Through the Trifocals

Everyone appears excited about new football coach Ron Zook. The new enthusiasm helps us forget the past and look hopefully for a brighter future. However, Illinisports wishes to add some closure to the previous eight years by sending an open letter to Coach Ron Turner.

We now have a new football coach. Illini fans are trying to forget the past by opening their hearts and minds to Ron Zook. And Zook has a lot to offer the University of Illinois. Besides all his other gifts, the professional way he continued to coach the University of Florida after he was fired, and the way he inspired his team in those four games, was a special selling point that put his candidacy over the top in many people's eyes.

But it might be helpful to tie up a few loose ends before we put the past aside completely. While we are crediting Coach Zook for his professionalism, perseverence and loyalty to his former school and players, we should also realize that Ron Turner performed a similar feat at Illinois.

I would like to write Ron Turner a letter to praise him rather than bury him, so to speak. I was most impressed with how he handled the last few weeks of his tenure as head football coach at Illinois. I believe he deserves to receive credit for his actions before we proceed onward with a new chapter in Illinois football history.

Dear Coach Turner,

I am writing to pay you my respects. I am saddened the University of Illinois had to terminate your employment, for your sake and the Fighting Illini family. Your won-loss record made this decision necessary, but this was in spite of your many excellent qualities. It is the qualities you demonstrated during this past football season that make my letter to you mandatory.

Even your worst critics now admit you demonstrated loyalty, honesty, integrity and energy to your efforts throughout your eight year tenure at UI. Everyone knew you wouldn't cheat in recruiting or in developing muscle mass on your players even though it placed you at a disadvantage. Most everyone knew how effective your offense could be when you had the players to fit your system. And many realize you had more than your share of misfortune to add to some basic problems and limitations.

I would love to sit down with you sometime and ask you why certain things happened, but I won't do so in this letter. I know you to be a straight-shooter, so I have a hunch you would admit your own mistakes in a private conversation. But I doubt you would criticize your players or assistant coaches for their roles, remaining silent to protect their privacy. Still, it would be revelatory to know your side of things. It wouldn't get your job back, but it would certainly neutralize many of the misperceptions. Too bad that won't happen.

I have suffered as much as any fan through all the losses, and I too am ready to see if change can improve the situation. But I have also observed you throughout these past years, both in practices and games, and I realize the UI will miss some of your best gifts no matter how good your replacement. And what has really set you apart in my mind is how you have responded to all the adversity this past season. Despite the 3-8 record, you may someday look back on it as one of your finest moments.

You knew your back was against the wall all year. You knew many fans were calling for your ouster after the 2003 season, and you knew Ron Guenther was hesitating on giving you the endorsement or contract extension you would need to continue past this year. Despite this, you kept your balance, confidence and enthusiasm for the sake of your players. You remained a steadying influence on your young team throughout spring and fall practice even though you knew you lacked the horses to guarantee a bowl bid.

At least by the time of the Minnesota game debacle, you had to realize your days were numbered. However, you and your staff continued to work with your young team, trying to keep their confidence up and prepare them for possible victory in their last few games.

Your efforts were proven fruitful with our victory over Indiana. Granted, we beat a team at the low end of the Big 10 totem pole, but you know as well as anyone that the confidence gained from victory, any victory, is the best teaching aid. You were happy for yourself and your coaching staff, but it was obvious you were happiest for your team. You truly cared about them, and it showed.

In my mind, you knew by the time of your Sunday TV coach's show after the Indiana game that you would not be retained. Forgive the reference, but I could see it in your eyes. I know how fiery you can be when you are excited because I had the pleasure of watching you share the 2001 Big Ten Championship trophy with Illini fans in Memorial Stadium. You roared like a proud lion on that occasion, and deservedly so. But there was no fire on that Sunday, only a distant sadness as you knew your coaching days at Illinois were coming to an end.

And yet, even then, you spent the next two weeks working to prepare both your starters and your youngsters for the future. You prepared well for the Northwestern game and almost pulled an upset in Evanston. And you helped develop the reserves so they could be better prepared for their future as players and people.

Beyond that, you and your assistants continued to recruit. You arranged visits and continued to work on obtaining commitments. That must have been extremely difficult for all of you, especially realizing the hopelessness of the situation. To me, that showed tremendous character and professionalism. It also showed you care more about the University of Illinois than seeking revenge or self-pity after your failure to retain your job.

Perhaps many fans are too young to remember, but your behavior those last several weeks stands in stark contrast to several other lame duck coaching staffs in the past. Gary Moeller and his staff became extremely bitter and did nothing to aid the transition of power. If anything, they sought to undermine the University, both then and in any future dealings they had with us and our potential recruits. And all recruiting ceased completely, perhaps in the hope of keeping the Illini down for as long as possible.

Lou Tepper claimed his religion required him to forgive the University for his firing, but the stinger in his voice betrayed his true feelings. He continued to claim long afterward that he would have coached your first team to a bowl game even though everyone knew the cupboard was bare. He may have forgiven, but he still served to hinder his replacement, no matter how indirect or remote he happened to be.

These are just two examples of coaches whose personal frustrations overwhelmed their sense of loyalty or obligation to their most recent employers. It is hard enough on the players and the institution to make the difficult and costly decision to change coaches, but is doubly tough when recruiting for that year is neutralized or destroyed.

In my memory, you and your staff did a better job of assisting Illinois with the coaching transition than any other staff since the retirement of Ray Eliot in 1959. Our players will be better prepared, both physically and psychologically, for the 2005 season and the changes likely to follow with the new coaching staff. Recruiting, albeit slowed to a snail's pace with all the uncertainties of this past season, was set up for the new coaching staff to build upon. And your appearance to support your players at the post season Awards Banquet, after your termination, was nothing but classy. I am certain your players appreciated your effort on their behalf.

You may feel especially vulnerable and unloved right now, especially after seeing all the exuberance shown for your replacement Ron Zook. You may not be our coach anymore, but you are still living in the community and must witness all the changes first hand. It might be easy to get discouraged at this time, but I have confidence you will handle this personal trauma with the same grace, maturity and professionalism you have demonstrated throughout your tenure at the UI.

Coach Turner, you brought us the great victory over Virginia in the Bowl in 1999, one of my all-time favorite games, after the improbable upset at Michigan that same year. You also brought us an undisputed Big Ten Championship in 2001, something truly special in Illinois history. No one can take those special moments away from you.

But more than that, you proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that you cared about Illinois' future and not just your own. You did not burn your bridges but built them stronger and more durable. Thus, you proved that you are a true Illini! As a result, you will always be welcome at the University of Illinois. And if anyone tells you otherwise, they should be referred to me so I can set them straight.

I know I speak for many fellow Illini when I thank you for all your efforts and wish you the absolute best in your future endeavors. Whether you ever end up with a winning record as a head football coach, you are a winner as a human being. Thank you for setting an example that others can emulate. You are quality!

Go Illini! Sincerely,

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