Former Illini great J.C. Caroline dies

Former Illini great J.C. Caroline dies

Former Illini football star J.C. Caroline, the man Illinois legend Ray Eliot called “ the best all-around athlete I ever had in 26 years of coaching” died Friday at Carle Foundation Hospital. He was 84.

Caroline led the nation in rushing in 1953, gaining 1,256 yards in just nine games. He played two seasons at Illinois, and stands 22nd on the school’s career rushing chart (1,696 yards).

“J.C. was certainly one of the all-time great football players in Illinois history,” UI spokesman Kent Brown said Friday.

“He was no doubt on the Mount Rushmore of Illinois running backs, up there with (Red) Grange and (Jim) Grabowski,” Brown said. “He also touched a lot of lives in Urbana as a high school coach and teacher. He put a stamp on our community in a lot of different ways.”

One of Caroline’s most memorable performances was in Columbus when he ran for 192 yards in the Illini’s 41-20 win against Ohio State in 1953.

After college, Caroline played in the Canadian Football League before a 10-year career with the Chicago Bears.

In 1980, Caroline was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. The ceremony was held in New York. Champaign’s Charlie Finn, who was a student manager during Caroline’s career, attended the event.

“I was there,” Finn said.

During Tim Beckman’s coaching tenure, Finn took Beckman’s dad, Dave, to meet the Illini legend.

“We had a great conversation,” Finn said. “I would bring up the subject of a game and we would reminisce. We really had a great time.

“When I left, he hugged me and he said ‘I love you, man.’”

Finn recalled Caroline’s modesty

“He never talked about himself,” Finn said.

Finn puts Caroline in a special class.

“As far as I’m concerned, he was the greatest running back of all time, up there with Red Grange,” Finn said. “The great thing about it he was such a great person. He cared about people and he had a big heart.”

Caroline came to Illinois from Columbia, S.C. After sitting out as a freshman, he burst onto the scene during his historic sophomore season.

The Illini shared the Big Ten title and finished seventh in the national rankings with a 7-1-1 record. The only loss came at Wisconsin. The Illini beat ranked Ohio State and Michigan that season.

Caroline finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting, one of seven Illini to make the top 10 in history. 

Notre Dame’s John Lattner won, with Wisconsin’s Paul Giel second and Wisconsin’s Alan Ameche sixth.

“To be a consensus All-American when you’re a sophomore is incredible,” Finn said. “He never quit. He played when he was hurt. He was a great competitor.”

Caroline came back to lead the 1954 team in rushing.