Ron Turner was 32-49 in his seven years at Illinois. He had to be let go as his team struggled at the end of his tenure. But he had a brief moment in the sun, leading his 2001 team to a Big 10 championship and BCS berth against LSU in the Sugar Bowl.
He wasn't able to sustain success at Illinois, but he was always a straight shooter and left with his head held high. He burned no bridges on the way out, so he was welcomed with open arms as he, his assistant coaches and players from that special 2001 team returned to campus for a 10-year reunion recently. Turner has fond memories of that team.
"It was unbelievable. We talk about it a lot. It was an unbelievable group of guys. You can coach for a lot of years and very rarely have a group of young men come together like that group did, in every sense of the word."
Everyone from that team talks about the great wave of momentum that picked the team up and drove it successfully through a mine field of quality Big 10 teams. Turner saw it as a multi-year project, and he enjoyed every moment of it.
"It was as much fun as I've ever had in coaching. And not just the 2001 season, but the years leading up to it. Starting out where we started the program and building it. Watching these guys come in as freshmen and develop, the commitment they had and the togetherness that they had.
"You wish every year could be like that, but it's not. It's something unique and special."
Many Illini fans didn't realize how talented the team was until they saw how well players performed in the NFL.
"We had a lot of talent, no question. We had a tremendous team attitude, but we also had a ton of talent. Seven guys are still in the NFL, ten years later. At one time, I think we had 21 in the NFL. Maybe not that year as one team, but that group of guys. But I think above all the talent, we had a great commitment from these guys."
That was also true of the coaching staff.
"Yes we do. We had a great staff. They were very good coaches, very good teachers but also good people. Guys you like to hang around with and spend time with. That made it fun. Greg McMahon got a Super Bowl ring with the Saints a couple years ago, Mike Mallory is in the NFL. There are several of them. That's a testament."
Turner has spent his post-Illini years in the NFL also.
"I'm with the Indianapolis Colts coaching quarterbacks. I left here and went to Chicago with the Bears as offensive coordinator. We had a pretty good run there. We won the NFC Championship and lost to the Colts in the Super Bowl. I got hired by the Colts last year. I like it and am excited about it."
Turner was known as a quarterback guru, but only one of his quarterbacks had the talent to benefit from his coaching. Fortunately, Kurt Kittner came along in time to lead the Illini offense during the 2001 season. The two had a unique bond.
"We certainly did. He was a special young man, special in my heart, and he always will be. But there were so many others too, guys I stay in contact with.
"It's just great to see them ten years later. They're successful, some in football and some not in football. They have families, and we meet their wives and kids. That's the fun thing about coaching in college, the relationships that you build with these young men."
All coaches want to develop the chemistry in abundance on that 2001 team, especially the great leadership that wouldn't let the team fail. Turner was asked how difficult it is to develop quality leadership on a team.
"It's hard. You try to recruit guys that have that quality. Our coaches did a really good job of finding guys that weren't just talented football players but also had the qualities off the football field, the leadership, character, toughness, all that. That's really what that team was built on.
"We had it, no question. People ask me what comes to mind about that team. Two things come to mind, their leadership and their toughness."