EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: In 2004, with the Illinois football program in disarray, everyone figured the trip to Norhwestern would be Ron Turner's final game. They would be right.
Headline: Waiting for the word
Date: Nov. 20, 2004
By BOB ASMUSSEN
EVANSTON — The mass of cameras and reporters crowding Ron Turner after Saturday's game didn't get an answer about his job status. But there were hints.
'It's never any easy situation,' Turner said. 'Regardless of what happens, I'm awfully proud of these guys.
'I know they're going to be a helluva team in the future.'
Does Turner expect to be part of that future?
'I hope so,' Turner said. 'We'll see.'
After Saturday's 28-21 overtime loss to Northwestern dropped his team to 3-8, Turner admits he is concerned.
'Ron (Guenther) and I will get together in the next couple days and talk,' Turner said. 'We really haven't talked much about it.'
All signs point to a decision early this week, perhaps as soon as Monday.
Since winning the Big Ten title in 2001, the Illini have gone 5-7, 1-11 and 3-8. That's a combined 9-26 record for a coach who was 3-19 his first two seasons.
During the summer, athletic director Guenther said he wanted to see progress and a competitive team.
'We definitely made progress,' Turner said. 'There's no doubt about it. Not enough progress to get the record where we want to get it and to finish games and win. We're a better team now than we were at the start of the year. We're a lot better defensively. We've got a lot of young, good players who are going to be outstanding in the future.
'If they continue to fight, continue to believe, there's good enough athletes on this team to be very good in the future.'
The players are unbending in their support of Turner while admitting they have no control. And that they know little about Turner's status.
'I want Coach Turner back,' Illinois punter Steve Weatherford said. 'I would hate to go into my senior year of football and have a guy I don't know as well as Coach Turner.'
' I think most of the guys would say they want Coach Turner to stay,' linebacker J Leman said. 'He gave us a chance. He brought us here. That's the general consensus on the team.'
Though the players said they want him back, there was no certainty about it from any of them. Their answers were mostly 'Not in my hands' and 'I don't know.'
Turner said his status hasn't been a topic of discussion with the players.
'All we've talked about is trying to find a way to win,' Turner said.
If a change is made, the players will have to read about it in their favorite newspaper or hear about it on the local radio station. After returning home on buses Saturday night, the players were free to leave. They aren't scheduled to return to Champaign-Urbana until next weekend, long after an announcement on Turner is expected.
'I'll kind of keep my ear open for it,' receiver Kendrick Jones said. 'It's not going to be a big deal with me being away. I'm not trying to worry myself with it too much because I don't want to get anxious, jittery or upset.'
Some sort of proclamation will come from Guenther, who has been off limits to the media in recent weeks. Either Guenther will decide to keep Turner and make that known, or he will let him go with two years remaining on his contract.
That deal is for $900,000 a year, plus a $1 million deferred compensation package due at the end of the 2006 season. If Turner is relieved of his duties, the school is obligated to pay the remaining two years of his contract.
Saturday's loss was the fifth thisseason decided by two touchdowns or less. No surprise to Turner thathis team stayed close against the Wildcats.
'These guys prepared to win,' Turner said. 'They came out with enough fight to win. It's disappointing and frustrating, like a lot of games this year, that we didn't get it done. We had a chance to finish, we had chances to get a win.'
Freshman kicker Jason Reda missed a 31-yard field goal in the final seconds that would have given the Illini the win.
'Everything looked good; we just missed it,' Turner said.
For seniors Duke Preston, Bucky Babcock and Matt Sinclair, it was their last college try. They will take a shot at pro football. And hope their old coach is still in C-U when they visit.
'I told Coach Turner, 'Thanks for the opportunity. Thanks for believing in me,' ' Babcock said. 'I want him to know I'm going to be there for him just like he was for me.'
'I hope they come back for the sake of the young guys, for my sake,' Sinclair said. 'Defensively, they set a good foundation as the coaches. Stability and consistency is really important, especially for young players.'
A change would place a burden on the current juniors, who have one season left. That isn't a lot of time to get established with a new staff.
'I can adjust,' said Jones, who led the Illini with 47 catches this season. 'I'm an athlete. It's obviously something that's tough to deal with. We'll see.'