Illini senior Paul Ruggeri won the vault title and freshman C.J. Maestas became Illinois' first NCAA rings champion.
"I absolutely love what I do,'' Spring said. "I never thought I'd get the opportunity to coach. If I could do this for the rest of my life, I probably would.''
Except for winning a few more national championships, Spring has one other goal.
"Olympic coach,'' he said. "That's the next thing on the bucket list.''
Essentially, Spring is already an Olympic assistant coach. In men's gymnastics, the U.S. national program is reliant on talent developed from the 17 schools that participate in NCAA Division I men's gymnastics.
"We're all miniature national training centers,'' Spring said. "If the NCAA system were to collapse -- and I'm not saying it will -- it would be devastating for USA gymnastics.''
By Monday, Spring was already back in 110-year-old Kenney Gym working with Ruggeri and Maestas, two national team members who will compete for a spot on the Olympic team.
With only 6.3 scholarships allowed by the NCAA, Illinois also relied upon nearly half of the 20-member team who were walk-ons with no scholarship aid. Walk-ons Cole Smith and Chad Mason helped Illinois rebound Friday with performances on the pommel horse, the event that put the Illini back in contention for the title after a slow start in the six-team NCAA final.
Last week, Ruggeri earned the Nissen-Emery Award, essentially the sport's Heisman Trophy. In 2006, Spring already scratched that off his bucket list.
FOOTBALL: Illinois coach Tim Beckman is known for "identifying sleeper talent,'' said Rivals.com Midwest analyst Josh Helmholdt, who thinks the Illini may have snapped up one of those sleepers in Peoria Richwoods junior Kendrick Foster. His only other scholarship offer came from Illinois State.
Foster has some big numbers (2,421 yards rushing, 33 touchdowns) last season, but some recruiters might have shied away because of his smaller numbers (5-foot-8, 182 pounds).
Helmholdt saw some similarities between Foster and former Michigan running back Mike Hart.
"Foster is a tough, gritty kid who is a little smaller and shorter,'' Helmholdt said. "We'll see if he turns out to be the kind of guy like Mike Hart -- someone who's not the most gifted, not the biggest kid, but he has that will and drive, the desire to be great. He's kind of a wild card.''
BASKETBALL: Illini basketball hit the road recruiting last weekend after hosting an official visit with former Champaign Centennial star Rayvonte Rice, a sophomore who will transfer from Drake. Marquette and Xavier are also possibilities for Rice, a wing who averaged 16.8 points and 5.8 rebounds last season. He shot 43 percent for the field and 24 percent from the 3-point line.
Meanwhile, other Big Ten recruiters were also busy. Pekin junior forward Nate Taphorn was offered by Northwestern to join the others: Bradley, Creighton, Illinois-Chicago, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Colorado State, Southern Illinois, North Dakota and Miami (Ohio), he said. Chatham Glenwood guard Peyton Allen received a scholarship offer from Iowa, according to his father, Doug. Allen, a sophomore, already received offers from Bradley and Oklahoma State.
IN OTHER NEWS: Women's basketball coach Matt Bollant filled his assistant coaching staff by hiring former Bradley assistant LaKale Malone and former Michigan assistant Tianna Kirkland. Malone spent the last five seasons at Texas. During the previous three seasons, the Longhorns landed top 25 recruiting classes and four McDonald's All-Americans. Malone worked at Bradley from 2001 to 2003. ... Sophomore Jordan Parr, a Chillicothe IVC graduate, leads Illinois baseball in hitting at .366. The Illini (22-17 overall, 5-7 in the Big Ten) play at Indiana State Tuesday before a three-game Big Ten series at Northwestern beginning Friday.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.