Illini coach Chris Tamas returns to familiar territory

Illini coach Chris Tamas returns to familiar territory
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — Life has become more hectic since the last time Chris Tamas walked Nebraska’s sideline.

Flash back to January. At the time, Tamas — a Nebraska assistant a month removed from helping the Huskers reach a second straight Final Four — and his wife Jen — a volunteer assistant — were in Lincoln celebrating the birth of their second child. Things were starting to feel settled after the couple’s second year in town.

Then, a phone call. Illinois was without a coach after Kevin Hambly was hired by Stanford. Would Tamas come to Champaign to look the job over?

Nebraska coach John Cook, already down one assistant after Dani Busboom Kelly became the coach at Louisville, nudged Tamas to explore his options. “Normally, I wouldn’t say yes,” Tamas recalled Cook saying, “but this is a Big Ten program, and you’re ready, so you should go check it out.”

So forgive Tamas if he won’t have the time to make the rounds of his old neighborhood in south Lincoln when he brings his Fighting Illini (15-4, 6-2 Big Ten) to the Devaney Center for a 7 p.m. Saturday match with No. 7 Nebraska (14-4, 7-1).

Tamas said that while he’d love to pick up a burger at Honest Abe’s or send out for a dish from his favorite south Lincoln Mexican restaurant, Hacienda Real, reminiscing will have to wait. The Illini will have their hands full with Friday night’s trip to Iowa before a stopover in Lincoln as Tamas tries to keep his young team in the Big Ten race.

“I think it’s going to be fun,” he said. “We had a couple good years there and made some good relationships with our neighbors and our co-workers and the players.”

When Tamas arrived in Champaign, he inherited a team somewhat in transition. Besides adjusting to a new coach, the Illini were bringing in a class of nine freshmen — part of a unit with 13 freshmen and sophomores.

“The challenge has been just integrating everyone, with people coming in in waves,” Tamas said.

Tamas had other moves to make, creating a coaching staff for the first time. One relationship was already in place. For 20 years, Tamas has known the family of Illinois assistant Jason Mansfield, who remained on staff after being hired by Hambly.

He added assistant Rashinda Reed, whom Tamas met while the pair played professionally in Finland, and also hired Andy Wenstrand, NU’s former director of creative and emerging media, as Illinois’ director of volleyball operations.

What the new staff found was a team eager to get past the disappointment of missing the NCAA tournament after finishing 17-14 last year. Tamas had least two potential All-Big Ten talents to build around in junior setter Jordyn Poulter and junior middle blocker Ali Bastianelli.

Tamas said Poulter is “one of the biggest competitors I’ve ever coached,” while Bastianelli didn’t escape his eye when Tamas was in charge of scouting NU’s opponents. The 6-foot-3 middle leads the nation with 1.8 blocks per set.

Cook said the Huskers won’t prepare differently this week even though their opponent’s head coach is well versed with NU’s players and schemes.

“He’ll know our team pretty well. But, he hasn’t coached this group. He’s coached these players,” Cook said. “Anni (Albrecht) was in a different role, Mikaela (Foecke) was in a different role, Lauren (Stivrins) is in a new role. Jazz (Sweet) is new. It comes down to the players playing.”

Before facing Illinois, Nebraska will host 12th-place Northwestern (12–8, 2-6) at 7 p.m. Friday. Tamas said the Wildcats, who Illinois swept Sept. 23, also have veterans in a few key spots, led by senior outside hitter Symone Abbott, who tops the Big Ten in kills (4.4 per set) and has 200 more attacks than any other Northwestern player.

“If she goes off,” Tamas said, “she’s difficult to stop.”

Each member of the Huskers’ 2016 coach staff keeps tabs on each others’ success. Busboom Kelly’s Louisville team is 7-1 in the ACC, looking like a sure-fire tournament pick. Tamas has the Illini in fighting shape for a berth, too, going into a stretch where they face Nebraska, Minnesota and Penn State consecutively. Tamas and Cook said the group texts frequently.

So while it’s a working trip for Illinois, there may be a moment or two for nostalgia. Jen Tamas is taking the kids to see some old neighbors. And don’t be surprised if the Devaney Center crowd is also feeling neighborly toward the Tamases — at least during pregame introductions — for their role in NU’s recent success.

“Our two years there were very memorable,” Tamas said. “We made some very strong relationships there. Just because we left doesn’t mean we left everyone behind.”

NU volleyball vs. Illinois

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Devaney Center

Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM

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