Former Illini Kirby Wilson In Super Bowl

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals each boast two former Illini players. But there is another former Illini who will participate in Super Bowl XLIII as well. Pittsburgh running back coach Kirby Wilson played for Illinois during the Mike White years and was interviewed for the head coaching job when Ron Zook was hired.

Kirby Wilson was among the junior college standouts who migrated from California to play for Mike White at Illinois back in the early 1980's. A small but quick receiver and punt returner, Kirby played an important role in Illinois' Liberty Bowl run in 1982, a prelude to the Rose Bowl season that followed.

He imprinted his image indelibly in the minds of many Illini fans when he bounced up from a vicious hit and started doing jumping jacks to prove he was unhurt. The fans went wild. His efforts helped transform Illinois from a perennial doormat in the 1970's to a bowl worthy team in the 1980's.

Kirby was interviewed on WDWS radio last Saturday. He remembers his Illini days with fondness.

"We had some pretty good quarterbacks coming through back then. It was good times, getting the program off the ground level and into the direction we wanted it to go. There were a lot of characters in those recruiting classes. And fortunately for us, a lot of victories."

Wilson played for Winnipeg and Toronto in the Canadian Football League before beginning a coaching career that has included stops at both the college and pro levels. He has worked with Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin more than once.

"Coaching was always my passion, always something I really wanted to do. And it got me through about 20 years to where I am today."

Kirby interviewed with Athletic Director Ron Guenther for the Illinois head coaching job when Ron Zook was hired. He would have loved to coach at his alma mater.

"Absolutely. I talked with a few people about it. I had heard about Ron Zook, and I knew Ron Guenther was getting an excellent man and football coach. And the program has taken off since then.

"I was definitely interested at that time, and it would have been a dream come true to be the head football coach. We had some conversations. Ron's been super to me. He was very upfront about what was going on at the time in the search process. We had a real good visit. I was real happy he allowed me to be part of that process."

The running back coach works directly with the Steelers' two Illini Carey Davis and Rashard Mendenhall.

"Carey Davis is our starting fullback and is doing really good things for us here. He's been a good player for me for the last year and a half. And a great special teams player as well."

Davis inspired his teammates to defeat the Baltimore Ravens and continue their path to the Super Bowl by knocking out Darren Stone on the opening kickoff.

"Absolutely. It was the first play of the ball game. They kicked off to us, and Carey came and delivered the knockout blow. It set the tone and tempo for the rest of the game. It was a great way to start versus your arch enemy. To beat them three times in one year with him being the guy who gave the first lick was special for all of us. He put him out cold."

Mendenhall fractured his shoulder early in his first NFL season and hasn't played since. But Kirby thinks highly of his potential.

"Rashard's doing an outstanding job. He is a gifted, very natural runner who's got a rare blend of size and speed. It took him some time to get adjusted to the program and how we did things, how we practice and prepare. But he's made great progress.

"He's around quite a bit now. He's got an extremely bright future ahead of him. He's gonna be an impact kind of Pro Bowl player in the years to come. He's doing good things, the guys respect him, and he's a classy young man."

Wilson admits to a role in drafting Rashard.

"In last year's draft, they accused me of showing favoritism toward Rashard. But everyone was in agreement he was the guy we targeted. We felt that he was the most ready running back available in the draft.

"We didn't know if he was there for us in our pick because we thought he was one of the top 10-12 players. There were a lot of nervous people in that draft, keeping our fingers crossed that Dallas wouldn't select him with the pick prior to ours."

Kirby always checks out Illini who might be NFL candidates. His love for his university continues.

"I always pay close to any former Illini who come out, making sure they get special attention in the grading process. I do want to get every player from there the opportunity to be successful and have the chance they all want."

But right now, Kirby Wilson is also getting the chance he wants.

"It's my second Super Bowl. It's a dream come true. I had worked with Mike Tomlin at Tampa Bay. We won a Super Bowl together back in 2002. It's very hard to get to. So to get two Divisional Championships with different conferences is a rare feat. Not many coaches get that opportunity. I'm very blessed to be a part of it."

He is intelligent but humble and unassuming. He must be thrilled to participate in the Super Bowl, but he understates his case.

"Times are good right now."

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