When Minnesota travels to Illinois this week, half of the coaching class of
'97 will square off. Less than two years ago, Illini coach Ron Turner would
have done well in comparisons with that gang of four. In 2001, he guided Illinois
to its first outright Big Ten title in nearly 20 years. Take away his first
two years, when he was picking up the pieces left behind by Lou Tepper, and he
could point to two bowl trips in three years, and improved recruiting that was
expected to keep the Illini competitive.
That's no longer the case.
Now, the buzz belongs to Gophers coach Glen Mason and Purdue mentor Joe
Tiller. Despite losses the last two weeks, Mason has Minnesota headed for its
fourth bowl trip in five years. And if the Gophers annually inflate their bowl
prospects by playing feeble nonconference opponents, well, they can live with themselves. With
a meager recruiting base, Minnesota is doing what it has to do.
Tiller, who might have been unlikeliest of the four hires, now stands out as
the best of the quartet. He's made six straight bowl trips, and he has the No.
10 Boilermakers in the hunt for their second Rose Bowl appearance in four
(The fourth Big Ten coach hired in 1997, Indiana's Cam Cameron, has been gone
two years. At IU, though, even Knute Rockne might have turned to basketball
That leaves Turner as the biggest enigma in the group. While Tiller (Wyoming)
and Mason (Kansas) were coming off of solid college efforts, Turner and Cameron were highly regarded NFL assistants.
Turner has shown that with the right personnel, he can put together a
successful passing game, one that's even good enough to overcome a defense that
hasn't been on the radar since Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice were taken second and
third overall in the 1996 NFL draft.
Even in the bowl years, Illinois' defense was shaky. If you don't agree, name
the best linebacker at Illinois, a place that used to call itself Linebacker
U, since Hardy and Rice left. Better yet, name any Illinois linebacker since
Hardy and Rice left.
For all of Illinois' troubles, Turner isn't in trouble yet.
"We've got the right guy on the top and we'll get it done. That's all I can
tell you," says athletic director Ron Guenther, who's standing by the man who
won a Big Ten championship just two years ago. "What we've got wrong, we can
fix. And the guy who's going to fix it is Ron Turner. Unequivocally, we're
not entertaining any change at all."
That's the right call at this point. At Illinois, where the talent base is
the issue, a change would mean another dormant period while the next coach looks
If this continues next year, though, look out.
The Illini Nation -- which cares more about basketball, anyway -- already is
restless. And at Illinois, unlike many most Big Ten programs, when the football
team struggles, the fans don't simply complain. They don't buy tickets.
So how does a school with a respected coach go from a 10-1 regular season,
including a 7-1 run in the Big Ten, and a BCS bowl to a disaster area in two
Start with recruiting. Far too often, top recruits haven't panned out. In a
conference like the Big Ten, where perennial powers like Michigan and Ohio
State bring in a busload of studs every year, where schools like Purdue and Iowa
get what they need and coach it into excellence, where schools like Wisconsin
and Michigan State always seem to have reasonable talent, that's trouble. Big
Even the talent on the 2001 championship team came together strangely.
Kittner was a good, but not great, recruit who was perfect for Turner's offense. Of
the four receivers, one (Brandon Lloyd) was recruited as a cornerback. Another
(Walter Young) came in as a quarterback. And two (Aaron Moorehead and Greg
Lewis) were walk-ons.
There's nothing wrong with moving guys around. But you'd better have enough
guys everywhere you need them.
Another explanation for the 2001 title is that every break went Illinois'
way. The Ohio State quarterback was suspended for a drinking incident two nights
before one game, the Penn State quarterback was injured early in another game,
and Illinois stayed on its toes in two other games (Wisconsin and Purdue)
where it looked vulnerable.
Every championship team gets breaks that make it look better than it was.
Some build on that the next year. Others, like Illinois, slide back down the hill.
Third, Turner draws up a good offense, but it's apparently not easy to learn.
That cost the Illini a 1-5 start last year, when Turner was afraid to go with
Jon Beutjer because Beutjer hadn't mastered the offense. Beutjer wound up
being pretty effective in the second half of the season. By then, it was too late.
Fourth, Turner hasn't found a defensive coordinator who can hold up his end
of the deal. The talent base hasn't been great, but Mike Cassity, who replaced
Tim Kish after the 2000 letdown, figures to be a casualty of this year's
Fifth, Guenther hasn't done Turner any favors with Illinois' nonconference
schedule. At first glance, Missouri, UCLA, Cal and Illinois State don't look all
that imposing. The problem is, Mizzou and Cal are revived programs, and UCLA
always has talent, and Guenther dealt Turner a similarly dangerous hand last
Only two Big Ten schools -- Purdue and Illinois -- played three nonconference opponents who are in the
BCS this fall. And only Illinois played two of those
games away from home.
Finally, what it all comes down to is that Turner needs to show signs of a
turnaround next year -- and no excuses. Illinois can't afford another bad year next
year. The Illini already have tumbled too far.
Herb Gould covers the Big Ten for the Chicago Sun-Times.