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...And Then They Had To Play
Rick Reilly
September 16, 1985
Illinois was talking and acting big until Southern Cal came to town with its mean defense, huge offensive line and cool QB
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September 16, 1985

...and Then They Had To Play

Illinois was talking and acting big until Southern Cal came to town with its mean defense, huge offensive line and cool QB

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Lord, how Champaign was bubbling, to say nothing of Urbana. For this was a week of weeks. Not only did Willie Nelson come to Urbana- Champaign to promote the Sept. 22 Farm Aid concert—a Live Aid-style benefit for American farmers, starring good ol' boys like himself and Waylon Jennings—but Illinois was also playing USC. And not just USC. U-S-C. This was big-time college football. Sellout. Both teams coming in as somebody's No. 1—Street & Smith professing for USC and TV Guide stumping for Illinois, with Wheel of Fortune a close second. Both teams on NCAA probation. Now that's big time. Of course, probation meant the game couldn't be shown live on national TV, but that made it all the more special: a scale-model Rose Bowl played on the dark side of the moon. And only Champaign could watch.

And who should Illini fans have to blame for their giddiness—if not their probation—but ol' blue eyes himself, Mike White, college football's Bill Walsh. Handsome as a soap opera surgeon and smooth as Chivas, White oozes charm from the tips of his orange-and-blue cowboy kickers to the collar of his Illinois orange pigskin sport jacket. Yes, pigskin. Only White could wear pigskin and make you want to run out and get yourself one.

At 49, White is a mix between Paul Newman and Frank Sinatra, and the truth is, he even has that Sinatra aura about him. You want to see White? Forget going to any stuffy, cracker-box coach's office. No, sir, you go to the top floor of The Chancellor Hotel—a long punt or so from campus—where White rents a suite and four rooms, August through December, for himself and his staff. There White eats, sleeps, meets and greets, a gridiron Godfather.

Who would have thought Illinois would get a coach so big he could make like Howard Hughes and get away with it? In Champaign? Where Illinois once went 2� seasons without winning a home game? Where Illinois recently lost three straight years to Indiana, for the love of Red Grange? Phooey on all that. The White knight has brought to town everything Columbus, Ohio and Ann Arbor, Mich. have ever had and then some: Heisman candidates (quarterback Jack Trudeau and wide receiver David Williams), gaudy new athletic facilities all over campus—from the new artificial turf in the stadium (seventh-largest synthetic surface in the world) to the new inflatable bubble (for winter practices), $35 million worth of improvements in all—and Quarterback Club luncheons that have become so voguish they've been moved to bigger locations three times.

"Boy, we're something, aren't we?" White was telling some 500 boosters the day before the game, working them like Jimmy Swaggart. "We're feeling good, huh? We're feeling great, right? Haven't played a single game yet."

Boy, White was more right than he knew. For the problem with big-time football is that you have to go out on Saturday and play it, and Illinois didn't. Within 24 hours, the Illini's inflatable bubble had been burst by USC. The score was 20-10, and it was never that close. Illinois' modern-age offense went positively Neanderthal, with Trudeau contributing four interceptions to a bakery tray of six delicious turnovers. The first two came on Illinois' first two possessions, and both set up quick-flash USC TDs. One—a 46-yard pass from resurrected Trojan quarterback Sean Salisbury to Randy Tanner—followed immediately a Trudeau interception. Before you could sing Oskee-wow-wow, the Illini were trailing 14-0. Hmmm. Maybe there's more to this big-time college football business than just getting yourself in the NCAA hoosegow.

"We've been doing a lot of talking," said White afterward. "Now we just have to go back to work."

A lot of talking the Illini did do, especially Williams, who has insured his hands for $1 million but may need additional coverage for his tongue. Williams's parents own a liquor store just a few miles from the USC campus, and some particularly choice quotes from their son had been tacked up on the Trojans' locker-room bulletin board for motivational purposes.

"He knows he's good, and he's going to tell you about it," said USC safety Tim McDonald, a preseason All-America who played Williams mano a mano. McDonald gave up eight catches for 112 yards to the Illini speedster, but kept Williams out of the end zone as if he had a court order.

"We kept reading all those quotes from Williams saying how tough it was going to be for a Pac-10 team to finally come to the Big Ten's backyard," said USC junior defensive back Junior Thurman, who picked off a pair of Trudeau's passes. "He kept saying how we'd find out how different it was in the Midwest. But we knew. We knew it wouldn't be no different."

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