The Ultimate Homecoming: Erickson (NU) & Slone (ILL) Return to Campus
Aug. 21, 2006
For Northwestern women's soccer coach Stephanie Erickson, it was the swarms of purple-clad fans and the panoramic view of the Chicago Skyline and Lake Michigan from the school's Leonard B. Thomas Sports Complex.
A trip to Custard Cup did it for Illinois women's golf coach Renee Slone, who used to make post-practice turtle sundae runs with teammate Val Zimmerman.
When the two former Big Ten stars returned to their alma maters this summer nearly a decade since competing in the Big Ten, the traditions they created as student-athletes will help them etch their names in entirely different categories of record book history as they take the helm of their respective programs during the 2006-07 season.
Northwestern's all-time scoring leader, Erickson's homecoming was a "no-brainer" from the start. As the Wildcats' top assistant in 2004, she helped the Wildcats reach the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in three seasons, and the squad finished in the top half of the conference standings, won 10 games and finished with a winning record in Big Ten play for the first time in six years. She left after a year for her head coaching debut at Harvard but could not let her dream job - and the chance to wear inordinate amounts of purple - pass her by.
During the spring of her senior year at Northwestern, a talk with then-head coach Marcia McDermott sparked Erickson's interest in coaching. McDermott asked where Erickson would move, and for every response, her coach wrote a school. That year, she ended up choosing California over Stanford for an unpaid coaching position.
The endeavor proved worth the sacrifice. During her first season at Cal, Erickson helped guide the Bears to a Pac-10 title and kick-started her coaching career.
"I went into it not knowing if I really wanted to coach, but it would just be a start, something to do. I loved it," she said. "At first it was hard not being a player and watching them play, but I worked for a pretty dynamic staff there. It just became clear. It felt like it was something I could be good at and was pretty passionate about."
Eventually Erickson made her way to Stanford and the opportunity of a lifetime. When then-Cardinal head coach Andy Nelson unexpectedly resigned at the start of the 2002 season, Erickson stepped up as interim co-head coach with fellow assistant Paul Sapsford and led Stanford to an incredible year. After securing a No. 1 national ranking, an unblemished Pac-10 season and a spot in the NCAA quarterfinals for the squad, Erickson and the Cardinal staff earned National Coach of the Year honors.
For the effervescent Erickson the adversity season became more about team management than coaching soccer.
Erickson, whose approach to the job is one of organized risk-taking and constant learning, credits standards she was expected to meet as a student-athlete at Northwestern for her unrelenting dedication to the program.
"I think if you go through a program where the expectations or standards are not quite as high, it's harder to pull that out of your athletes if you haven't had that experience," she said. "I got that experience at Northwestern and the Big Ten. It doesn't get much harder in the sport than in this conference."
Those standards and the sense of proportion between Northwestern's focus on academics and athletics was such a draw for Erickson when she chose to attend NU as a student-athlete. She enrolled in Northwestern with an athletic scholarship in the program's inaugural season, and helped lead the squad to a NCAA Tournament bid three years later.
A three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection, Erickson also set an NCAA record for fastest consecutive goals scored in a game when she notched two in a span of five seconds - a feat of competitive fervor that stems from her earliest days in soccer when she was one of two girls on a boys' team.
"I think it's even more special to me now than it was when I was going through it because I didn't realize what we were doing and how quickly we were doing it," she said.
Although she is thankful for the waves of change that have been made in women's athletics since their own playing days, Erickson says the only way she can prepare Northwestern's program to move forward is to take it back. She is looking to instill the same traditions that have kept her passionate about the game since stepping foot on campus as an undergraduate.
"We're trying to establish a new culture," Erickson said. "To see how far the program has come and to know how far I want to take it. It all stems from what we went through that first year in 1994 and how quickly and how far it got. We put a lot of work in, and it paid off. The biggest goal for me for this team is to get them organized, and for them to compete at their highest level every moment.
"We have wonderful, excellent traditions that I hope the current student-athletes learn and carry on. History and tradition are really important if you're going to continue success. That's what is so important about this celebration."
After a stellar senior year in 1993, Slone - formerly Renee Heiken - graduated as the most decorated golfer in Illinois history. With the 1993 National Player of the Year award to her credit, Slone's career flourished on the LPGA Tour.
Competing week-in and week-out, Slone caravanned around the country with friends and family to tournaments from 1995-97 before she decided it was time to step back and be in one place for more than a week. She switched gears and joined Bradley's coaching staff, instructing both the men's and women's teams for one season. The following year, Slone returned to Illinois to assist Paula Smith and complete her degree in business administration and marketing.
She was managing Contestee Falls and Sherwood Forest Golf Club in Brevard, N.C., with her husband Rick when Smith announced her retirement. It was an opportunity Slone could not pass up. Golf has always been a family affair for Slone, whose father taught her how to play, and she is relishing the opportunity to make another lasting impression on her Illini family.
"Illinois was a very special place for me as a student-athlete," she said. "Obviously I have a lot of great memories here for me, and leading the team that I was once a part of, so I have a strong connection to the university and the team. It's an exciting opportunity for me. I can't wait to come back to campus and build on the foundation of success established by Coach Smith."
Getting the program back to the glory days of her unparalleled playing career is not out of reach for the soft-spoken coach, whose most memorable moment in her collegiate career had nothing to do with her three All-America selections and top-10 NCAA finishes, her two Big Ten Championships or her National Player of the Year honor.
Instead she recalls her final end-of-the-year banquet for the Illinois men's and women's golf teams. During his speech, then-men's head coach Ed Beard lauded Slone's success, comparing her work ethic to that of veteran pro Tom Watson, whose 39 PGA victories ranks him among the top 10 golfers in PGA Tour history.
"My mouth dropped open," Slone said. "I'll never forget that moment."
For the upcoming season, Slone's biggest goal is to get the team scoring average down by four shots and win at least one tournament. But in five years, she hopes to have Illinois consistently contending for the Big Ten Championship - not just competing in it - and to have the team finish in the top 15 at NCAAs.
She will get a 16,000-square foot teaching aid in reaching those heights in November when the new Demirjian Golf Practice Facility is completed. The top facility of its kind in the country, the center will feature large chipping and putting areas, heated hitting bays that open onto an outdoor driving range and full locker rooms, complete with a lounge and study area for the players. The team currently trains in converted racquetball courts in the basement of Huff Hall, where they practice their swings by hitting into large nets. But the new facility will include two swing analysis systems to allow the players to diagnosis and perfect their swings with the ability to see the entire ball flight of their swing, even during the winter.
"That is going to be a tremendous asset for our programs, as well as aiding recruiting," said Slone. "With the addition of this facility, players can keep their games sharp through out the winter season. There's only so much you can do hitting balls indoors. Being able to be protected from the elements while hitting the ball outside, where they can see each shot's full path, will be a big help."
"I had played in incredible, rain, sleet, snow, mud. You name it, and at one point in time, we played in it," she said. "When I was competing professionally then, and was in elements that weren't exactly ideal for golf, I was able to mentally overcome the situation and pull from those previous experiences. Too many times players let the elements dictate their attitudes."
Recently, Slone was inducted into the National Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame for her accomplished career at Illinois - an honor that had been given to only 44 collegiate competitors before her. With that acknowledgement of her collegiate success, Slone hopes her experiences serve as the base for a long-lasting standard of success in Illinois golf and Big Ten competition.
"That honor just pulled everything together," she said. "That just really was more than the icing on the cake. It was probably the cherry on the whip cream."
Sounds like the new era in Illinois golf would not be complete without a few post-practice turtle sundae trips.