CHAMPAIGN – Here we are in the era of celebrations ... hanging jerseys ... reviving uniforms ... honoring Illini stars of the past.
And Saturday will be special in many ways at Memorial Stadium. Even with 10 former stars deceased, and numerous others still engaged athletically, more than half of the 80 players named to the all-time football team will be present for the aptly named Renaissance. Imagine the memories that will come alive when Dick Butkus is recognized, along with such old-timers as Johnny Karras, Rich Kreitling, Doug Dieken and Ed O'Bradovich, and those of a more recent vintage like Jeff George, Robert Holcombe and a fresh Super Bowl champion with a day off, David Diehl.
These 80 alumni will be honored during eight timeouts in the 11 a.m. home opener with Eastern Illinois.
It's unfair to limit the selections to 80. That's less than one player per year. But how about a 22-man first team? That's REALLY tough. And that's my assignment today.
In tackling this task, there'll be no attempt to evaluate players in the Red Grange era. Of course, Grange should head up any all-time team. But, as was the case in choosing my basketball all-timers, I don't feel comfortable trying to evaluate other stars like Chuck Carney, Butch Nowak and Bernie Shively, whose performances in that distant past are as ghostly as those of Grange. So we'll start in the post-World War II period, during which I have at least seen all these players in multiple performances.
QUARTERBACK: Jeff George. It boils down to George vs. Tony Eason. Eason backers have a strong case for the only Illini QB to be named All-Big Ten more than once. He had better statistics than George in one fewer game, showing 7,031 yards and 38 TDS in 1981-82 compared with George's 5,189 yards and 31 TDs. But Eason's teams went 14-9 and he was intercepted four times in his only bowl game, a 21-15 loss to Alabama. George was uncommonly good under pressure, beat Ohio State twice, sparked a 14-13 win against USC and capped a 10-2 season in 1989 when he was named Player of the Game in the 31-21 Citrus Bowl win against Virginia. Then he went No. 1 in the NFL draft.
FULLBACK: Jim Grabowski. Grabo was No. 3 in 1965 Heisman voting and a consensus All-American. He rattled off 2,878 career yards and gained 125 yards to help defeat Washington 17-7 in the UI's last Rose Bowl victory.
HALFBACKS: J.C. Caroline and Rashard Mendenhall. As a sophomore in 1953, Caroline should have won the Heisman Trophy as he led the country in rushing (1,256 yards in a 7-1-1 season). Robert Holcombe had three 1,000-yard seasons in the 1990s and was a steady, hard-hitting workhorse ... but his last 17 games were losses. Antoineo Harris rattled off 1,330 yards in 2002, but no UI halfback had a more spectacular season than Caroline until Mendenhall exploded as Big Ten offensive MVP with 1,681 yards in last season's 9-4 campaign.
TIGHT END: Doug Dieken. Tim Brewster, an elusive receiver in Mike White's offense, had 116 catches in 1982-83. But if you like your tight ends rough and rugged, Dieken is the guy. Before embarking on a long NFL career as a tackle, Dieken led Illinois in receiving all three years with 21, 29 and 39 receptions before passing became truly popular. He was the UI's two-time MVP, a co-captain and, in 1970, was named first-team All-Big Ten, an honor Brewster did not receive.
WIDE RECEIVERS: David Williams and Brandon Lloyd. Williams had school records of 3,392 yards and 24 TDs in 1983-84-85. Lloyd joined Walter Young, Greg Lewis and Aaron Moorehead to comprise the best-ever UI receiving corps, and he left a year early with two 1,000-yard seasons and 21 TDs. Apologies to personal favorites John Wright Sr. and Mike Martin, both worthy.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Center Larry McCarren, guards Alex Agase and Tim Simpson, tackles Brad Hopkins and Jim Juriga. McCarren was a two-time captain and 1972 all-league pick prior to his long career in Green Bay. A two-way standout, Agase made All-American at Purdue (during the war) and Illinois, earning Big Ten MVP honors as leader of the 1946 champions. He was named to the Walter Camp All-Century team in 1989. Simpson started four full seasons, was an exceptional run blocker and was named an All-Big Ten pick in 1991. Simpson and Hopkins helped Howard Griffith rush for 1,115 yards in 1990, and Hopkins emerged as all-league in 1992. He was the 13th pick in the NFL draft and, at one time during his 13-year career, was the highest-paid offensive lineman. It had been my intention to insert a long-overlooked Illini, Chuck Ulrich, at the other tackle slot, but Juriga has too many credentials. Highly mobile as linemen go, Juriga was a three-time All-Big Ten first-teamer and received second-team All-America honors in 1983.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Simeon Rice, Moe Gardner and Joe Rutgens. The reduction to three linemen allows for more linebackers where the talent is dramatically better. These three earned multiyear conference honors at Illinois, and Rutgens and Rice were the third picks in the NFL's first round. Gardner, voted the Big Ten's top lineman in 1989, joined Butkus, Grabowski, Williams and Dana Howard as the UI's only unanimous All-Americans since Grange. Rice, a three-time All-Big Ten choice, had 69 behind-the-line tackles, and Gardner is second with 57. How could Don Thorp, Big Ten MVP in 1983, be left off? You got me there.
SECONDARY: Al Brosky, Craig Swoope and Eugene Wilson. Again, only three. A roving safety, Brosky had 30 interceptions in 28 games, including pickoffs in 16 consecutive games, both NCAA records after more than a half-century of challenges. Wilson led the NCAA in pass breakups with 30 in 2001 and is the runaway Illini leader with 60 in a four-year career. Swoope was All-Big Ten during the Rose Bowl run in 1983, and he was a second-team All-America pick by UPI, AP and The Sporting News. That earns him a nervous nod over the only three Illini defensive backs ever deemed worthy of being chosen in the NFL's first round: Stan Wallace (1954), George Donnelly (1965) and Henry Jones (1991).
LINEBACKER: Butkus, Bill Burrell, Darrick Brownlow and Butkus Award winners Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy. No other position has produced such Illini quality. Burrell was the premier UI linebacker up to his time, finishing No. 4 in 1959 Heisman voting. Butkus was a two-time All-American, came in No. 3 in the Heisman and is regarded the best college linebacker, whereas Howard and Hardy were deemed the nation's top linebackers in their senior seasons of 1994 and 1995. Howard was twice honored as the Big Ten's top defensive player. Brownlow joined Gardner on three All-Big Ten teams in 1988-89-90. Falling into the overlooked category, due to this talent, are All-Big Ten first-teamers Chuck Boerio, Don Hansen, Tom Hicks, John Sullivan, Scott Studwell, John Holecek and J Leman.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.