There was a veil of blueness covering the Illini football scene in December of 1970. The dominant UI color was blue and the prevailing attitude, in the wake of a three-year Big Ten record of 2-19, was the same.
That's when Bob Blackman arrived with his vision of a "sea of orange."
Bright orange sweaters, orange sports coats (uugh!), orange headwear, orange shoes (please!) and orange football uniforms so resembling Syracuse that you almost expected Jim Brown or Floyd Little to come rumbling out of the locker room.
People who recall the era still talk about the cross-field lateral from Lonnie Perrin to George Uremovich that resulted in a 98-yard kickoff return vs. Indiana in 1972 ... or the 21-15 loss to Michigan in 1975 when Joe Smalzer's apparent TD reception was rightly or wrongly ruled out of bounds.
Blackman, who died Friday at 81, was creative, a man with ideas.
He possessed a master plan. His innovative offense had carried Dartmouth through three perfect seasons, beating out perennial Lambert Trophy winner Penn State for the top Eastern award in 1970. In three decades, no Ivy League team has finished as high (No. 14) in the polls. It was the culmination of a career that began at USC where he was afflicted by polio as a freshman and returned a year later to help Howard Jones as a freshman coach.
"He and Lou McCullough (Ohio State assistant) were our candidates to replace Jim Valek," recalled Gene Vance, then athletic director. "Ray Eliot had known Blackman for years and recommended that we consider him. When we saw Dartmouth game film, we were extremely impressed."
So near but so far
It was a six-year tenure that almost, but not quite, came off.
Without the kind of academic oversight now available, Blackman was stunned one autumn by classroom shortfalls. Without quality facilities and a full-time weight training coach, the Illini trailed in the strength sector. An injury to linebacking great John Sullivan rocked the 1976 club.
Blackman lived for the day he would defeat Michigan and Ohio State (which he never did) and to reach his beloved Rose Bowl, where he played as a youth. He pushed for things that would make Illinois competitive, an effort that ultimately put him sideways with Vance's successor, Cecil Coleman.
Coleman arrived from Wichita State as an all-business executive in July 1972 with orders to cut, shave and do whatever was necessary to balance the budget. Corporate fund raising was in the embryo stage.
"Bob had a vision for what was needed but it was a time when Illinois was behind in terms of resources," said UI athletic director Ron Guenther.
"I had a strong feeling for the job he did under the circumstances. He was ahead of his time."
Big Two and Little Eight
Critics say Blackman couldn't make the transition from the Ivy League, that he had lost touch with the youth of the day. But then, it was the era of the "Big Two and the Little Eight" and, if Blackman was 0-12 vs. OSU and Michigan, he was an acceptable 24-11-1 against the rest of the Big Ten.
Steve Greene, an Evanston fullback who was in Blackman's first recruiting class, recalls with chagrin the near-miss disappointments of the 1970s.
"I'm always bothered by the fact that fans tend to lump him into an era with Jim Valek (before) and Gary Moeller (after)," said Greene, now an Illini fund-raiser in Chicago.
"Blackman had a lot of great ideas. He brought the 4-4 pro defense to the Big Ten. Offensively, he ran multiple sets with motion, and three wide-outs with crossing and flood routes. There was a lot to his offense.
"His best team became our biggest disappointment in 1973. We were 4-0 in the Big Ten and lost the last four."
After tough losses to OSU and Michigan, the UI outgained Minnesota 440-83 and led 16-6 with 4:30 left, only to fumble it away 19-16. Finishing 5-6, the Illini came back to 6-4-1 in 1974, but consecutive 5-6 seasons put Coleman on a mission to seek a new coach.
Blackman was discarded but his orange motif lives on. Coleman got the man he wanted, Moeller, and they were both gone after a three-year 6-24-3 showing. Compared to the coaches who preceded and followed him, Blackman didn't do badly at all.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.