Mac: It's our pleasure to have with us in studio, for his annual in studio visit with us, eighth year head coach of Illinois, Ron Turner. Isn't it hard to believe, but sometimes I bet it feels like it's been eighteen.
Turner: Sometimes it does feel about eighteen, but sometimes it feels like its just a couple, too. So, it has gone fast and we are looking forward to the season. We are excited and ready to get going.
Mac: It starts with some rather shocking news over the weekend. One of your best football players defensively last year, Matt Sinclair, with some problems. What are you guys doing to handle that situation?
Turner: The number one thing is we are looking into it to see exactly what happened. And we're letting the legal system run its course for the time being as we look into it. I've talked to a lot of people that were there, talked to a lot of people involved. There's always two sides to the story. We want to find out exactly what happened before we make any decision.
Mac: Guys in your position often take a beating for what 18-23 year old men do. And I've said for a long time that anybody who's been around kids, either high school kids or college kids. You put 85 or 90 of them in one situation; you're going to have situations occur. Do you think that's fair that coaches end up taking the brunt of fans frustrations, the frustrations of alumni and what really can coaches do? At the end of the day, what can you do to keep kids from going out to a tavern in Champaign and getting in trouble? What can you do?
Turner: Exactly. Nothing. Sometimes not much. We can educate. We can make an effort to do it and then you keep your fingers crossed that nothing's going to happen. You asked if it's fair. Whether it's fair or not, its there and its part of it. We know that, we accept that when we take this job, and its part of it. I've had many conversations with our team, with individuals, with Matt Sinclair you know about proper behavior, and what to do. We've had very few incidents in the last few years, and they know we are not going to tolerate it, not condone it. And it's not what we are all about.
Yet, you know if you put 85-90-100 kids, something's going to come up. When it does, you look at it, you evaluate it and you make decisions. Discipline is going to have to be a factor, and the discipline is according to what happens.
Jurko: Coach Turner, you're right it's not fair, but what type of safety net do you have for those kids that aren't doing well in school? You say alright, I've got to have some sort of safety net to get these kids back inside, and back on the program.
Turner: Yeah, exactly. I think the biggest thing is that you give these kids support, and show them that you care and that we are looking out for their best interest. And also make sure that they understand the responsibility that they have in signing on with our program to be a part of our team. They are representing me, the University, the football program, all of the fans, the alumni and with that comes a responsibility to do the right things. That's all we ask: to do the right things, and sometimes its hard. You're out and situation comes up. Sometimes it's unavoidable. When a situation that you are uncomfortable with comes up, leave. Remove yourself from that situation. That's what we tell them.
Jurko: That's exactly it. And shouldn't teammates depend upon other teammates.
Turner: No question.
Jurko: Shouldn't you have other guys bailing other guys out saying let's get out of here. Avoidance is the best scenario.
Turner: That's a huge part of it. And that's what we're looking at in this situation because there were some other teammates there. The situation was resolved at one time, and was very minor from my understanding, but I can't get into too much detail. But it was resolved, our players did step in, and then it escalated again, and we are looking into all the reasons why.
We've talked a lot about that as a team. That's part of being a team. That's part of being accountable to one another. That's not just on the field, its covering each others back and helping each other out in the time they need it.
Harry: Coach Turner, I've got friends in their forties or fifties, and they still don't know when its time to leave the bar, so I don't know when that even stops. Al right, how do we turn around the negative mindset that exists after a football season where we don't win a game in conference? How do we get every body positive? How do we turn the page? How do we get everybody fired up for the upcoming football season?
Turner: We go out and play well. We go out and play well. We can do all we do and take steps as a team starting in January and working out, which our team is, to regain the confidence and regain the swagger. I love what we're doing. I love the attitude of this team. I love the chemistry of this team, and I love their talent. We've got a lot of young, really good football players on this team that someday may grow up to be real good football players. But to get the fans and every one back into it, we can say all that, but we've got to go out on the football field and we've got to win games.
Mac: Did you accomplish that in Spring drills, in off season conditioning? Did you feel that whatever hangover there might have been there? And with me as a fan remembering Matt Lovecchio stretching over the goal line in the Indiana game to beat you guys ...
Harry: Why you gotta bring that up?
Mac: Do you feel that was removed? Do you feel that they are looking ahead to 2004 and screw 2003?
Turner: Exactly. We're looking at 2004. We forgotten the part of it that we need to, but we're remembering what it was like. We gotta get back to getting the taste of victory. Our guys are hungry, they're determined. They have a great attitude. I think our team has a great concept as to why things happened. Why you don't handle adversity well, which we didn't a year ago in situations like that. I'm excited. I think we are going to surprise a lot of people.
Jurko: Coach your defense because of injuries last year was dismal. You let Mike Cassity go, now you've got Mike Mallory in place as your coordinator. What are we going to see different out of your defense this year?
Turner: I think the biggest thing is we're going to be more aggressive. I think a lot of times when things aren't working, people say "do more, do more." In this case we're going to do less. That's the reason that I've elevated Mike Mallory. Philosophically I've had two years to get to know him and what he likes to do. We've talked, and his approach is very similar to mine. And that is let's do less. Simplify it a little bit, and allow our players to play harder and play faster. Do less, do it better and do it faster, and put a lot of emphasis on fundamentals, techniques and fundamentals. We've got to become a much better tackling team. We're working hard to get that done, and I think we are.
Harry: When you're at a luncheon like this, and you get to be with the other ten guys that get to do what you do because we all fantasize about being the coach on the sidelines on the weekend, but there's only so many guys in America that do it. Do you like talking shop with them? Do you guys talk about things other than football? Do you even hang out with them? And is there someone you avoid?
(Laughter from the room)
Turner: In these two days that we have, we don't spend a lot of time with these guys. We have interviews. We're at the media stuff. We're all over the place. I saw Joe Paterno today in passing, and we talked for thirty seconds. You know Barry Alvarez, Randy Walker, you just kind of pass them as you're going to an interview and they're going to an interview. That's about it.
We have our meetings in May and January where we spend much more time and talk. We have meetings, we have them all day where we talk and have lunch together. So, at this one we really don't do a whole lot.
Mac: One thing I've always found to be very compelling about college coaches, especially in the Big Ten is that it is a very tight knit fraternity. I was taking a beating. You heard some of the comments before we put you on the air here. I was talking about your team going to a bowl game, and I don't think that is unthinkable. We'll go over the schedule in just a little bit, but anyone that doesn't think there are a lot of great coaches on every staff in this league doesn't know what the hell they're talking about.
Turner: Yeah, exactly. I think you're right, and that is why I think it is the best conference in football from top to bottom. It starts with the coaching. There are some great coaches and assistant coaches in this league and the players that come, you know every Saturday that you better be ready because they are going to be very very well prepared. There are some tremendous coaches here.
Mac: You're non-conference schedule goes Florida A & M, UCLA, and Western Michigan all at home.
Turner: All at home and our first conference game is at home as well. SO we open up in September with four straight home games. Illinois has never done that, and we have seven home games total, and Illinois has never done that. So it's obviously important for us to get off on the right foot. TO get some wins early, to regain that confidence that slipped away a year ago. Hopefully being at home will give us a chance to do that.
Jurko: Coach I love the Big Ten conference, but that MAC Conference you're almost afraid to schedule games against those teams. Last year they jumped up and surprised every body.
Turner: Yeah they did and I think that's going to continue. I don't think that is a one year thing. They are capable on a Saturday of beating anybody. Whether or not they have the depth to do it week in and week out against a Big Ten schedule, I don't know. But they've got some great players, and I think that is going to continue to go that way.
Jurko: The Big Ten Conference is going to utilize instant replay. The only conference in the country. Were you in favor of it? DO you hope it isn't going to bite you in the ass at the end of the day? How do you think it is going to play out in the course of the season?
Turner: Well, I think its going to be great. I'm definitely in favor of it, knowing its going to help us. We can get some calls, but some calls are going to go against us as well. I've been for it for several years. I think with the technology that we have now a days, people are sitting at home and they see it. A guy was clearly out of bounds on a catch, he clearly fumbled the ball, or whatever. Yet, you know it's not reversed and its a bad call that could effect the Big Ten Championship or something else. I think it's great to try to get it right if you can.
Harry: Anthony Thomas fumbled in the Michigan game, we all know that. Jon Beutjer you're quarterback. What do you know about him that we don't know? To me it seems that this guy can really do a lot of things.
Turner: I think he can. I'm really excited. I really am. Jon has had a great off-season, spring and summer. He has developed into being a leader. More of a leader than maybe I gave him credit for, that I thought he would be. He's doing his job and I like the way he accepted a challenge.
He was granted a sixth year and I was talking to him. I was up in Chicago recruiting, I said "Jon that's great, I'm really happy to have you back, but I'm not naming you the starter. You've got to come out and win this job. We've got some young quarterback that we think can play. We're going to give them a chance to compete. You are going to have to win it during Spring." He understood that and said "hey that's fine, I look forward to competing." He basically won the job in three days of Spring ball.
Mac: Illinois Head Coach Ron Turner here on Mac, Jurko, and Harry ESPN 1000. Illinois will report on Monday, first practice is Tuesday. The Big Ten schedule opens on the 25th of September as Ron mentioned in Champaign against Purdue. Other home dates include Michigan, Iowa, and Indiana. On the road at Wisconsin, at Michigan State, at Minnesota. Jurko, the Minnesota guide is in, you've got to find someone new to love now that the quarterback is gone, but we'll get to that a little later on.
Jurko: I can't wait, Marion Barber III.
Mac: OK, you're picking him up already.
Jurko: I've adopted him already.
Mac: Is there a clear cut favorite in this league this year? I've been reading about it, and I don't find a consensus. I don't seem to see a whole lot of agreement on it. What do you think?
Turner: Well, I'm not sure if there is. I think maybe Michigan, slightly. But I think in this conference if you look at it over the last few years, the last ten years, the last decade eight different teams have won the Big Ten Championship. So, there is more parity in this league than people think. You always think that Michigan, you always think of Ohio State, obviously great programs. I mean there is tradition, but there are also a lot of other good teams in this conference.
I think this year is going to be different. It is a matter of who stays healthy, who can get on a roll, and who can get confidence, and find a way to win the close games. There probably will be some surprises.
Harry: Coach this is kind of a sucky question to ask, but is your job in danger? After last season are you looking over your shoulder? Have you been given an OK? Is every year a year that is in danger?
Turner: Yeah I think in this profession every year you just have to go out and perform and play well. I've got a great relationship with Ron Guenther who has been extremely supportive. We've had no talks whatsoever about anything and we're just looking forward to getting into the season and going out and being the best team we can become and gain some confidence and get some breaks. Just have a good year.
Mac: For those of our listeners who might be under the age of 21, there was a time when you were the offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears. Maybe not all of our listeners remember that, it was so long ago. 1995, a year in which Erik Kramer rewrites the Bears record book for a single season. Is there anything you miss about the NFL? Is college sort of a perfect fit for you, or are there things about the NFL that you miss?
Turner: There are some things about the NFL that I miss. The fact that it is all football. Now with free agency you're doing a little bit more in that regard, but the coach can just focus on football. I miss that part a little bit, but I do love the college game. I love being around these college kids. You watch them come in as 18 year old high school kids, and watch them leave four or five years later going to the NFL, or going to graduate school. You get a lot of satisfaction seeing that. And then talking to them when they come back, and knowing hopefully you had a positive impact on their lives.
Harry: You're brother Norm needs two defensive tackles; he goes out and gets two Warren Sapp and Ted Washington. You have to recruit for like twenty years to get guys like that.
Turner: Yeah, no question about it. They got two great ones. I'm happy for him. In college those are the hardest positions to find. Defensive linemen, we really have a hard time find the guys that are mean, athletic, and nasty like Jurko, and good enough athletes.
Jurko: Coach, you've scoured the Chicagoland area a couple of years ago. I hope those players start to pay fruition for you down there for the Fighting Illini. You pulled a lot of great offensive linemen out there.
Turner: Yeah, we really did. We're trying hard to make it so every kid in the Chicago area that's a Big Ten caliber player that we have room for that we can get, that we have all of them. Because the ones that do have success. They have success on the field, and have success in the classroom.
That offensive line that you talked about is going to be unbelievable. It's as good as I have ever been around. Some of them will probably play a little bit this year, but down the road they are going to be tremendous players.
Mac: Well, as always Ron we appreciate your time. Thank you very much for coming down. Good luck, have a good camp. Hopefully every body stays healthy. And, no pressure. I predicted you will win six games, no pressure whatsoever. Going 1-11 to 6-5.
Turner: That sounds good. I appreciate that and we are looking forward to doing that.
You can catch Mac, Jurko, and Harry every afternoon on Chicago's ESPN Radio 1000 from 3:00 - 7:00 PM.