End of an Era: Rod Cardinal retires after 46 years with Illini basketball

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CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — Rod Cardinal spent his final few days of his 46-year career by sending a few farewell emails. He could write a book full of stories about his time with the Illinois basketball program, as there may be no one who knows the ins and the outs of the program better than him. Just don’t ask him to pick a favorite player or team.

“It’s like trying to pick your favorite kid, you can’t,” Cardinal said. “There are certain players that stand out to me that’s probably due more to their injuries than to their stardom.”

Cardinal started at Illinois in July of 1973 as an assistant athletic trainer. The Minnesota native took the job sight unseen after spending two years at West Point and the rest as they say, is history. He moved up to become the head athletic trainer for men’s basketball for three decades, before retiring in 2003. Or so he thought. That’s when Bruce Weber was hired and convinced him to stay on staff.

“He called me aside and said, ‘Why don’t you stick around and help me get started with this program and be my operations guy’ and I said, ‘Sure.'”

Cardinal has seen some of the greatest highs and the lowest of lows in his time, and just about everything in between. One of his fondest memories was with the Flyin’ Illini in 1989, staying up all night taking care of Lowell Hamilton’s ankle and Kenny Battle’s knee.

“I remember John Mackovic telling me in the lobby of the Radisson up in Minneapolis, ‘You know when I was at Wake Forest, Doc would have them up all night long doing this and doing that,'” Cardinal said. “I kind of took that as my cue, ‘Okay I’m going to pull an all -nighter here.'”

The treatment worked and both guys played helping Illinois beat Syracuse to advance to the Final 4. The Cardinal name became familiar to many Big Ten fans several years later when Rod’s son Brian went to Purdue. Not recruited by the Illini out of Unity High School, Brian went on to play in the NBA for 12 years, winning a world title with the Mavericks in 2011. Sitting on the opposite bench watching his son play for the Boilermakers wasn’t easy.

“You know I tried my professional best to pay attention to the ballgame,” Rod said. “It would have been fun to have him here but it didn’t work out and it turned out pretty good for Brian.”

Rod later went on to head up alumni relations at Illinois, something that connected him to hundreds of former Illini. His longtime colleague and friend Al Martindale calls him one of the all-time greats.

“I mean Rod knows everybody and everybody knows Rod and he’s just one remarkable person,” Martindale said. “I’ll never forget, we were in St. Louis at the Final 4. I said, ‘How many athletic trainers in the country can say they were at the Rose Bowl and they were in the championship game of the NCAA basketball championships? There’s not very many, if any.'”

“That part I’ll probably miss the most, the people,” Cardinal said. “The different coaching staffs, the players, the managers, the people that are nuts and bolts, the human beings, the faces behind the scenes. Those are things that have really made the job worthwhile.”

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