As Kansas University and Missouri renew an intense rivalry tonight in Columbia, Mo., a basketball game tips off in Des Moines, Iowa, featuring another coach with strong ties to Lawrence trying to extend a long winning streak.
Quietly, first-year Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich has directed a remarkable turnaround at the Missouri Valley Conference school in Normal, Ill. Jankovich's Redbirds (14-3 overall, 6-0) and Drake (15-1, 6-0) play tonight for first place in a conference known for March Madness upsets.
In the past five seasons (four losing records), while Jankovich assisted Bill Self, Illinois State went 59-98. An upset victory against Drake would give the Redbirds more conference victories than a year ago, when they went 6-12. It also would extend their winning streak, which started with a 10-point victory against Cincinnati, to 10 games.
"He's making me look awfully good, isn't he?" Illinois State athletic director Sheahon Zenger said with a laugh over the phone.
So he is.
Zenger and Jankovich have much in common. Zenger, from Hays, graduated from Kansas State and worked for legendary football coach Bill Snyder. Jankovich, from Gary, Ind., played basketball at K-State and has worked under big-name college basketball coaches Eddie Sutton, Jack Hartman, Lon Kruger, Boyd Grant, Kevin Stallings and Self.
This wasn't a K-State friendship hire, however. Jankovich graduated from K-State in '81, Zenger in '88. They had not met through the years, Zenger said.
"I really like coaches who have been head coaches somewhere at any level and then become assistant coaches at a higher level," Zenger said. "That is when coaches are really receptive to learning, change, growing as a coach, a teacher, a professional. For me, that is a formula that seems to work."
This is the second chance at heading a Division I program for Jankovich, who also spent two seasons as top dog at Hutchinson Community College. He walked away from his last D-1 head coaching job, at North Texas, in part because he wasn't interested in being on the wrong end of buy games, a scheduling shift made out of his control.
Self's coaching tree also has dropped Billy Gillispie (UTEP, Texas A&M, now Kentucky) and Norm Roberts, who has struggled to turn it around at St. John's.
How did Self spur growth in Jankovich?
"The biggest thing I think is that he's as good a defensive coach as there is in the country," Jankovich said of Self. "He's got a great eye for it and a great understanding. I was lucky enough to watch him put it all into play for five years."
Moving wasn't easy for Jankovich, wife Cindy, and son Michael, 8.
"We loved Lawrence," Jankovich said. "We loved being at Kansas and everyone we worked with and the players. It was very difficult leaving. Having said that, this is a really nice place, and the people have been great. There is more than one way to find happiness."
Actually, as a coach, generally there is only one way. It's called winning. Jankovich is doing it.