Kittner The Ultimate Leader, Pressure Player

The Fighting Illini football team has produced a large number of quality quarterbacks through its history, with several going on to successful pro careers. But if you want to name one who was the prototypical offensive leader, the one you could count on in crunch time, it was Kurt Kittner. He returned to campus for the reunion of his championship 2001 team.

Kurt Kittner bounced around the professional circuits awhile, but his major claim to fame was his four years as a starter at quarterback for the Illinois football team. He was perhaps the key component in a high-powered offense that won an outright Big 10 championship and earned a BCS bowl game in 2001.

Now a color commentator for Illini football games, Kittner is accustomed to the short trip from his Chicago home to Champaign. But a recent excursion to campus for the reunion of his 2001 team was special.

"Yeah. Ten years later, it's funny to see guys. Some look the same, some look different. Most of them are dads now, so it's good to get the families around. I'm here in Champaign a lot, obviously. But not all these guys are. Some are still playing, so you don't get to see them. It's good to have them back."

Kittner is not one to take personal credit for his accomplishments. But he and three teammates became perhaps the best group of leaders in Fighting Illini annals. Their rewards for excellence were tangible.

"It was a great year. Senior year, and being captain with Luke Butkus, Bobby Jackson, and Brandon Moore, it was good to go out on top. At Illinois, a Big 10 Championship is something special that we'll always remember.

"We did a good job of leading by example. We weren't yellers and howlers, but we were accountable to ourselves, and we made sure everybody else was accountable. It's a little bit different when some guys try to be more vocal. We led, and we led the right way. Luckily, the younger guys bought into it and did the same. It made for a great team."

The Schaumburg product agrees with his teammates regarding the primary reason for their success.

"We were just a close-knit group. We did a great job of staying together, doing things on and off the field. In the off season, we did a lot of stuff. We had a softball league. We spent a lot of time together, so we got to know each other, not just in practice or at the football facilities, but outside of that."

Kittner concurred with the notion his team also had lots of talent.

"No kidding. You see guys still in the League now and have played for awhile. A lot of receivers were Pro Bowlers in that group too. So you now realize how good they were. We knew back then, it was just a matter of them getting opportunities at the next level."

His four primary receivers were either recruited for other positions or required to walk on and earn scholarships. Yet they all had great success in college and beyond.

"Walter (Young) was a quarterback, Greg Lewis and Aaron Moorehead were both walkons. Brandon Lloyd was a defensive back in camp for a couple weeks and we switched him over.

"They all had great careers in college, all of them had opportunities to succeed in the NFL. They did well; two of them are still playing. It shows you how hard they work now. They did it back then, and they continue to do it today."

Of course, the passing game always needs a run complement, and the Illini had that in abundance.

"Yeah we did. Rocky (Harvey) bless his heart, a little guy who busted his tail off and had a great career. He made a lot of huge plays for us throughout his career. Antoineo Harris came in and played well. We had fullbacks who could all catch the ball, which was huge for us back then, Kameno Bell and Carey Davis."

Kittner was a blue collar quarterback who knew where his bread was buttered. He cultivated lasting relationships with his talented offensive linemen.

"Of course. You had to hang out with those guys. They're protecting you, so treat them well. Luke was a leader at center, and then we had (Dave) Diehl, (Tony) Pashos and big (Jay) Kulaga. We had guys across the board who had that mentality that offensive linemen need."

One of Kittner's best traits was his ability to perform when most needed. His overall completion percentage was not spectacular, until the fourth quarter when the game was on the line. He minimizes his natural gift, but there is no doubt he focused harder with great confidence in those situations.

"I think when you get in the clutch, you depend on the guys. You can't throw without the guys in front of you protecting you. We had a great relationship with all the receivers.

"Brandon was a year younger, but we threw a lot during the season with Moorehead, Walter and Greg, and Brandon got in there. We did a lot of work where it just came naturally on game day. I think our passing game showed that.

"I think a lot of it goes with just studying. I learned from Coach (Ron) Turner how to study game film. I sat down a lot with him, and I almost knew plays before they were called. It's that relationship, knowing what he's trying to do. During clutch, it was just about executing."

The year 2001 will always be special in Illini football lore, and Kittner will always be remembered for his leadership of that outstanding unit.

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