Bobby Jackson, along with fellow safety Muhammed Abdullah, were anchors of an Illinois defense that helped win an outright Big 10 championship and a BCS Sugar Bowl appearance against LSU in 2001. He agrees their leadership was extremely important to the success of that team.
"I think so. It was a big difference with me being gone for a year and wanting to get back. When you finally get the right chemistry and you have the right athletes back there, when you have two guys who know the defense inside and out, putting people in the right spots and making all the right checks, things are a lot easier for the coaches."
The Illini really missed that senior leadership from the safety spots in 2002 and beyond.
"Yeah, I saw that. It's tough."
Celebrating the 10 year reunion of that special 2001 team, Jackson recalled how great teamwork and dedication proved essential for their success.
"I think it started way before the people were in the stands and we were lining up for a game. It started in the summer time when we made a decision to make a run for the title."
The 2001 Illini enjoyed a wave of momentum that carried them from one victory to the next. Jackson and his teammates created a bond early. The goals they set pushed them to great things.
"Yeah, and it started early in the summer time. We really felt that we couldn't be beat by anybody. We were projected like seventh in the Big 10 that year. We didn't care. It was kind of circle the wagons before we even threw a punch.
"We started out on a role, thinking that nobody could beat us. Even if they could beat us, it wasn't gonna be that day. Once you have that mentality, you just go. It doesn't matter."
There were a number of talented players on both sides of the ball. Jackson says the team also had a complimentary blend of personality types.
"It was a pretty good group in terms of having that perfect balance. We had guys who were just clowns all the time, we had guys who were serious all the time. We made it work. It was like a dysfunctional family, but we were happy together."
That special chemistry brought many back to campus last weekend for their reunion. Jackson enjoyed seeing and sharing memories with his former mates.
"It's a blast to see all the guys, who got fat and who didn't. What we really want to see is who stayed in shape. I've seen some guys who did not pass that test. I'm actually hiding 35 pounds, but I keep it tight.
"We were close. There are plenty of things to talk about because we did everything together. Even if we started separate, we always met somewhere toward the end of the night at the same place."
Jackson and his teammates have many special memories of their time in school. But one stands out above the rest.
"Probably our biggest memory to talk about is Thanksgiving day when we hoisted that trophy up. It was nice."
Jackson was photographed lifting his arms to the sky in triumph as he stood next to head coach Ron Turner holding the Big 10 title trophy that day. If he had one regret, it was the paltry crowd that showed up to watch the final triumph over Northwestern.
"Yes, but I'd like to think that enough people watched or looked at the paper and knew what was going on. It's good to be a part of something like that, and to know it hasn't been done since."
Does it seem like 10 years have passed already?
"It doesn't. But as you get onto more college campuses, it does because guys are bigger and stronger than you were. You're wondering how in the heck did he get that big in a certain amount of time. I know I had the same amount of time. It doesn't feel like it when you look back, but it has been."
Jackson is making a career from football.
"I'm now coaching at Concord University in Athens, West Virginia. This is my first year; I'm coaching outside linebackers. I'm having tons of fun. Dustin Ward is the offensive coordinator there. We're looking forward to continue winning. It's a lot of hard work, but nothing worth doing is easy."
His dad Robert coached receivers during Jackson's stay on campus. He is repeating history.
"I am my dad. When I look at pictures of him, I look exactly like him. And I'm doing the exact same thing. I know why he continued to be involved in the sport."
Jackson continues to follow the Illini when he can.
"I always check in. I've always had the Big 10 Network and kind of follow them. Perhaps not as much as I should, but I do."
He was asked what it would take for Illinois to rise up and duplicate the success of other Big 10 schools like Wisconsin and Iowa.
"It takes a lot of dedication, and recruiting is the lifeline of the program. Once you get those two things in line, it's tough to be beat. I think the guys playing right now really have that drive, and it's just a matter of time."
Recruiting is essential, but so is that special wave of momentum that gently pushed the Illini toward their goals in 2001. Like all other coaches, Jackson is searching for a formula that can duplicate the specialness he and his Illini teammates enjoyed 10 years ago.
"It is extremely hard to duplicate that. You've got to have guys buy in before everything starts. You've got to see them in the weight room all the time, know that they're running all the time and that they actually believe that. You can see it in their eyes when they do believe it. And it's tough to win without the right pieces."