Blackman Staff Found Cupboard Bare Also

When Ron Zook came to Illinois, he was starting almost from scratch. There were some good young players who would eventually lead the Illini to the Rose Bowl, but there were few if any outstanding upperclassmen. Former assistant coach Carl Meyer recalls the day he followed Bob Blackman to Illinois. The cupboard was bare then as well.

Carl Meyer has had a distinguished career. Now the Exectutive Director of Parkland College's Foundation, he was once Associate Athletic Director at the University of Miami when they hired Dennis Erickson as their head football coach. And he was Athletic Director at the University of Cincinnati. Before that, he was an assistant football coach at Dartmouth and the University of Illinois.

He grew up in Findlay, Ohio, and attended the University of Findlay. After six years coaching high school football in Ohio, he joined Bob Blackman's staff at Dartmouth. And he followed Blackman when he was named head coach at Illinois in 1971. He was on the Illini staff for six years.

"I'd been at Dartmouth two football seasons when we came here. I was freshman coach the first year. I ended up coaching the offensive line the last three years. Freshmen became eligible during that time, specifically 1972-1973. After that, we had a Varsity Reserve team."

Dartmouth was a power on the East Coast, and Blackman was a hero in some circles. He figured he could repeat his success at Illinois, but the transition was extremely difficult for all who endured it.

"It was. Actually, the year before in 1970, we only had 42 points scored on us. A lot of shutouts, and offensively we really got after it. So it was really quite a shock."

"We didn't score until the fourth game of the year. But we also played some really strong teams like the University of Washington, North Carolina, and the University of Southern California."

After six straight losses, the Illini put together a string of five straight victories to close out the season and give everyone hope for the future. Even the fans began to enjoy themselves again after four straight difficult seasons in the wake of the Slush Fund.

"They were singing the Rose Bowl song."

Previous coach Jim Valek was well liked, but he had major problems trying to recruit. After all, Illinois was a pariah school in the eyes of the NCAA, and competitors found it easy to steer prospective athletes away from the school. Blackman and his staff were basically starting over from scratch.

"Yes, we did. But we had Mike Wells and Larry McCarren. Those were two excellent football players. You just didn't have enough of them. And if you got somebody hurt, you didn't have the depth."

The Slush Fund was a great recruiting barrier that hung like a lead weight over the entire program, but Meyer and the other coaches tried to make lemonade out of lemons. They did have some selling points in their favor.

"True. As I went out to the different high schools, I tried to not dwell on the negative. You talk constantly about the positive. Blackman's success was a big help. He and Joe Paterno were dominant in the East. They used to get after it. Blackman was a real threat to Eastern supremacy at that time. There wasn't the difference between Ivy Leagues and the other conferences that there are today."

However, the level of athleticism was beginning to increase faster in the Big 10 than the Ivy League, and this created more problems trying to keep up with fellow conference members.

"The Big 10 Conference became more diverse with the people it was recruiting as opposed to the Ivy League. So you had the speed factor."

Schools all over the country were recruiting the Chicago area, Illinois' primary recruiting ground. With Illinois at low ebb, other schools found it easy to take top players away from the home state.

"One of those was Colorado. You could get on an airplane at O'Hare and be in Colorado at Boulder quicker than you could drive from that area down to Champaign. I remember they really had Steve Greene's attention. Of course, he was an outstanding football player. We ended up winning that battle. But Emery Moorehead went there. It would have been nice to have Emery Moorehead here."

Meyer coached at the time of the "big two and little eight." Ohio State and Michigan dominated conference standings nearly every year back then, and Illinois wasn't able to rise up sufficiently to compete with them for top prospects.

"I think it was just getting enough depth to compete with the Ohio States and Michigans. We had a significant winning record against everybody else.

"Blackman was 5-1 against Northwestern, 4-2 or 5-1 against Purdue, and I don't think we ever lost to Indiana. We were 4-2 against Michigan State. Now, against Ohio State and Michigan we were 0-6. I'd say that was the most difficult thing."

On top of all the other problems, Athletic Director Cecil Coleman was hired to install an austerity program to get Illini ledgers back in the black. He cut corners financially at a time some schools were raising their recruiting budgets significantly.

"The AD was constantly concerned about the nickel, and the money would limit how much we could travel and do certain things. We did a lot of driving as opposed to flying because of the budget.

"It was interesting to see the present budget. Illinois is right there with Ohio State. The interesting thing is that Ohio State has twice as many sports as Illinois. If I'm a coach, I'm patting Ron Guenther on the back because he's quite fair."

Carl Meyer discusses the nature of football recruiting in the 1970's and reminisces about his recruiting successes and failures in part 2 of this report.

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