Turner out to break Illini's fall

Originally Published: October 22, 2003
By Herb Gould | Special to ESPN.com

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.

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  • 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 years.

    (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 in frustration.)

    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 for recruits.

    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 short years?

    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 trouble.

    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 collapse.

    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 year.

    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.