Cougar Football -- Sliding Illini Have Tradition But Little Else

There might not be a better example of college-football fragility than Illinois.

Despite a rich legacy, the Illini have fallen on hard times, losing 17 straight games going into their season opener tomorrow against Washington State in Pullman (Fox Sports Northwest, 3:30 p.m.).

The school, which has produced 18 first-round NFL draft choices, 15 College Football Hall of Fame inductees and 37 All-Americans (including the Galloping Ghost, Red Grange) has not won a football game since Oct. 5, 1996, when it beat Indiana 46-43.

What happened? No one thing is responsible for the decline, which illustrates the thin line upon which many college programs operate. If it happened at Illinois, couldn't it happen anywhere?

NCAA probation and a loss of scholarships? Not at Illinois.

Poor facilities? Lack of financial resources? Academic shortfalls? Not at Illinois.

Ron Turner, starting his second season as head coach, points to a lack of Division I talent as the biggest problem he discovered when he took over. His evaluation is supported by no Illinois player being on the Big Ten's "watch list" of all-conference candidates.

Loren Tate, who covers Illinois football for the Champaign (Ill.) News-Gazette, said that because of the low level of talent, "we don't even know if Turner can coach yet."

Turner, a former head coach at San Jose State, had been the Chicago Bears' offensive coordinator for four years when he replaced Lou Tepper after the Illini went 2-9 in 1996.

The talent level tailed off during Tepper's regime. One source said he and his staff relied too much on recruiting services and that having four offensive coordinators in four years was a problem.

"It's been one thing after another," Tate said.

Things? The offensive line. Left tackle Ryan Schau, a fifth-year senior, sophomore right tackle Marques Sullivan and sophomore guard Ray Redziniak are the only starters who were recruited as scholarship players out of high school.

"And Sullivan was the only lineman recruited his year," Tate said.

The other O-line starters are walk-ons: seniors J.P. Machado at guard and Tom Schau at center.

Things? The quarterback position. In search of consistency, Turner kept a revolving door moving last season when he started three players, including Mark Hoekstra, who had two turns. In between, Tim Lavery and Kirk Johnson started.

This year, Hoekstra is back as No. 1, Lavery has quit football to concentrate on baseball, and the backup is freshman Kurt Kittner.

Things? Standout quarterback Chris Redman was signed by Illinois, but when the offensive coordinator who recruited him left, Redman asked to be let out of his commitment so he could go to Louisville. Last season, in a 26-14 Louisville victory over Illinois, Redman completed 19 of 28 passes for 324 yards and three touchdowns.

Eric Jefferson, an all-state offensive tackle for four years in Louisiana, was signed by Illinois, arrived on campus and never played a down before leaving school.

Matt Jacobs was an outstanding running back in Evansville, Ind. He was accepted by Illinois as a Proposition 48 enrollee, meaning he couldn't play football until his sophomore year, and then only if he were academically eligible. "He just missed making it," Tate said.

Problems have continued this year.

Steve Willis, expected to start at free safety, committed suicide July 1.

And Connie Moore, a junior-college All-America wide receiver regarded as Turner's most prized recruit, was dismissed from the team the day after he caught five passes in a scrimmage performance regarded as exceptional. Turner has declined to specify what Moore did.

In addition to the personnel problems, Turner has to deal with an overall loss of confidence. This week he illustrated how that contributed to a 35-22 loss to Washington State last year, after the teams had battled to a 14-14 tie after three quarters.

"I think our confidence level was very high going into the fourth quarter," Turner said.

But after surviving one turnover, the Illini failed to do it a second time.

"We had a first-down-and-five at the 50, and we threw an interception," Turner said. "Then we held them.

"Then we had a third-and-one, and we ran a quarterback sneak, made it and fumbled the ball and gave it to them on the 45, and they go down and score."

WSU Coach Mike Price said he understands what Illinois is going through. At the same time, he realizes the start of a new season is reason enough for the Illini to forget the past.

"I think as the season goes on and you don't win any games, the players get discouraged, and it makes it tougher to continue to focus," Price said. "But this is the first game of the year, so last year doesn't mean anything to either team."


-- Ing Aleaga, a freshman defensive tackle from Hawaii, will not play against Illinois because he has not qualified academically under NCAA guidelines, Price said.