CHAMPAIGN — New Illinois Hall of Famer Simeon Rice pointed to the picture of the mid-1990s linebacker corps the Illini had. And offered a description for each.
“If you see this guy in the middle (Dana Howard), he sets the tone. This is our tone setter. Right here, he’ll knock your block off. Pursuing on every ball. Never gives up. Always in the fight.”
“This guy right here (John Holecek) is the consummate hard-nose player. Has a little bit more range in terms of coverage. This guy can cover tight ends. He gets after you, stays after you and only knows how to play one way.”
“Now this guy (Kevin Hardy) is just different. He can cover the field. This guy can shut down some of your best slot receivers and your tight ends. This guy can be a potential first-round pick. Maybe even the second pick overall. One of the best pass rushing, drop linebackers I’ve even seen.”
“Now, this guy right here (Rice), he can play too a little bit. This guy might be one of the all-time greatest players I have ever seen in my life. Speedster, 4.3 40, 40-inch vert. This guy is straight off a Madden machine.”
“These four guys completely make Linebacker U relevant.”
The problem for the modern-day Illini, who suffered a 42-38 loss to Nebraska on Saturday night, in a game where, for three quarters, Illinois looked like it might prevail? Not enough of those guys that Rice talked about this weekend when he was back in his old stomping grounds.
“Why aren’t (the Illini) like that now? This is a different time, baby,” Rice said. “Sometimes, things are best served in that moment. You have to understand classic moments when they arrive. These are classic moments. Those are some of the greatest players that have ever donned the uniform at the University of Illinois. We have to recognize that when we see it. Those were young guys that were able to come together and have one of the best defenses college football has ever seen.”
Of course, having physical skills like Rice helps. You need to combine that with the right attitude.
“I made a choice my junior year in high school that, ‘I’m never sitting on the bench again,’” Rice said. “That’s who you all were getting. You got a kid here in 1992 with a chip on his shoulder from 1990. I had something to prove. I stayed true to that commitment to myself to becoming better than I was.”
Maybe, the Illinois locker room has the next Rice. It sure could have used him on Saturday night, with Adrian Martinez and the Nebraska offense slicing and dicing their way up the field.
“It has to be within,” Rice said. “It’s not anything that’s from an external standpoint. That’s something when a person inside of himself says, ‘I want to become something’ and you will see it. It registers in performance. It registers in touchdowns and passes and sacks and interceptions. It takes the individual to look at himself in the mirror and say, ‘This is what I want to become. I want to change the tradition.’ Or, ‘I want to get back to the tradition where we once were.’”
Before Illinois squandered an opportunity to start Big Ten play 1-0 on Saturday night, did Rice think the program was moving in the right direction?
“I hope so,” he said. “But we’ll have to see. I don’t like to be a predictor of that. I like to be pleasantly surprised.”
Now living in Arizona, Rice doesn’t see the Illini play often.
“But I always pay attention,” he said. “I know what’s going on. I know they lost to Eastern Michigan last week and that was a setback.”
Just like Saturday night was, too.
Rice finished his Illini playing days in 1995. He entered the season as a Heisman candidate and played well enough to become the third pick in the 1996 NFL draft.
Then, Rice started a long and successful Pro Football Hall of Fame-worthy career.
At the time he left Illinois, Rice figured the program was on solid ground. Destined for years of success.
“We have room to grow this year,” Rice said. “Now is the time to do it. You’re presented every week with a task. You’re confronted every week with a hurdle. That’s the team in front of you. Now is the time to exude your will.”
It can be fixed, Rice said. With the proper mix of talent and determination, obviously.
“You have to be ambitious,” he said. “You allow to think and to feel like you can be the best. Then, you’ve got to work like it. We all had talent. But the thing that set us apart was work ethic.”
Illinois career receiving leader David Williams, a member of the 2019 Hall of Fame class, stays connected to his alma mater.
He serves on the school’s athletic board. And follows the football program closely.
Illinois’ loss to Eastern Michigan did not sit well with Williams. Much like Saturday night’s defeat probably didn’t either.
He turns Hulk angry when his team loses to a Mid-American school like Eastern Michigan.
“I don’t think we should even play those schools,” he said. “Then, when we don’t finish the job, it really upsets me. We should be able to beat those guys.”
Remember, Williams starred on the only team in Big Ten history to sweep all the other conference schools in one season.
The 1983 Big Ten champions went 9-0 in the league en route to a Rose Bowl appearance.
That was the high point for the program in the past four decades. Since then, Illinois has one outright Big Ten title: Ron Turner’s 2001 team.
What’s been the problem? And how do you get fixed?
“We used to get the best players locally,” Williams said. “We used to get the best players in Chicago and Indy and St. Louis. Now those guys are everywhere else, competing against us.”