Gary R. Wieneke, 83, of Champaign, IL, died at home on July 8, 2021.
A well-loved and respected patriarch of the Wieneke clan and a decorated coach to countless athletes over his 40+ years of Track & Field and Cross Country, he will be missed and remembered by all those whose lives he touched with his signature blend of intensity, wry humor, and the heart of a champion. He inspired everyone to be better than even they might have imagined possible and stood behind them in full support on that journey. His legacy of loyalty, gratitude, love and respect spans not just decades in time, but a myriad of states and other countries, and the hearts and lives of so many who are grieving as part of the extended family he built with his commitment, dedication and unwavering focus on excellence.
Gary was born November 13, 1937 in Cedar Rapids Iowa to Virginia (Harris) and Richard Wieneke. He grew up in East Moline, IL, and attended United Township High School. Upon graduation he volunteered for service in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany working as an x-ray technician. After leaving the service he enrolled at Augustana College where he majored in physical education
After earning his Bachelor’s degree, he went on to attain his Master’s in Physical Education at Bowling Green University in Ohio. It was at Bowling Green that he began his lifelong journey of coaching Track & Field and Cross Country, assisting while in Grad School. After graduation he volunteered as an assistant coach for one year at Winnetka High School, IL.
He married June Mitchell, the mother of his children, on August 18, 1962, and began his coaching career in earnest at Rockford Guilford High School, then on to the University of Illinois where he was the Head Coach for men’s Cross Country from 1967-2002 and the Head Coach for men’s Track & Field from 1975-2003.
On December 19,1988 he married Peggy Gates.
During his tenure at the University of Illinois, Wieneke tallied 13 Big Ten titles (six indoor, six outdoor, one cross country) and 4 NCAA indoor team trophies. His best run at the helm came from 1985-95 when the Illini placed in the top three 20 times in 22 Big Ten meets. As a result of putting Illinois track in the national spotlight, Wieneke played a major role in the U of I, twice hosting the outdoor NCAA Championships meet at Memorial Stadium in 1977 and 1979.
Known as the “Einstein of the 800 meters,” Wieneke made the Illini a Big Ten and national power in the middle distances, most noticeably in the half-mile and mile. He coached 11 different half-milers to 27 Big Ten titles. Before taking over as head coach of the Track & Field program, Wieneke spent seven seasons leading the Illinois Cross Country program. In addition to their success while donning the Orange and Blue, Wieneke guided five of his athletes to Olympic appearances: Craig Virgin (1976, 1980, 1984), Marko Koers (1992, 1996, 2000), Mike Durkin (1976, 1980) Bobby True (2000) and Charlton Ehizuelen (1976, 1980). In 1979 he coached the middle distance runners at the World University Games in Montreal, Canada, and in 1989, he coached the U.S. Junior National Team.
Retiring at the end of the 2002-03 Season, Wieneke was a nine-time NCAA District IV Coach of the Year, was named the NCAA National Indoor Track & Field Coach of the Year in 1987, and garnered three Big Ten Outdoor Coach of the Year honors. Wieneke has been honored by his peers by being inducted into six Halls of Fame: the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Association (USTFCCCA), Drake Relays, Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association, East Moline High School, and the University of Illinois Athletics. On May 22, 2021 he was further honored at the University of Illinois by having the track at the newly built Demirjian Park Track & Field Complex named the “Gary R. Wieneke Track” to memorialize his legacy.
After retirement from the U of I, not being one to sit idle, Wieneke was recruited by good friend Dike Stirrett to coach the girl’s Cross Country/Track team at Tolono Unity High School where he coached from 2006 through the spring of 2015. He brought the cross country program back to prominence, starting with only 3 runners the first season to qualifying for the State Championships his final 3 years. The year following his second retirement from coaching, the Unity Girls Cross Country team won their first State Championship.
Gary was an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan and enjoyed frequent hiking and camping in Wyoming, Colorado, and Arizona. His wily sense of humor and his impatience for anything other than the truth are legendary, and have touched the lives of many far beyond the track.
Gary was predeceased by his parents, by one child, Michael Edward, and by all of his beloved Labrador retrievers.
Gary is survived by his wife, Peggy of Champaign, IL. He is also survived by sons Mark (Angie) of Roberts, IL, David (Lindsey) of White Heath, IL, Michael (Katie) of Greenwood, SC, and by his daughter Lisa of Gualala, CA, as well as grandchildren Claire, Clarisa, Collin, Laney, Colton, Wyatt, Hazel and Gabe.
More widely, he is survived by hundreds of student athletes from across several decades who love him to this day as their coach and mentor and someone who touched their lives profoundly, bringing the gift of inspiration and instilling in them mental toughness, tenacity, and lessons that helped them strive for and achieve greatness and that live on in their lives to this day. Professionally and personally, hundreds have testified to the positive impact of having known Gary as a father, a colleague, and a coach. Everyone wanted to win for “The Win,” and in the quest for that, became their greatest selves.
The family has entrusted Sunset Funeral Home and Cremation Center in Champaign, IL 710 N. Neil Street, Champaign, IL with his cremation. A visitation and celebration of Gary’s life will be held Sunday, July 25, 2021, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Gary R Wieneke Track at Demirjian Park on the University of Illinois campus. In lieu of flowers memorials may be made to Carle Hospice, Crisis Nursery of Champaign County, Champaign Co Humane Society, or organization of your choice.
Please join his family in sharing memories, photos and videos on his tribute wall at www.sunsetfuneralhome.com
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