[Warning: This editorial column is written from a rational, emotionally balanced perspective. The subject today is the state of the Illinois football program. If you wish to read a column filled with anger and vengence and cannot empathize with those involved, this column will not fulfill your needs.]
Recent losses by our football team have traumatized us all. Illinois has a long and proud history in football, and yet it seems we cannot reclaim lost glory at this time no matter what we do. Frustrations are boiling over, casting darkness on a program that has seen much previous light.
It is presumptuous of me to draw premature conclusions or try to tell someone else their business. But I feel compelled to write an open letter to Athletic Director Ron Guenther. I doubt seriously he will read it or even hear about it, but perhaps it can serve as a sounding board for others who care as deeply about the University of Illinois and its sports programs as I do.
Please be advised these are my personal views and may not represent the entire Illini Nation. Also realize Mr. Guenther is unlikely to consider the merits of arguments based on an attack philosophy. Therefore, I write with Guenther's personal needs and feelings in mind, in the hope that a calmer, more balanced approach can help us collectively find positive solutions for our present problems.
Dear Mr. Guenther,
First of all, let me state for the record I am grateful you are our Athletic Director. You have balanced the budget, solicited sufficient funds and expertise to keep Illini sports operating at a high level, hired quality people to assist you, initiated major building improvements, and brought honor and integrity to our University. I think you are doing a great job, and I hope you continue in that capacity for many years to come. Having worked with or otherwise experienced several previous directors, I can state for a fact that you are a cut above most if not all of them.
And I am also proud of the way our young Illini football team has continued to improve this year, and the way the players haven't given up on themselves or their coaches. They gave it everything they had against muscular Michigan before succumbing to superior athleticism. I realize that victories in their last four games could still place them in a bowl game, although that will be difficult since three of our last four opponents presently have winning Big 10 records. If they should run the table, this letter may be inappropriate.
I am certainly not qualified to tell you your business or make demands on your time. But as I am sure you are aware, the natives are restless and growing weary of our continued football difficulties. I am not sure how much more they can tolerate or accept. I know you didn't want this to happen, and you did everything in your power to prevent it, but it seems the snowball is rolling downhill and accelerating rapidly. Even if we win the rest of our games this year, there is legitimate concern whether the Illini fandom will accept anything but a change in our football leadership.
And this is a real shame, in my opinion. I believe you made a good hire in Ron Turner, despite his present record, although I cannot speak for all Illini. Turner had a long-term vision that, once set in place, would normally be ideal for continued success. He brought a family concept to the program and recruited quality people to be part of that family. He maintained a high degree of honesty and integrity; you could rest easily knowing he wouldn't bring us afoul of NCAA guidelines. And he graduated an impressively high percentage of his players.
Turner insisted that our strength training program not include illegal steroids, growth hormones or other designer drugs to create artificial enhancement of athleticism even though he was competing unfavorably against teams that did. He even had the integrity not to teach chop blocks and the kinds of offensive holding that go unnoticed and unpenalized by officials even though it is now common practice. And he refused to play even his better players if they didn't conform to reasonable standards of behavior.
On top of that, he was and is a fine offensive mind who can play havoc with opposing defenses once he has enough talent at the skill positions to balance the offense and keep defenses guessing. He was wonderfully consistent at balancing run and pass for maximum unpredictability. The massacre of Virginia in the Micronpc.com Bowl and our wonderful 2001 Big Ten Championship run demonstrated conclusively how good a coach he can be when he has the talent to compete. And his teams consistently rank among the least penalized, demonstrating attention to discipline and detail.
You made what was considered at the time a "no-brainer" decision to extend Coach Turner's contract after the 2001 season, and he deserved it. Unfortunately, he was trying to upgrade recruiting at a time when the quantity of dominant athletes being produced in Illinois high schools was at low ebb. So even after he made it to the Sugar Bowl, he still wasn't able to improve the recruiting to a level needed to maintain a lofty position within the conference.
Since then, I believe Coach Turner has been the victim of bad luck as much as anything. Yes, we have had some seasons where we were clearly outmatched by most of our opponents, but we have also had frequent misfortune, bad bounces, bad officiating calls, and injuries to key players. And who would have guessed that perennial powers Ohio State and Penn State, the two teams not on our schedule this year, would also be winless in the Big 10 at this time? Curiously, coaches Jim Tressel of OSU, PSU's Joe Paterno and Ron Turner are all Sagittarians.
I do believe Coach Turner has some weaknesses. For instance, he may have fallen into the same trap as his predecessor Lou Tepper (except in reverse) by not having a specific defensive plan in mind that he could consider his own. Thus, he went through three defensive coordinators (four if you count Phil Snow) in a vain effort to give us a quality defense, and each person brought a different scheme. It would have been much better, in my opinion, if he could have kept the same defense and hired coaches to teach it. That way, there would be more continuity and learning retention for the players, and defensive recruits would know how they might fit into our defensive philosophy.
And there has been a consistent problem with recruiting. Recruiting is always a difficult, cut-throat game, but top players must be recruited because our opponents bring in top players. We can't just rely on our coaching ability to develop late bloomers. Sometimes it works, but sometimes we remain behind the teams whose more athletic players continue to improve as well.
What has bothered me most about recruiting is the fact that every year, one or more of Turner's assistant coaches have failed to recruit any players from their areas of recruiting responsibility. Every year. Greg McMahon was offered a large salary by Barry Alvarez to move to Wisconsin for his recruiting skill, but he is more exception than rule. Our assistants appear to be fine people, and it seems they try hard. Coaches who are great recruiters are rare, and that is why they are so valued. Most of our assistant coaches have been hired for their coaching skill and/or their relationship with the head coach rather than their recruiting prowess. And it shows.
I know you already realize this. I also know the last thing you wish to do is go through the trauma of a coaching change. Any change ruins recruiting the first year at least, and a losing season or two almost always follows. It is traumatic for the players, administration, alumni, and fans. And I know how difficult it is for you to find and hire a competent replacement. The time away from all the fund-raising and new building projects, not to mention your normal duties as Director, cannot help but wear on you.
I believe you did the right thing by not firing Coach Turner last year despite the pressure to do so. You knew that no self-respecting coach would work for an Athletic Director who fires his head coach just two years removed from a BCS Bowl. You knew Turner needed a chance to develop the players he recruited after benefitting from the championship season of 2001, and you didn't want to alienate young men who came here to play for him. I imagine the big buyout clause in Turner's contract may have been unappealing to you as well.
But now, I am afraid Coach Turner and his assistants may all be so shell-shocked they cannot help pull each other out of the whirlpool. It is tough to put out maximum effort when losses pile up. Our coaches could use a year or two of R & R, and maybe even some extensive counseling, just to feel good about themselves again. No matter how wonderful they are, it is increasingly problematic for them to bring confidence to practices. It is difficult to excite a prospective high school recruit, and it's practically impossible to get uncommitted superstars to consider Illinois at this time.
And think of our players. They want to win, they work hard year-around to win, and yet they don't see the results they want and need to feel good about themselves and play at their highest level. They are told to visualize success, but then they see all the breaks go against them. They see fumbles bounce into opponents' hands. They see opponents' punts land inside the 5 yard line without entering the end zone. They see opposing quarterbacks complete pass after pass without throwing a wobbly ball or one so off target that we can intercept it (2 exceptions against Michigan cannot balance two years of misery). They see tackles occurring 12 yards past the line of scrimmage on third down and 11.
Not only are we playing with a young and inexperienced team, but also one that is so familiar with bad luck it cannot envision good times ahead. Big-time college football cannot be played and won without immense confidence levels, and we are suffering through one tortuous experience after another. Psychologically, we are damaged goods. Our players, while perhaps not All-Americans at this point, have had little chance to show the skills they possess when their bodies are relaxed and playing with supreme confidence.
Of course, you know better than I how our ticket sales have dropped off and how alumni donations will suffer if something is not done, and soon. The fans are at a mental state lower than anytime since Gary Moeller's last year. A large number no longer trust that Ron Turner can become the winner they believe is Illinois' inherent right. And they will continue to believe this even if we should win our last four games. Staunch season-ticket buyers are swearing off the team until a change is made. They may become apathetic and divorce themselves totally if something good doesn't happen soon. If apathy results, it might be difficult to ever lure them back into the fold.
I am not telling you to fire Coach Turner. I know you won't make a hasty decision about our football future without tortuous soul-searching and reflection. I know the fire and determination you brought to your own playing days as an undersized offensive guard; I know you will always give Illini football your best shot. The decision you make will be wise and necessary, whatever it is.
And I know you won't make a final decision until the end of the season. We both remember how our 1970 team, led by Doug Dieken, refused to play unless Jim Valek's firing was delayed until the end of the season. That was an embarrassment that hurt Illinois' image too greatly to ever repeat.
Regardless, my real reason for writing you is to offer suggestions on where we go from here IF a change is made. I would not envy your upcoming task of searching the country for the best possible replacement. I know you may be a little burned out on coaching searches, given the frequency of the basketball coaching changes recently and the frustrations you suffered with those.
But assuming you decide on change, we may need you now, more than ever, to pull a miracle. We no longer have any room for error. We are near rock bottom at a time when most of our conference brethren are highly competitive and gaining more separation from us daily. We cannot afford a mistake. We need someone to make a complete face lift on the program, in order to bring wins, fans, and money back into the University. And we need someone who knows what he is doing and can accomplish it quickly.
We need someone who is as charismatic as Pete Elliott, Mike White or Bill Self who can entertain the fans, feed the media, and solicit the alumni. You may have issues with personalities like these, but there must be some charmers out there who are also honest and trustworthy. We cannot settle for some decent man who conforms to your requirements and caveats but cannot recruit superstars or excite the players and fans. Been there, done that. We need the decency, but we also need some enthusiasm and confidence. We need someone who bubbles over with excitement for Illinois football and can inject the entire nation with that positive energy. And we need someone with an angel on his shoulder who helps him win more than his fair share.
We need someone as insightful and wise as Bob Zuppke, someone who flys higher and sees farther than the average human. He needs to have the depth to understand the needs of his players and be able to work with them individually and collectively to get the most out of them. And he needs the ability to communicate his wisdom not only to his players and coaches but also to the fans and media so they can understand what he is doing and why.
Any new coach needs to be as energetic and inspirational as Ray Eliot. I know such fellows are rare, but when was the last time you saw an Illinois team so fired up they played far beyond their normal capabilities and pulled the big upset? We need more of that, for the players and the fans. We all need to know that anything is possible. That on any given day, something great might happen.
We need an offensive mind as innovative and clever as Bob Zuppke, Mike White, John Mackovic or Ron Turner. We have tried in times past to match muscle with the conservative, run-the-ball-down-your-throat teams like Michigan and Wisconsin (under Alvarez), and we have not proved worthy. In fact, we have just proved boring. Illinois fans are accustomed to an exciting brand of offensive wizardry where we have innumerable options for breaking down opponents and outscoring them. Predictability is beatable without superior personnel. A wide-open offense gives us the best option for winning, and it brings the most fans.
That offensive mind must be capable of recruiting head-to-head with the top football programs in the country for superstar quarterbacks. If there is one position on the team that can bring wins more than any other, it is quarterback. Skilled athletes with intelligence, agility, strong arms, leadership and play-making ability are rare, but they can be the biggest difference makers. Especially until we develop our overall recruiting to defeat top teams without a great quarterback. We need a coach who can recruit players like Dave Wilson, Tony Eason, Jack Trudeau and Jeff George. Ron Turner would have been far more successful if he could have consistently recruited players the caliber of Kurt Kittner.
We need a defense more sound than any we have seen for many years. We need a coach who cares as much for defense as offense and makes sure his players and coaches know that both are equally important. John Mackovic coached only offense, but he hired a quality defensive coordinator who could meet our needs on that side of the ball. Pete Elliott was one who cared about all aspects of the game, so perhaps someone like that is needed. We do not need a defensive coordinator as head coach because he will likely have a limited offense. But we do need an offensive-minded coach who cares as deeply about defense (and special teams) as offense.
We need a pied piper who can restore our players' confidence and belief in their ability to win. After all, any new coach will be coaching the players already in school. He needs to be someone who is accustomed to winning and has no memories of our last 2-3 years. He needs to assure them they WILL win, and he needs the credibility to back it up.
Certainly, we need someone with the integrity to continue Illinois' quest for a totally honest program that meets or exceeds all NCAA guidelines. And we need someone who is committed to high academic achievement and the graduation of all players.
Of course, to do these things and also recruit superstars is rare and extremely difficult, especially given today's selfish, greedy environment. That is why we need a head coach who is so masterful at making a great first impression and gaining players' trust that he can recruit academically talented superstars without illegal inducements. There are a few players like that out there, but everyone wants them. Can our guy get a foot in the door and outrecruit the top schools? We have no choice but to try to find such a person.
We need to open up the recruiting budget and improve assistant coaches salaries so the new coach can compete favorably with the top teams in the country for recruits. I know this is a tough decision given the immense strains on the budget. But we need to invest in the future and then trust it will be the seed money we need to get more funds coming back into the coffers.
Top assistant coaches who are great recruiters are in great demand, so expect to pay handsomely for them. But if they bring in the recruits, we will get a great return on the investment. We must recruit nationwide. The top 2-3 athletes in Illinois each year will likely never come here (at least, they almost never have in the past), and there are some years when the dropoff from them is great. We must be willing to focus on players wherever we can find them and not limit ourselves to Illinois and the Midwest. The best athletes seem localized in the Southeast, the Southwest, the Eastern Seaboard, and California. We need coaches with viable recruiting contacts in those areas.
We need to consider the possibility of a coach with little or no previous background in Illinois. I know that is not preferable, but we haven't usually benefitted from such a coach previously. Jim Valek and Lou Tepper were intimately acquainted with the state when they were hired. And for all the bellyaching of Illinois high school coaches about not catering to their whims or recruiting their "star" players, when they do have real superstars most do little if anything to help us recruit them. Some will stab us in the back if we ignore them, but they probably weren't our friends anyway. The bottom line is that we must find a way to win, and if Illinois high school coaches produce top players, we will recruit them. But if we recruit just to keep them happy, we will continue to lose, in my opinion.
I believe we should also consider hiring a coach whose star is on such an upward spiral that he might eventually leave us for greener pastures. I know that idea brings back bad memories for you. But, if he does get other offers after a few years at Illinois, it means he has been successful. If at that point he moves on, it will be a much easier sell to replace him than it was to hire him in the first place. In addition, if you find a coach special enough and confident enough to hire assistants who have the dynamic personality, aspiration and ability to be head coaches, perhaps one of them will replace him in a far better way than we experienced with Tepper.
Without question, you must consider anyone regardless of race, color, creed, religion, political persuasion, personality type or even gender for that matter (if there is a qualified woman out there). Coaches should be interviewed for their abilities and potential and not just to fulfill Affirmative Action guidelines. In other words, please don't go into the process with preconceptions. You might need to think "outside the box" to find the right person. Please don't let the archaic views of the "old guard" scare you into unnecessary limits. No matter how much financial or political influence they have, they will still support us if we win.
I know you prefer a coach with previous head coaching experience, and I certainly agree with that, in most situations. Purdue benefitted from hiring Joe Tiller in part because he brought his entire staff from Wyoming. They got a quick start, and they were experienced at what they were doing. But the best man might just be waiting in the wings as a top coordinator or assistant head coach on some college or pro team. Of course, such a person would likely need ready access to talented assistants who know exactly what is going on and how to set up a new program on the fly.
And remember, even your best friends within the Big 10 might prefer the present status quo and not be totally committed to offering all possible suggestions for your consideration. Unless you prove that Illinois can make the Big 10 more money than the midlevel teams in the conference, then why would they want you to beat those teams presently ahead of us? They may be your friends, but they have a vested interest in protecting their own turf. Illinois has been burned repeatedly by cohorts within the Big 10, so it never hurts to be alert for the proverbial snake in the grass. At the least, if Bo Schembechler tells you he knows a great prospect for you, say "thanks, but no thanks."
I know you have an ambitious plan to upgrade Memorial Stadium to compete with other Big 10 schools. It will be immensely easier to secure the funding for this project if you have a head coach who uplifts and inspires those you need to assist you. Of course, top coaches are more attracted to programs committed to upgrading facilities, so this is a two-way street. A partnership between the DIA and head coach can do wonders for fund raising if the right relationship is created.
I don't want much, do I? Perhaps we are not an attractive enough program to entice such a unique individual. Not everyone is aware of our history and potential. Perhaps too few coaches in this day and age are willing to commit to a long-term plan and just want the same instant gratification as many recruits. But what choice do we have other than to find and hire one? How successful can we be in the future if our head coach does not combine many if not all of the traits described above? Can we accept less and still keep everyone happy?
If you conclude that Ron Turner is not capable of fulfilling our needs, I ask that you let him know that at least some of us thank him for all he has done for us, and how hard he has worked for Illinois. He may not have succeeded to our satisfaction, but he did many things the right way. I will always respect him, and there are others who feel the same.
At the time of any change, I am certain you will also talk to the players. You will remind them how much you respect their coach and how sad you are to make the change. You will explain how forces beyond everyone's control require a new perspective and new start. The players need to hear these things because they will take any attack on their coach as an attack on them as well. They need to know their contributions to the University of Illinois are still valued, that you want their future to be brighter and filled with success.
If you do decide to make a change, I can summarize my recommendations with this request: Hold out for a hero! Please!
Thank you for your consideration. Go Illini!
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