Tate: Patience needed with UI football

Tate: Patience needed with UI football

  That light shining at the end of the Illini basketball tunnel doesn''t necessarily reflect into the football venue.

   Such is the nature of the twin beasts.

   Lon Kruger took on basketball chores that, with some skill and inspiration, are reasonably attainable. He kept everyone from last year''s NIT squad except four-year regular Richard Keene and transfers Ryan Blackwell and Brett Robisch, the main forces on that club creating a 11-1 record before faltering in the Big Ten race.

   Kruger was presented with a recruiting challenge that could be in great part resolved by one major strike  in Peoria  and that was accomplished. With Sergio McClain and Marcus Griffin plugged into the future, the Illini program has a foundation of long-range optimism regardless of what happens in the upcoming Big Ten season.

   Ron Turner, by contrast, inherits a football team that finished 2-9, that must locate an effective quarterback and some toughness in the trenches, and is passing the halfway point in the recruiting season with most of the quality prospects long gone.

   The people who know best about these things told you so ... the elite college head coaches.

   In basketball, there was all kinds of high-level interest in the Illinois job. When Illini athletic direction Ron Guenther entered the hiring process, he could almost certainly have enticed Utah''s Rick Majerus (ranked No. 8) or Ben Braun (former Eastern Michigan coach now at California). Tom Penders of Texas was intrigued. Tulane''s Perry Clark sat down for an extensive interview. And Guenther was just a year off for one of his favorites, Tubby Smith, who left Tulsa for Georgia.

   Even Mike Krzyzewski, supposedly unattainable, asked Guenther to wait (Guenther declined) while he negotiated his latest contract with Duke. Coach K was saying, "If this doesn''t work out here, I''d like to talk."

   And what they were saying as a group, was, "Man, that''s a heck of a job and I''m interested." Guenther was overjoyed to land Kruger, who offered exactly the qualities he wanted and who had been at the top of his list since taking Florida to the Final Four two years earlier.

Football coaches see difficulty

   Guenther''s football list, by contrast, was minuscule. From his initial inquiries into Mack Brown of North Carolina and the superstars of that stripe, Guenther got the "No-way, brother!" reaction. These coaches know their geography, understand the burnt-in pecking order of the Big Ten, and recognize the difficulties of lifting Illinois into the league''s first division.

   As a matter of fact, John Mackovic, who had as close to first-hand knowledge of the situation as it''s possible to get, sent exactly that message when he departed for Texas after losing four of his last six Illini games to Iowa, Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State. For all his success against Ohio State, which he surely couldn''t have sustained over the long haul, Mackovic came face-to-face with the fact that football at Illinois is a mean pull.

   So it''s important to retain a patient perspective about Illini football entering the New Year.

   Not that you shouldn''t be excited. Turner is a solid choice, the right choice. Of those names that popped up on the screen of possibles  Glen Mason, Bill Snyder, Steve Logan, Walt Harris  he set off the hottest vibes, caused the loudest ringing of the bells.

Turner will need time

   However, Turner''s "connections" in Chicago and in California will need time ... perhaps years. And he''ll be giving the UI offense its fifth revamping in seven years, overhauling an aerial attack that completed exactly three passes in the next-to-last game against Minnesota in the Metrodome. He''ll have to discover whether lefty Tim Lavery is the right quarterback, whether Elmer Hickman can step up at fullback, who can replace Jason Dulick and Ty Douthard as "go to" receivers, whether Mike McGee should be a defensive tackle or a tight end, and so on.

   And there''s the defensive side. Are there JC linemen available to slow the runaway efforts of Wisconsin''s Ron Dayne, Ohio State''s Pepe Pearson and Penn State''s Curtis Enis? Is there hope for the UI secondary?

   What we''re talking about here is major reconstruction of a program that had the bottom drop out, a far more difficult assignment than what is facing Kruger on the cage front. Turner won''t have to remind his players that they need to have an underdog perspective.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports


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