The Rise and Fall of Illinois Football

By Joe Beale on April 2, 2014 at 1:30p

Tim Beckman faces uncertainty about his future at Illinois.


"...but it is a thing most sorrowful, nay shocking, to expose the fall of valor in the soul." -- Melville

Illinois football was seemingly on the crest of a new renaissance in 2008, a turning point in the program's history. The previous season had been one for the ages, complete with an upset of #1 ranked Ohio State in their stadium and a berth in the coveted Rose Bowl. Now this season the fledgling Big Ten Network was going to devote a prime-time program to the drama about to unfold. 

It turned out to be more drama than they bargained for. Their promising 9-4 season was followed by a humiliating 5-7 season, and it has been all downhill since then. Every time the team starts to look like they might turn it around, another setback sends them spinning into a long losing streak. How did a once-proud program fall so far in such a short time?


Throughout the 80s and 90s, Illinois was fairly consistent and sometimes excellent in football. Under coaches Mike White, John Mackovic, Lou Tepper, and Ron Turner, they stayed mostly in the upper-middle section of the Big Ten, and sometimes contended for conference titles. 

They frequently appeared in bowl games during these years, and sent many players to the NFL. Among those: Jeff George, Kevin Hardy, Simeon Rice, and John Holecek. As recently as 2001, the Illini won the Big Ten title outright, finished 10-1 in the regular season (including a victory at Ohio State) and played LSU in the Sugar Bowl. 

Turner could not maintain the program afterwards, and the team spiraled down to 5-7, 1-11, and 3-8 the next three seasons. It was clear they were falling behind conference powers Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State in recruiting. Fortunately, a former Ohio State assistant had just been let go by SEC power Florida and soon afterwards Ron Zook replaced Turner as the head coach at Illinois.

hope and change

Zook had been known as a solid recruiter while at Florida; new coach Urban Meyer praised him for it, and in fact 22 of the 24 starters on his 2006 BCS Championship team had been recruited by Zook. While Florida fans had lost patience with Zook's inability to get the program over the top, Illinois fans would have been more than happy with the 23 wins that Zook had accumulated during his three years directing the Gators.

Now at Illinois, Zook continued to recruit well. His 2006-2008 classes were all in the top 50 and it began to show during his second season. Despite going 2-10 in 2006, there was hope as the team was highly competitive during a three-game stretch against Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State.

The real breakthrough came in 2007 as the Illini finished 9-4, including the upset at Ohio State. After finishing 0-8 and 1-7 in conference games his first two seasons, Zook's 2007 team finished 6-2, good enough for 2nd place. Since Ohio State was playing in the BCS Championship game, Illinois received an invitation to play USC in the Rose Bowl.

Expectations were high for the 2008 season, with the return of junior quarterback Isaiah "Juice" Williams and sophomore receiver Arrelious Benn. The Big Ten Network, still only in its second season, debuted a new series called "The Journey" in which they would spend the entire season taking a close look at the Illinois football team. It appeared that the program had caught up with its conference rivals and then some.


"The Journey" ended up capturing the highs and lows of a season in which the expected excellence gave way to surprising mediocrity. A season-opening loss to Missouri (another program on the rise) was unsettling, but not fatal. Most fans expected the team to bounce back, and they did. 

However, a 38-24 loss at Penn State was more revealing. The former five-star recruit Williams was upstaged by PSU's lesser-known quarterback Daryll Clark, and the Illini defense was pushed around to the tune of 241 rushing yards. It was the type of game where Illinois' improved recruiting was supposed to make the team more competitive, but it seemed like old times again. 

After bouncing back against a suddenly-weak Michigan team, Illinois suffered a humiliating home loss to Minnesota. In that game, Williams threw for 462 yards but three turnovers and the lack of an effective ground game kept them from scoring more than 20 points. The Illini then lost three of their last five games to finish 5-7. The new renaissance was fading fast.

crash and burn

As bad as 2008 had been, the 2009 season was even worse. The defense gave up more than 30 points six times, and the offense was so out of sync that Zook benched senior quarterback Williams during a 30-0 shutout at Ohio State. The season ended with consecutive losses to mid-major schools Cincinnati and Fresno State, games in which the Illini gave up a combined 102 points.

Recruiting became more difficult for Zook after back-to-back losing seasons, as his 2010 class was ranked #70 by Rivals. The team returned to respectability in 2010, finishing 7-6 after a bowl victory over Baylor. Things seemed to be turning around again after a 6-0 start to the 2011 season.

It turned out to be a fluke. A home loss to a mediocre Ohio State team launched the Illini into a six-game conference losing streak. This was too much for the Illinois athletic department, and Zook was fired soon afterwards. Ironically, the Illini would go on to win their bowl game for the second straight season, a first in school history. 

no hope, no change

Another former Ohio State assistant Tim Beckman was hired from Toledo to replace Zook as coach at Illinois, but the losing ways continue. The culture of losing has now initiated a vicious cycle of lower donations for scholarships, which hurts the athletic department and makes it more difficult to win, which leads to lower donations, etc. 

Illinois, which was once so strong in football that they defeated Ohio State five years in a row, is now one of the doormats of the Big Ten conference. Only Purdue give the Illini hope of staying out of the conference cellar in 2014. Beckman will most likely be fired after this season. What then?

As difficult as it may be for Illini fans to hear, the answer is to find someone similar to Zook and hire him. By that I mean someone who can turn the recruiting ship around and get it headed in the right direction. For starters, the next coach will need to shore up in-state recruiting, where Notre Dame and other Big Ten schools routinely swoop in and take the best of the best. 

The new coach will also have to restore confidence in the long-term future of the program by making a commitment to hiring top-notch assistants and seeking to improve the profile of the program in terms of innovation. This was the case when Mike White and John Mackovic were coaching the Illini, but Lou Tepper and Ron Turner were seen as stodgy and boring. 

It may seem strange for an Ohio State writer to wish success for a rival program, but it will be good for the reputation of the conference if Illinois can get back to at least a respectable position. It will also help OSU's strength of schedule when it comes to playoff selection time.

Let Purdue and Indiana be the doormats; after all, at those schools the football team plays second fiddle to basketball. Illinois is a football school first and foremost. With a tradition that includes Red Grange and Dick Butkus, the school should be able to sell itself better to prospective players. 

Illinois can and should do better. The fans should expect it. And Ohio State fans should cheer it, as long as it doesn't include wins over the men in scarlet and gray.








Comments Show All Comments

Barnsey69's picture

"It may seem strange for an Ohio State writer to wish success for a rival program, but it will be good for the reputation of the conference if Illinois can get back to at least a respectable position. It will also help OSU's strength of schedule when it comes to playoff selection time."


Illinois has decent facilities, a good (albeit dated) football history, and proximity to one of the largest city's in the country. That should add up to better recruits than they have been getting in recent years. I have a few Illinois alumni buddies, and this has been the worst of the worst for those guys. Not that I feel any pity, for I receive none when OSU falls upon misfortune, but Illinois should be better...period.

Go Bucks!


Thank the Maker that I was born in Ohio, cradle of coaches, US Presidents, confederate-stomping Generals, and home of The Ohio State University Football Buckeyes- 2014 UNDISPUTED National Champions!

+1 HS
Buckeye in Illini country's picture

Illinois is a football school first and foremost.

I don't know if that is the case.  Maybe it is because they suck for both, but I feel that people around here tend to be more enthusiastic about the basketball team.  Granted there are more Blackhawks and Bears fans than there are Illini fans in Champaign.

And this says all you need to know about the current state of Illini football.


Columbus to Pasadena: 35 hours.  "We're on a road trip through the desert looking for strippers and cocaine... and Rose Bowl wins!"

+2 HS
jhart's picture

I'm the the western 'burbs of Chicago, and people around here couldn't care less about Illinois football (or Northwestern...or college football in general....the 'natives' - non-transplants - at least).  A line I hear from a buddy of mine originally from northern Illinois is, "Give us your best and I'll watch them play on Sundays."

It's all Bears, all NFL, or nothing here...for the most part.

Buckeye in Illini country's picture

I couldn't agree more.  Due to all the "transplants", there are more Ohio State, MSU, scUM, and Wisconsin fans in Chicago than there are Illinois or Northwestern fans; which is very sad.  Hell, there might even be more Dayton Flyers fans (I have a few friends that live in Chicago from UD).

Columbus to Pasadena: 35 hours.  "We're on a road trip through the desert looking for strippers and cocaine... and Rose Bowl wins!"

poop's picture

Damn that's depressing. 

BuckeyeSki's picture

Donald Washington stripped the ball from behind, legally in '07! #PTSDseizures

Banned from BlackShoeDiaries since 2008. Crime: Slander/Defamation of Character Judgement: Guilty

+5 HS
Joe Beale's picture

Very true, but where was Tress with the challenge? He needed the Mike Martz red flag for that one.

BuckeyeSki's picture

Tress never really threw the challenge flag. He'd just stare at the ref with that "Keep it up and your going on a time-out mister" look

Banned from BlackShoeDiaries since 2008. Crime: Slander/Defamation of Character Judgement: Guilty

+3 HS
BroJim's picture

That was my first Buckeye game, I'll never forget seeing the replay over and over on the big screen.

I season my simple food with hunger

Heisman Dog's picture

They also pretty clearly picked an OSU db on a passing td.  I remember watching the replays on the stadium monitors to see why their receiver was so open, and both me and a guy in front of me said "that was a pick!".  Bad calls or not, Illinois deserved that win, plain and simple.  A particularly unbelievable performance from their LB Jay Leman (sp?).

MassiveAttack's picture
  1. Illinois got a obvious strip/fumble handed back to them with amazing field position.  This resulted in a TD 4-5 plays later.
  2. I remember the obvious illegal pick on the OSU DB that resulted directly in a touchdown.
  3. Illinois won 28-20.

How did The Illini deserve to win this game?  Cause they played hard?  Every team plays hard against OSU.  When you get 14 points you didn't earn, then win by 7, I say you stole a victory you DID NOT deserve.  Not that it mattered, we still got into the MNC game and lost.


The Ohio State University - "Haters love us!"

+1 HS
Hovenaut's picture

I almost feel sad for the decline in the Illini program, but I then I remember the early 90's - where Ohio State did indeed lose five straight to Tepper/Mackovic coached teams. The '92 game was tough (Eddie's fumbles), did almost enough drinking to do Gary Moeller proud.

Like them or not, they have a tradition rich history and a fertile recruiting area. I believe they'll get things turned around one day, I just don't think it'll be under Beckman.

+1 HS
buckeyeradar's picture

Fine article Joe.  I remember a game at Illinois when Keith Byars ran out of his shoes in the rain and snow to bring the buckeyes back from 28 points down.  I want people to think of Ohio State first when the Big Ten is mentioned.  We only need to worry about ourselves, the others could care less about us.

I may not be the sharpest crayon in the box but I'm one of the most colorful.

Joe Beale's picture

That game with the shoe-less TD run was here in Columbus in 1984. I was there for the first half but had to leave for work at halftime. I actually wrote about that game and Keith's whole season about 5 years ago. 

buckeyeradar's picture

Double post.  How bout those BUCKEYES?

I may not be the sharpest crayon in the box but I'm one of the most colorful.

+1 HS
buckeyeradar's picture

Nothing better than an old man and high tech machinery.  I can't operate heavy equipment after I take my meds either.  LOL

I may not be the sharpest crayon in the box but I'm one of the most colorful.

Heisman Dog's picture

I always enjoy the OSU v. Illinois game - in terms of games that I look forward to this would be 3rd behind UM and PSU. I'm going to miss seeing this game every year after the new B1G divisions are in place. Of course, I also went to OSU during the Cooper years - in which OSU found increasingly baffling ways to lose to the Illini -  so that likely biases my opinion.

Jpfbuck's picture

I always think of Illinois when I think of programs that under perform. If schools like Va Tech, and Kansas St etc can be BCS caliber on a routine basis then there is no excuse for Illinois not being in the top half of the B1G on a routine basis.

Besides the Illinois recruiting base, (which in 2015 has at least 6 4 star guys in it) they are also reasonably close to Indiana and Mizzou that they should be able to attract a couple from there.

but in 2014 the state of Illinois produced 2-5 star guys and 7-4 star guys and none of them went to Illinois. they even missed on most of the 3 star in state guys, in fact nearly half their 2014 class was 2 star guys

I have always said that schools like Illinois hiring some one like Beckman is a mistake. yes sometime MAC guys turn out great, but if you want to fire up the fan base and the recruiting base, you don't hire a guy who went 21-16 in 3 years in the MAC and otherwise had been a mediocre DC at Okie St. that's a 57% win pct at Toledo, by comparison guys like Saban won 82% and Meyer won 74%

you either get a definitive top shelf MAC coach or you hire a hot shot OC/DC so that fans get excited and you don't have lame pics like the one above, and then you can sell your program to top kids.

since 2002 Illinois has won only 34% of their games, that's worse than the following: Iowa St, Kansas, Kentucky, and only a couple pct points better than Indiana and Duke for the worst bcs team record in those 12 years

from 1981 to 2001 they won 53% of their games, were ranked 5 times including 2 top 10's, and won 3 B1G titles. and they went to 11 bowls and 2 BCS level ones on those 21 years

since they have gone to only 3 bowls on the last 12 years

they should cut their loses and fire Beckman now and go after some one like Chad Morris (Clemson's OC)


+1 HS
TheSpiteHouse's picture

UCLA used to be the same way (in football), and Jim Mora, Jr. really seems to have changed the culture there...

+1 HS
Jeremypreemo81's picture

Throughout the years they have been a thorn in our side, for some reason they plays us tough.  There are excellent highschool kids in that state so I am confused about the state of that program and recruiting.  For B1G sake I sure hope they can turn it around and be competitive once more.

+1 HS
northwoods buckeye's picture

Went to grad school there. It can be a great place for a game when the team is doing well, but as you see the fans are fickle. Good bars, and they used to have 2 La Bambas (!) The stadium is small by B1G standards, but as a result, the worst seats are pretty good.

As far as recruiting, the school has great academics, but Chicago's central location and lack of "affiliation" to a particular university can be a problem for retaining recruits from the area. It's not that far from ND, Mizzou, UW, scUM. Purdue, etc. Success on the field would do much to convince more of these players to stay in state.

Pay it forward

+1 HS