Ron Turner has taken the Illini to their best record since 1990 in only his third season as head coach.
Nov. 21, 1999
By RICK GANO
AP Sports Writer
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Ron Turner left his job as offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears to sign a five-year contract and face a tough assignment: rebuild a program at Illinois and do it as soon as possible.
So far, the progress has been quick.
In two years, the Illini have gone from 0-11 in Turner's first season, to 3-8 and now to 7-4, earning the school's first bowl appearance in five years.
"I don't know if we're ahead of schedule because we didn't have a schedule," Turner said. "There was no timetable."
But a winless season increased the urgency, compounded the misery of the program, left many empty seats and increased the cynicism among alumni and outsiders.
Still, Turner was convinced he could meet the challenge.
He recruited hard, changed attitudes and put in a pro-like offense. And finally, with the players to run it, he's gotten things turned around.
"A lot of students at the school were like, `If you don't win half your games, he's out,' " said freshman receiver Brandon Lloyd, one of the stars of Saturday's 29-7 win over Northwestern that will put the Illini in a bowl.
"We came out and fought for coach Turner because coach Turner deserves this."
Turner won over his players and convinced the seniors left over from the Lou Tepper regime that they could play a major role in helping his young recruits create a winning atmosphere.
"A lot of people doubted me, a lot of people doubted the players," Turner said. "I understand if you're not winning, people are going to doubt you and second guess you. But the people in this program kept believing and nobody ever looked to jump ship."
Turner often changed quarterbacks during his first two seasons but finally decided on one and stuck with him. The move has made a difference. Sophomore Kurt Kittner has been a major reason the Illini are headed for one more game in December.
Behind Kittner, who wasn't sharp Saturday because of a sore shoulder, the Illini scored 325 points and had the school's best season since 8-4 in 1990. Interest picked up, as well, witnessed by crowds of more than 50,000 for Northwestern and Penn State.
Although he didn't get one Saturday, Kittner threw 22 touchdown passes, tying Jeff George for the school single-season record. And through the first 10 games, he had only two interceptions, the same number he tossed Saturday.
Kittner's ability to throw to numerous receivers like Lloyd and Michael Dean and a running attack led by Steve Havard and Rocky Harvey made the Illini an exciting team, one that overcame a tough overtime loss at Indiana and one-sided setbacks to Minnesota and Penn State.
The Illini won at Ohio State and Michigan, the first time they had ever beaten both Big Ten powers on the road in the same season.
Now, as Kittner predicted to his mother a year ago, the Illini won't be home for the holidays.
Their most likely game is the Dec. 30 Micronpc.com Bowl in Miami, matching the No. 6 team in the Big Ten against the No. 4 team from the Atlantic Coast Conference. Official bids won't come until BCS pairings are announced Dec. 5.
The Motor City Bowl, played in suburban Detroit, scouted Saturday's game, one that featured two Havard touchdown runs and two big plays by Lloyd, a punt return and long reception, that set up two scores.
"Not to disrespect the Motor City people, but we would like to go somewhere warm," fifth-year senior linebacker Eric Guenther said. "We've been in the cold for the last three years."
"We're going somewhere," Turner said. "With a 7-4 record, we have opened up more options. What they are, I have no idea. But we took control of what we could."