Coach Ron Turner and his Illinois football team were on shaky ground at the midpoint of this season.
Turner, in the critical third year of his original five-year contract, had accumulated a 3-19 record in his first two seasons. Average attendance at 70,904-capacity Memorial Stadium in Champaign was at its lowest since 1970.
The Illini lost, 37-7, to visiting Minnesota on Oct. 16, dropping their record to 3-3 after a three-game winning streak to start the season. The team had a daunting opponent the next week: Michigan, which was 5-1 and hosting Illinois in Ann Arbor.
Turner put his team through a scrimmage the day following the Minnesota loss in hopes of finding a way to turn the tide. The week of intense practice initially seemed to be of no avail when the Illini arrived at Michigan: The Wolverines jumped out to a 27-7 lead, before Illinois shocked college football followers by scoring four touchdowns in the game's final 18 minutes to win, 35-29.
The emotional victory changed the course of the season for the Illini. The team lost its next game to Penn State, but won its final three (including a 46-20 defeat of Ohio State) to finish the season 7-4 and gain a berth against Virginia in Thursday's MicronPC.com Bowl. The postseason appearance will be the Illini's first since 1994, when they beat East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl.
With the victories over Michigan and Ohio State, Illinois became the first team since Michigan State in 1951 to beat the traditional Big Ten powers on the road in a single season.
"I said all along that we were making progress, and it didn't always show up on Saturdays," said Turner, who inherited a six-game losing streak when he joined the team in 1997. Illinois rewarded Turner, the brother of Washington Redskins Coach Norv Turner, for his success with a contract extension last week that runs through 2004. "A lot of people that picked up the sports page and read the scores on Sundays didn't see the progress that was being made, but those close to the program I think did."
One smart decision by Turner that helped the Illini share sixth place in the Big Ten with No. 19 Purdue was his selection of sophomore Kurt Kittner as quarterback.
Kittner, who as a freshman became the fourth quarterback to start at Illinois in Turner's first two seasons, responded by throwing 22 touchdown passes and just four interceptions.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Kittner, 19, came of age this season in a 41-36 nonconference win at Louisville on Sept. 18 that improved Illinois to 3-0 for the first time since 1982.
Kittner had four touchdown passes in a duel with Louisville senior Chris Redman, who originally signed with the Illini as a high school senior in 1995 but ultimately was released by former coach Lou Tepper from his national letter-of-intent.
"I think Kurt is very mentally tough right now," said Turner, who as a courtesy pulled Kittner from the lineup after five winless starts as a freshman to preserve his spirit. "I think that has helped him be able to go on the road and play great at Michigan, at Ohio State [four touchdown passes in both games], and forget about everything else. I'm sure [the bad start in 1998] helped him understand that he has a job to do, and he has to go out and do the job."
Kittner finished last season with a resolve to do his part to improve the team in 1999 and earn a bowl berth.
"I went home last year and I told my [mom] I wasn't going to be home this year [for the holidays]. She said, 'All right, hopefully you won't be.' Obviously, she wants me home, but she also wants me to have success."
Turner has noted the changes in his team during his tenure in Champaign. "You can't even talk about this team as the same as the other two," Turner said. "The guys that were here three years have grown up, and understand the mental toughness and commitment that it takes to win. And the young guys have gotten caught up in that."
Turner, 46, believes the Illini, who are likely to start eight non-seniors on offense in the bowl game, are capable of more. He notes the similarities of his struggles with those of his brother Norv and their respective teams.
"I think both of us have come back from some adversity," Ron Turner said. "There were times when they lost some games that people thought they were going to win, and we were 3-3 and everyone counted us out.
"They've just hung in there and kept fighting and kept battling."
As have the Fighting Illini.
Who: Virginia vs. Illinois.
Where: Pro Player Stadium, Miami.
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Records: Virginia 7-4 (5-3, tied for second in ACC); Illinois 7-4 (4-4, tied for sixth in Big Ten).
Coaches: Virginia, George Welsh; Illinois, Ron Turner.
Payout: $750,000 per team.