CHAMPAIGN — Justin Spring’s two-decade tenure with Illinois men’s gymnastics has come to an end.
University officials announced Tuesday afternoon that Spring is accepting an assistant-coaching position with Alabama women’s gymnastics.
Spring completed his 12th season as the Illini men’s head coach during the 2021-22 school year and has been with the program in either a competitive or coaching capacity since 2002.
Daniel Ribeiro, the Illinois men’s associate head coach for the last 11 seasons, has been named interim head coach.
“I just walked out of the (team) room, and I was a mess, actually,” Spring told The News-Gazette fewer than 30 minutes after news of his departure broke publicly. “This was never something I was pursuing. It just started with a text one day and turned into a call, and the next thing I know I’m considering a move like this. It’s something that scares me a little bit.”
Alabama boasts one of the nation’s 62 NCAA Division I women’s gymnastics programs, while Illinois is one of just 12 institutions that sponsors a D-I men’s gymnastics squad.
The Crimson Tide’s women advanced to the 2022 NCAA championships’ semifinals and placed seventh overall in the tournament.
“I just see the future of women’s gymnastics and what they’ve done. They’re just viral,” Spring said. “Women’s gymnastics is on ESPN. It’s on television. The prestige they’ve created for themselves as a sports organization and a booming business of college athletics allowed them to offer me an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Spring said the aforementioned text and phone call with Alabama women’s coach Ashley Johnston both occurred within the last week. Johnston previously was an assistant coach under Illini women’s gymnastics leader Nadalie Walsh.
“It happened fast,” Spring said. “I was very comfortable and very stable here at Illinois. This is just a whole new industry that is just trending in all the right ways. … I don’t know if I would’ve gotten (another) opportunity to shift coaching professions like this with a coach I respect and really feel like I can work for.”
Spring parlayed a storied Illinois athletic career into an even lengthier tenure as both an Illini men’s assistant and head coach.
Between 2002 and 2006, Spring captured four outright or partial NCAA event championships — in the 2004 high bar, 2005 parallel bars, 2006 high bar and 2006 parallel bars. He also was a 13-time All-American and two-time Dike Eddleman Athlete of the Year, and he received a spot in the Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame’s Class of 2018.
Spring became an Illinois assistant once his college eligibility expired and held that role for four seasons before becoming the Illini boss in 2010. He also spent time competing for the United States’ international men’s team in the late 2000s, including when the Americans captured a bronze medal in the 2008 Summer Olympics.
During Spring’s 12 seasons of leadership, Illinois captured the 2012 NCAA team national championship as well as four Big Ten Conference titles. Spring’s athletes amassed 11 NCAA individual event championships and 79 All-America honors, and Spring also was named 2012 national coach of the year.
“I want to thank Justin for his many years of tremendous leadership and service to the University of Illinois and Fighting Illini men’s gymnastics,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said in a press release. “Justin’s legacy as an Illini is beyond reproach. … His departure leaves a void that will not be easily filled.”
Even while saddened by his departure from Champaign-Urbana, Spring acknowledged he’s excited to eventually return to campus one day.
“I’m still an Illini through and through,” he said, “for the rest of my life.”
Colin Likas is the preps coordinator at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @clikasNG.