If you are the Illinois football team and you want to beat Michigan State, who do you call? Easy, former Illini coach Mike White. In eight tries against the Spartans, White went 6-1-1. Maybe his finest moment against Michigan State came in his finale, the Illini tying the Rose Bowl-bound Spartans at East Lansing. White's sixth win in a row against Michigan State came in 1985, also at Spartan Stadium:
N-G: How high was beating Michigan State on your priority list?
MW: When you sized up the Big Ten when I got there (in 1980), Michigan and Ohio State were obviously the standards that you set everything by. You were never going to get anywhere without beating Michigan and Ohio State. But past that, I think maybe Michigan State image-wise and tradition-wise was probably the next team. Wisconsin hadn't popped up yet. Iowa was a lot like us. I think Michigan State was the next echelon. We always played well against them.
N-G: Any moments you remember from the series?
MW: It seemed like there was a little bad blood too. I can't remember what caused it. My son Chris (a former Illini kicker) was telling me the other day that we had a little altercation in the tunnel. I think it was up there. In our place, you go in different tunnels. I can't remember even why.
N-G: You spoiled George Perles' Rose Bowl season.
MW: We were a little bit on the ropes and reloading, waiting for Jeff George to get eligible. George is an old friend of mine. That was one of the best game we played in all the years I was there because they were good. Their program was up and coming. They got it done.
N-G: It's been 17 years since Illinois won at East Lansing?
MW: It does. Illinois has had real good success against Ohio State. Even in some of the years when Illinois wasn't on the top of its game, it still gave Ohio State a game or beat them. It does surprise me that it's been since 1989. My Lord.
N-G: Over the last nine games, the Spartans have outscored the Illini 305-134. If you're an Illinois player or a coach, does that get in your head?
MW: I don't know if kids go to that extreme. Obviously, it's a trend. I don't think it's one of those rallying points. I think the near past is more critical. I'd say that last year's game is the rallying point.
N-G: Did you use blowout losses for motivation?
MW: I know the coaching mentality. Once your program is established, which mine was when we beat Iowa bad and they beat us bad. Then, you don't hang your hat on that stuff too much. When you're reloading and rebuilding and you're trying to establish a competitive dominance with any particular team, whether it's your traditional rival or any of the individual Big Ten teams, I think you're more apt to hang your hat on that when you're trying to turn the corner like Ron (Zook) is trying to do. Then, you isolate the battle, the competition. I would be like Ron, I'd hang my hat on anything I could.
N-G: Do you know Coach Zook?
MW: I honestly don't. I've had several of my close friends who have worked around him. They think he has some great qualities and has great enthusiasm. I empathize because I know how hard those first two or three years are.
N-G: How hard it is to turn the program?
MW: That's the toughest thing. The first thing you've got to change is an attitude. You can't blame the players. The players are a product of the recent past. If there is a real depth of confidence within a football team, that's the toughest thing. If he faces what I did that was my toughest sell. The Big Ten is such a unique conference and it's so difficult to play on the road in the Big Ten. Each week, you're trying to figure something that's going to change that attitude. The only proof is winning. To change an attitude sounds like a real easy statement. There are too many components. You've got to make sure each one of those components is headed in the right direction. Any little spark really helped us. We happened to capture the attitude of the fans.
N-G: When did you feel it turn?
MW: The game that changed our career was the Ohio State game (in 1980) when we lost 49-42. We didn't have to talk about it very long because as soon we scored 42 points against Ohio State, all the sudden it's "Hey, maybe these guys know what they're doing."
N-G: How is retirement going the second time around?
MW: When we left St. Louis, that was when I really thought I was retiring. Dick (Vermeil) called it a day. I had no plan. The difference between then and now is that I have a plan. I'm running a summer (football) camp.
N-G: You've got a nice coaching tree going with Brad Childress in charge of the Vikings and Bill Callahan at Nebraska?
MW: The Illinois experience was my most positive coaching experience because we did have enough success and people had fun. We did develop some coaches. In retirement, it's fun to watch them have some success. We went to the USC-Nebraska game. We drove up to the L.A. Coliseum, not something I do very often.