Ron Turner was the Illinois football coach for eight seasons. Yet, despite leading Illinois to its last Big Ten championship and a Sugar Bowl appearance during the 2001 season, his lasting legacy in Champaign may be for an impact he made 12 years after he was dismissed.
Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman credited Turner, who recruited and coached Whitman at Illinois from 1997-2000, on Monday for acting as the initial conduit of communication that ultimately led to Lovie Smith’s Monday introduction as the 25th Illini football coach.
“I put a lot of faith in (Turner’s) opinions of people,” Whitman said.
Whitman called Turner, who served as Smith’s offensive coordinator from 2005-2009, to talk about the possibility of Smith. Turner, now in his fourth season as head coach at Florida International, then called Smith -- who was fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after just two years as the head coach -- to relay that interest. When Smith reciprocated to Turner, Whitman and Smith started direct discussions.
To Turner’s credit, he didn’t hold grudges against Smith, who did not retain Turner after their fifth season together in Chicago.
“I’m probably getting a little too much credit,” Ron Turner said Monday on WSJK-ESPN Radio 93.5. “All I did was answer questions Josh had for me about Lovie. I coached for him for five years. He asked me questions about him, which he did other people too. Really, that’s all I did was answer his questions, and I guess I answered them favorably for Lovie, who I have respect for. He’s a really good football coach.”
Like Smith, Turner had to transition from the pros to the college game. Though Turner had just been away from the college game for four years before accepting the Illini head coaching job. Smith hasn’t coached in college since 1995, when he was an assistant coach at Ohio State.
“It is a little bit of a transition, but he’s a good football coach,” Turner said. “He’s a smart guy. I’m sure he’ll surround himself with people who have been involved in the college game recently. He’ll be able to make that adjustment. Football is football. He’s schemed and game-planned against just about every style of offense. Now, I understand college football is a lot different, so there will be a transition. It was for me, coming back after being in the NFL … for eight years. It’s a different game. It’s a bit of a transition. It’s a different game now obviously it was then. But I don’t think there will be a big transition. The big thing in coaching is just to motivate your guys and get your guys to be prepared and coming up with a big plan for them and sharing that plan and communicating, and he’s really good at doing all of that.”
Smith was peppered Monday with questions about how he’ll adjust to modern recruiting, which necessitates an understanding of the ever-changing NCAA rules, the use of social media and the development of deep relationships with high school coaches and prospects.
Smith downplayed the transition -- he recruited free agents in the NFL and had to sell draftees on his vision, he said. Turner thinks Smith will have to adjust but that he should handle the transition well.
“In some ways it’s changed greatly obviously with the internet and Twitter and Facebook and all the different things you do, the texting and everything else,” Turner said. “None of that was in place when Lovie was recruiting in 1995, so that’s all going to be different. But there will be plenty of people there who have an understand of what that is and work with him on that. But again, recruiting is about relationships, establishing relationships more than anything else. Once he gets in front of them, once he gets in their homes and gets them down on campus and gets out to the high schools and sees them and everything, they’ll see what a genuine person he is and how sincere he is. He won’t have any trouble establishing relationships.”
Turner is clear about one thing. He thinks Illinois got a great coach.
“I think it will be a team that is very sound fundamentally and schematically,” Turner said. “It will be a team that is going to play hard, play fast on defense and probably wants to run a pro-style offense. He likes to run the ball and control the line of scrimmage on both sides of it. That’s important to him.”
That reputation should allow Smith -- along with a $4 million assistant salary pool -- to attract more known coaching commodities.
“He’s very well respected,” Turner said. “He knows a lot of people. People know that he is a good person to work for. Quality of life is going to be very good. He’s going to treat you right and expect you to do your job while giving you leeway to do your job. He’s going to allow you to do that, and that’s all you can ask. I think everyone knows his reputation, so I don’t think he’s going to have any trouble attracting good people for that job, I believe.”
Turner may have opened the lines of communication that ultimately made Smith a reality for the school that fired him 12 years ago. But he credits his former player, Whitman, for landing the brand-name coach.
“I’m very proud of what he’s doing,” Turner said, “and not surprised at all.”