Through the Trifocals

During any coaching change, the feelings and needs of the players on the team are often the most overlooked. Yet, they are expected to make a seamless transition to a new coaching staff and a new approach to their sport. Illinisports writes this column specifically to Illini football players in the hope of making this transition easier on them and to let them know they are important for the future.

This column is addressed specifically to the Fighting Illini football team. You likely returned from your Thanksgiving vacation with heavy hearts, knowing your football coach is no longer employed at Illinois. Such a drastic change is always traumatic for a team, and it must be especially frustrating for you since the change occurred while you were away. It is hoped this column can help you cope with the trauma and be able to grow and evolve in a positive way by the experience.

First of all, none of you is to blame for what has happened. Sure, we didn't win many games, and the won-lost record is always the primary reason a coach loses his job. But when a coach loses frequently, fans begin to question everything he does. Over time, distrust can lead to anger and ultimately to apathy. When this happens, no amount of success can bring them back into the fold.

So please don't let Jason Reda believe he cost Coach Turner his job by missing that field goal at Northwestern. Coach Turner's firing was set in cement long before that point. Jason will learn how to handle those pressures and will help us win one or more important games in the future, so please help him keep his confidence up. And don't be haunted over plays over the season that might have changed our fortunes for the better. Those plays weren't the deciding factor either.

College athletics is big business, and most of you realize this. Fans, alumni, donors, and the UI administration all have a vested interest in the success of the program, and their financial support is essential. When they give up on a coach and withdraw their support, the UI Division of Athletics must make a change. No matter how optimistic you might be about the future, these supporters no longer trusted Ron Turner, right or wrong, to lead you to the promised land. It is a shame that you get caught in the middle of this gargantuan struggle.

Any definition of "Life" must include the reality that nothing stays the same. Everything changes. Those who survive and thrive in the midst of change are able to absorb the negative and transform it into something more positive. It would be nice to win all the time. It would be wonderful if we could have the supreme confidence of knowing we are superior to our foes and can prove it at will. But we live through cycles, and the U of I has been in the low point of a cycle. On the negative side, change was inevitable. But on the positive side, better times may be ahead as our cycle may now be returning to an upswing. At least, that is the main hope when a coaching change is required.

Even the best teams in the country have their doubts. They know their place in the sun may be fleeting, that good fortune has aided their athletic gifts to make them successful in the short term. In some ways, it can be a detriment to have short term success because it makes the subsequent down times in life more difficult to understand and overcome. People who get their way all the time simply don't know how to handle failure because they have no experience at it. So they can become bitter and vengeful, taking their frustrations out on others rather than facing their imperfections and working to get better.

You have learned much about yourselves. You have worked hard to improve yourselves and your team. You have fought hard to win and to save Coach Turner's job. You didn't succeed as much as you wanted, but you continued to believe in yourselves. You continued to fight to the last moments of the Northwestern game. You can use what you have learned this year to make you better next year and every succeeding year. You have not become bitter and vengeful, at least not publicly, and that is a positive indicator of maturity and growth.

You have also learned humility. You have learned to appreciate and be grateful for any good thing that happens because you cannot guarantee when it might happen again. You have learned you can come back from failure and humiliation and continue to battle. You also realize that, with a little more effort, maturation and improvement, you may begin to win those close games that you lost these last 2-3 years. You have paid your dues, and Nature always seeks a balance. Eventually, Life will balance for you as well, and when it does, you will know you deserve the success you have.

You have learned much from Coach Turner that you can apply to your futures, both as football players and in your chosen professions. He recruited you, and he has molded you. You willingly submitted to his authority and trusted him and his assistants to develop you into outstanding football players and people. He has prepared you for the hard times.

E. B. Halsey shared his thoughts about what he learned from Turner in the 11/23/04 "News-Gazette": "He would just tell us as a team, 'Hey, a lot of things are going to happen to you in life. If you lay down and quit, then that's the type of person you're going to be. If you stand up and keep fighting then that's going to define what type of person you are.' You're dealt a lot of negative things in life, and you've got to live, you've got to get through it. That's one lesson we learned from Coach Turner, especially going through this."

You will now be playing for a different set of coaches, but you will be taking Coach Turner and his assistants, their coaching and philosophy, with you into the future. You will have a foundation upon which to grow. You can now add a second set of insights, techniques and values that can make you even more than you are now. By accumulating knowledge from a variety of sources, you can continue to evolve into better players and better humans.

Admittedly, this can be a scary time for you. After all, you don't know whether you will like and respect your new coaches or they you. The discipline of football requires that players willingly follow the directives of their head coach, and you don't know whether you will be able to follow someone new. You don't know how tough it will be to learn new schemes and systems. You don't know who will get playing time. Those who played this past season must start over making a good impression. One of the biggest fears of all is the fear of the unknown. Of course, those who did not play have a chance for a new start to impress and gain playing time.

Adding to the uncertainty is the weeks you must wait until the new coach is hired. With finals coming up, your heads must be filled with all sorts of wild thoughts and emotions. But while these next weeks may seem like an eternity while you are living through them, in actuality the time will pass quickly. It won't be long at all until you have met the new coaches and been given your first orders to prepare diligently for spring ball.

One thing you can relax about though. Ron Guenther has been consistent in attracting top coaches with outstanding character. He will do the same this time. And it would not be at all surprising if he hires someone who is as compatible with you as Coach Turner. After all, like attracts like.

Our basketball team initially balked at losing their beloved head coach last year, but within the space of one season they found it possible to embrace new coach Bruce Weber well enough to win an undisputed Big 10 Championship. Your new football coach will be attracted to Guenther and vice versa, which makes him more similar than dissimilar to his predecessor.

Ron Guenther commented in his press conference that, ironically, a new coach can come in and win with the team Ron Turner leaves behind. This is an indirect compliment to you, and you should remember that when you feel discouraged. He knows you are young and developing. He knows you will continue to grow and improve as you mature. Guenther will do everything in his power to find the right leader to transform this vision into reality.

It is now your job to prepare yourselves for the future. No matter who is named as coach, you will want to continue your physical development. You know how strong your opponents are; you will want to become at least that strong and explosive. In addition, you can always learn by watching game films. Defenders should watch opposing offenses to understand better how to defend them. Offensive players can always benefit from learning the defensive keys that indicate what you are facing on each play. You need no coach to tell you this, just self-respect and self-discipline.

Please don't believe the undercurrent of rumors that the UI administration is not committed to success with the football program. Nothing can be further from the truth. If anything, changing coaches at this time is a reminder of this commitment. The UI believes we can and should be winners, and they are looking for the right combination to make that possible.

Of course, you still have an important responsibility in this formula. No coach can make winners out of players who don't wish to compete and strive for excellence. It is true that some head coaches cull dead weight from their personnel when they begin a new job. But usually these are the players who are just floating along in order to get a free education or are behavioral or academic risks. Keep your classroom work in order, keep out of trouble, and push yourselves to excel as football players. This is your job. Do it well, and you will be rewarded for your efforts.

Do you want to win? Do you want personal glory? Do any of you hope for an NFL career? Do you want to return to the UI as alumni and know you are respected and remembered fondly? Then do your part and Ron Guenther will do his. We all want the same thing. Together, anything is possible.

Thank you for all your efforts in the past, and thank you in advance for surviving this present uncertainty with grace and dignity. We look forward to seeing smiles on your faces after many games this next fall as memories of present difficulties are healed of their sting. We know that is possible, and we hope you see that vision as well.

Go Illini!!!

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