When the train gets off the track, it’s a major undertaking to put it back on the rails.
No one said it better this week than coach Danny Hope. With rumors circulating that he might be on his last legs at Purdue, and with former Boilermaker staffer Brock Spack drawing interest with 8-2 Illinois State, Hope said:
“You lose and you lose ugly, and then the fans turn on you ... and then doubt creeps in ... and maybe a guy doesn’t play as well, and then a few guys get injured, and pretty soon ...”
You know the rest. You’re watching it at the UI. Insiders say this is the worst rash of Illini injuries in years, with ace linebacker Jonathan Brown sidelined again, safeties Supo Sanni and Steve Hull in and out, Terry Hawthorne just returning to form and Nathan Scheelhaase missing time earlier. On top of that, touted defensive end Michael Buchanan has 2.5 sacks in nine games, and the special teams spring a leak almost every game.
The Illini have lost 11 consecutive Big Ten games and rumors abound: Can first-year coach Tim Beckman turn it? Are there tensions within the staff and is a shakeup in the works? Has the pileup of disappointments and injuries caused the team to lose confidence? Can they stop the skid before it reaches 14 at the end of the season? And, oh, my, what about next year?
Addressing the importance of breaking the spell, Beckman said: “We want to win for the team, for our seniors, for the dads (Saturday’s 2:30 game against Minnesota is Dad’s Day), for Illini Nation. We need it. It’s huge.”
Jerry Kill’s Gophers arrive with the knowledge that past Minnesota teams have won three straight here and nine of 12 in the series, and with the incentive of attaining bowl eligibility by the time they leave.
Offensively, the Gophers have replaced versatile senior MarQueis Gray (he’s now a receiver) with throw-first rookie QB Phil Nelson. Defensively, the Gopher plan will be simple: stop the run and force the Illini into an aerial game with which they don’t appear comfortable.
Been there, done that
Looking on from Tampa Bay, Fla., former Illini coach Ron Turner recognizes a familiar story. He started 0-11 here in 1997, won a Big Ten championship in 2001 and finished his eight-year run in a 4-19 tailspin.
“Losing is obviously tough on everybody, and it’s hard to generate confidence within the team,” said Turner, now receivers coach for the Buccaneers. “I’m not telling Beckman what to do, but in these situations you have to stay the course with what you believe in. Everyone has core values and, while you may tweak some things, you have to stay with those values. And it’s important that the staff sell the same as the coach, exactly the same.
“The players are going to hear the mumblings and grumblings. There’s nothing you can do about that. You simply work through it. When you win, it will change.”
Turner offers his personal analysis of UI problems over the years.
“To be successful, it is critical to recruit the top players from the Chicago area,” Turner said. “That’s hard because so many people have the same idea. We worked it hard and made progress at one point.”
In 2001, when four-year QB Kurt Kittner was running the show, the Illini featured numerous long-term NFL standouts Brandon Lloyd, David Diehl, Tony Pashos, Brandon Moore and Eugene Wilson, not to mention standouts Luke Butkus, Jerry Schumacher, Walter Young, Rocky Harvey and Antoineo Harris.
“This group had great leadership and innate toughness,” Turner said. “But after we won, we encountered a couple of years in which several recruits, some of whom were rated very high, didn’t pan out for one reason or another. After we lost Kurt and Luke and Tony, we tried to cultivate that toughness, but it wasn’t there.
“I thought we had it coming again with our young classes before we left, the 2003 class with J Leman and others (Pierre Thomas, Chris Norwell, Martin O’Donnell, etc.) in that group.”
It took more years to develop, but key Turner recruits from 2003-04 and some like Rashard Mendenhall, who orally committed before Ron Zook arrived, participated with the Rose Bowl team that upset No. 1 Ohio State in 2007.
— Turner holds a family get-together almost every week. Tampa Bay beat Minnesota 36-17 on Oct. 25 with his son, Cameron Turner, on the Vikings’ staff. On Sunday, the Bucs meet San Diego, whose head coach is Ron’s brother, Norv Turner. And Tampa Bay’s Nov. 18 game against Carolina finds Norv’s son, Scott Turner, on the Carolina staff.
— In discussing Lloyd, Turner said he “tried hard to get him” when the veteran receiver went to New England, where he has 47 catches for 435 yards this season. Turner calls Lloyd “the best at adjusting and catching the deep pass.”
— Back to Hope. Sagging attendance, particularly fans not using tickets they bought, warns of a coach in trouble. Published five-game numbers from Purdue, discounting a storm-impacted date against Eastern Kentucky, show an announced average of 44,392 and a scanned attendance of just over 30,000. That means one-third of the people buying tickets aren’t attending, and Illinois numbers probably would be similar.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.