From Lincoln to Champaign and Back Again
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

From Lincoln to Champaign and Back Again

September 20, 2019

Where to begin? 

Oops, let me start over. I was taught never to begin a story with a question, or a quote, or “I” or “the.” But I’m going to have to violate that.   

The Illinois football team played six home games in 1971, and I watched them all. I was a season-ticket holder, having moved to Champaign-Urbana to teach composition and introductory literature at Parkland Community College.

I’d been a season-ticket holder as a grad student at Nebraska the previous season, also going to a couple of away games to watch the Huskers on what would be a national-championship run, Nebraska’s first. Bob Devaney’s 1971 team, arguably the best collegiate team of all-time, won a second.

What a difference a year made for me. 

As I said, I was an Illinois season-ticket holder in 1971. The team was Bob Blackman’s first as head coach. Blackman had come from Dartmouth, where his teams were an Ivy League power. Illinois lost its first six games then won the last five. The Illini were 3-3 at home. 

Though optimism about 1972 was high because of the five-game winning streak, I didn’t renew the season tickets. The 1972 team lost its first seven games and finished 3-8. 

Illinois had one winning season under Blackman. The Illini were 6-4-1 in 1974.

His final season at Illinois was 1976. I was writing part-time for the Champaign-Urbana Courier by then, so I was again at all six home games, this time in the pressbox. My assignment was covering the visiting team’s locker room, which I also did the next season, Gary Moeller’s first of three at Illinois.

Moeller had been an assistant to Bo Schembechler at Michigan.

The visitors’ locker room meant post-game interviews with coaches such as Schembechler and Ohio State’s Woody Hayes, who pulled a large chalkboard in front of the locker area so his players would be inaccessible. Hayes did all the talking following a 35-0 victory.

He had led Ohio State fans who made the trip from Columbus in a cheer after leading his players onto the field. The “doggone” cheerleaders had yet to arrive, he explained.

Hayes had a saying about passing. Three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad. The Buckeyes ran almost exclusively that afternoon, rushing for just over 400 yards.

Hayes slammed his headset on the artificial turf just before halftime because a Buckeye called a timeout when he shouldn’t have. Otherwise, Hayes was fairly reserved—for him, anyway.

Oh yes, Moeller’s first Illinois team went 3-8.

His second season, the Illini were 1-8-2. And I was no longer teaching but rather writing about Tom Osborne and Nebraska for the Lincoln Journal and Star.

But enough of reminiscing. Fast forward to this season—finally, you say—Illinois, like Nebraska, is 2-1. And like the Huskers, Illinois is coming off a 4-8 record last season. The difference is, there’s a justified optimism about Nebraska’s future under Scott Frost, while the Illini’s future under Lovie Smith? Looked at from afar, as Bill Callahan might’ve said, it’s not particularly bright.

The belief in the 1970s, as I remember, was that Illinois was located in a prime recruiting location, about midway between the Chicago and St. Louis areas. 

Yet the talent level wasn’t where it needed to be. And when Illinois did have success under Mike White in the 1980s, it also had the NCAA investigating recruiting violations, which led to probation and eventually White’s resignation with two years remaining on his contract.

In eight seasons, White’s record was 47-41-3, with five consecutive winning records, including 10-2, a Big Ten championship and trip to the Rose Bowl in 1983.

John Mackovic had some success at Illinois but bailed after four seasons to go to Texas. Lou Tepper got the Illini to the Sugar Bowl with a 10-2 record, and Ron Zook took them to the Rose Bowl once. But such success has been rare, considerably more so than Nebraska’s post Devaney and Osborne.

If the Huskers are focused Saturday, not looking ahead to Ohio State next week, they’ll win, as they have five of the six times the teams have played as Big Ten rivals, or simply members if you’d rather. That one loss, in 2015, was a shocker, 14-13 at Champaign. Bill Cubit was interim head coach.

You might be confused because this column probably focuses as much on Woody Hayes as it does on Illinois. But I found Hayes more interesting than the Illini back then, though his observation about passing doesn’t hold in today’s game. And it certainly won’t hold on Saturday.

Given the time, of course, Adrian Martinez will present a serious problem for the Illini secondary, even though it has allowed only three touchdown passes. That’s my prediction anyway. 

Martinez will have the one good thing in three about passing.

And it’ll be on to the Ohio State game.

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