From his home in Newport Beach, Calif., former Illinois coach Mike White watches and remembers the good old days. A transplanted Californian, White took over before the 1980 season and led the Illini on a whirlwind rebuilding overhaul, guiding Illinois to its first bowl trip in 19 seasons in 1982 and its first Rose Bowl berth in 20 years after the 1983 season. But White's regime ended before the decade did, another episode of Illinois football's rise and fall.
From his home in Newport Beach, Calif., former Illinois coach Mike White watches and remembers the good old days.
A transplanted Californian, White took over before the 1980 season and led the Illini on a whirlwind rebuilding overhaul, guiding Illinois to its first bowl trip in 19 seasons in 1982 and its first Rose Bowl berth in 20 years after the 1983 season.
"Those were the most fulfilling days of my life,'' White said.
But White's regime ended before the decade did, another episode of Illinois football's rise and fall.
Only two Illinois coaches – White and John Mackovic – have had winning records in the last 50 years. White was banished following a recruiting investigation. Mackovic, who followed White and benefited from the players already on board, left for a better job at Texas.
Winning comes down to players, White said.
"Certain schools have trouble getting the quality blue-chip players consistently,'' White said. "They get a few here and there but not consistently. When the cupboard gets a little bare or you have some injuries or someone doesn't live up to his billing, then they suffer.''
Illinois hasn't posted back-to-back winning seasons since the 1989 and 1990 seasons, when Mackovic was in charge. The Illini haven't had back-to-back bowl trips since 1991 and 1992. The Illini finish another bad season by hosting Fresno State in a non-conference game Saturday, leaving the key question – Why is it so hard to win at Illinois? – stil unanswered.
"As I look at all the Big Ten schools, there's no reason Illinois can't be a very good football school,'' said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, the former Indiana coach. "They've done it in the past.''
In trying to build a winning program in the Big Ten, there are several key factors the Illini haven’t been able to consistently manage.
Considered a sleeping giant because of its proximity and state ties to Chicago, Illinois is also "misjudged,'' White said. Illinois doesn't have the tradition to "own'' Chicago. That recruiting hotbed is already cut up into small pieces, and Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue regularly mine the talent. Others also make recruiting raids for top players, such as Proviso West wide receiver Kyle Prater, who recently committed to USC. Without a consistent winner, the Illini will never shove the outsiders out.
Combine that with a limited amount of talent elsewhere in the state, White said, and Illinois is a tougher recruiting spot than expected.
"One of the things misjudged about Illinois, I don't know if there is a base,'' White said. "I wanted to come in there and win. I'd say, 'Where do I get my players?' I found out so damn fast.''
White went early with California junior college talent, including quarterbacks Dave Wilson and Tony Eason. After getting off the ground, he shifted more to the Midwest but started heading to the Southeast. When he left, White's team had stars from Indiana, such as quarterback Jeff George and defensive lineman Moe Gardner.
"They said, '(White) was just a Californian,’ '' White said. "All I wanted was to get guys to win football games. It was a constant, constant battle.''
The Big 3
The addition of Penn State added another powerhouse football program, so winning the Big Ten title meant climbing past Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Since the Nittany Lions joined the league before the 1993 season, one of the Big 3 has won the conference outright or earned a share of the championship in every season except 2001, 1999 and 1995.
Illinois has the parts to contend for best of the rest, if it maximizes its resources such as recruiting better in Chicago and getting the bulk of the Division I-caliber players in the state.
"Not everybody can be fourth if they maximize their resources,'' DiNardo said. "Illinois can be fourth. The team that's maximizing might not always be winning, but they're set up to win more than others.''
It's easier to succeed if the staff stays intact. Illinois kept retooling under coach Ron Zook.
According to a report by the USA Today, Illinois ranked 37th nationally in assistant coaching salaries among numbers available. The Illini were fifth in the Big Ten, although salaries for Penn State and Northwestern weren't available.
After twice changing defensive coordinators in the first two seasons (the Illini fired Mike Mallory and Vince Okruch), Zook went with co-defensive coordinators Dan Disch and Curt Mallory. On offense, Illinois lost coordinator Mike Locksley, who left after last season to take the head coaching job at New Mexico. Not only did Locksley lead the offense, he was the chief recruiter in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area, one of Illinois' most fertile recruiting grounds. The area has produced wide receiver Arrelious Benn and cornerback Vontae Davis, two of the Illini’s best players in recent years.
"Having a different defensive coordinator almost every year over the last four years is difficult,'' DiNardo said. "It looked like they changed philosophy on offense from '07 to '08 and tried to get it back in '09. Locksley had been there from the beginning. He recruited a lot of those players and had significant relationships with them. He was a good play-caller and coach.''
Instead of building from the ground up by scheduling down in non-conference play, Illinois goes the other way. The Illini have experience playing non-conference games with the Pac-10, and they play Arizona State and Washington within the next five years. The series with Missouri apparently has one only more year left, although there's an option for more.
More importantly, Illinois had only six home games in each of the past two seasons. Some schools, such as Michigan and Penn State, played eight home games.
"You never hear me complain about the schedule,'' Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "We just have to go play it. The thing we're trying to do is get seven or eight home games in this stadium.''
That would be the first step in improving the football program, but it’s far from the last.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.
Illinois (3-8) vs. Fresno State (7-4)
When: 11:30 a.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium (62,870), Champaign
Series record: First meeting
Radio: Illini Sports Network
TV: Big Ten Network
Coaches: Ron Zook, 21-38 in fifth year at Illinois, 44-52 in eighth year overall; Pat Hill, 99-65 in his 13th year at Fresno State and overall.
NCAA rankings: Illinois offense -- rushing 25th, 188.5; passing 90th, 190.9; scoring 97th, 21.6; total 61st, 379.4. Illinois defense -- rushing 68th, 147.3; passing 107th, 254.8; scoring 84th, 28.1; total 93rd, 402.1. Fresno State offense -- rushing 7th, 231.4; passing 76th, 206.3; scoring 19th, 32.6; total 19th, 437.7. Fresno State defense -- rushing 108th, 201.6; passing 34th, 197.6; scoring 62nd, 25.6; total 90th, 399.2.
Notable: The first regular-season game in December for the Illini is also Senior Day. . . Illinois quarterback Juice Williams stands sixth in the Big Ten and first in Illinois history with 10,327 career total yards. . . Fresno State running back Ryan Matthews leads the nation in rushing, averaging 149.1 yards. . . Fresno State won four of its last seven games against teams from BCS conference. The Bulldogs dropped a 34-31 double-overtime loss at Wisconsin and 28-20 loss at Cincinnati earlier this season. . .
Quotable: "Their motto is anyplace, anywhere, any time. That's what they made famous. They didn't care where. They went to big schools, little schools. These guys won't care about cold weather. They're going to come here ready to play.'' – Illinois coach Ron Zook.
Prediction: Fresno State 28, Illinois 17