Big Ten

Ron Turner 'opened the door' for Illini's hiring of Lovie Smith

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Ron Turner 'opened the door' for Illini's hiring of Lovie Smith

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois dismissing its head football coach in March and hiring longtime NFL head coach Lovie Smith is something no one saw coming.

Credit new athletics director Josh Whitman with that outside-the-box thinking. He dismissed Bill Cubit on his first day of work and introduced Smith on his third, radically transforming the Illini football program in a whirlwind.

But while Whitman's passion and vision ultimately landed Smith, returning him to orange and blue, it was a former Illinois head coach — and a former Smith assistant — that kickstarted the process.

Ron Turner, who coached Whitman when he was an Illinois football player and coached alongside Smith with the Bears, helped connect the two. After Whitman spitballed Smith as an option for Illinois, he needed a middleman to bridge the gap. Enter Turner.

“Ron opened the door," Whitman said. "Ron has obviously become a very good friend of mine, someone who’s become very influential in my life. I played here, I was part of his very first recruiting class. And so when I got to a point — after doing some research, thinking through this, I wondered if this was even possible — I picked up the phone and I called him. ‘What do you think about this?’ And then after he got done saying all the wonderful things about Lovie, I said, ‘Would you mind reaching out to him on my behalf and see if he would have an interesting us?’ He was very gracious and happy to do that.

"Just opening that door was absolutely critical to making this happen.”

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Turner's eight-year tenure as Illinois head coach did not end well. After reaching the Sugar Bowl with a 10-win season in 2001, the three seasons that followed were ugly, featuring a grand total of nine wins. Turner's stay ended in favor of Ron Zook, who in turn had a poor stint that ended in favor of Tim Beckman, whose tenure ended worse than all the others, fired a week before last season started after allegations of student-athlete mistreatment were found to be true.

Turner then went (or rather returned) to the Bears, working for five seasons as Smith's offensive coordinator. That stay didn't end well, either, as Turner was one of the first in a long line of Bears offensive coordinators who couldn't find a way to unlock Jay Cutler's potential at quarterback.

But the relationship between player and coach and the water under the bridge between Turner and Smith were enough to make Turner the intermediary between the school that fired him and the coach that fired him.

Without Turner's help, the Illini might not have the transformative coach they introduced Monday and the program might be pointed in a very different direction.

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.