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.