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 2½ 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.
September 15, 1985
"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."
Ah, it could have been different but for one fourth-and-one-foot-from-the-goal-line play in the final seconds of the first half. Trailing 17-0, Illinois had toiled its way 69 yards on a nail-biting, 17-play drive, converting two third downs and one fourth along the way. Finally came the moment of truth. Trudeau rolled right, rolled and rolled until he came nose to nose with decision: Dive for the end zone or throw it. This is Illinois. He threw it. USC linebacker Garrett Breeland swatted the ball away, and Illinois fans were left with the greatest non-climaxes since the '84 Cubs. And just where is Aid when you need it?
All USC had to do was Bogart the ball behind its San Gabriel Mountain offensive line, and that it did, keeping possession for almost 22 of the 30 remaining minutes. Illinois' passing machine was so out of whack that its only touchdown—an 83-yard pass from Trudeau to Cap Boso—came on a broken play.
Such are the fates, it seems, whenever some Pac-10 Mr. Sluggo and Big Ten Mr. Bill intertwine. In the last 39 games between the two conferences, the Westerners have won 25, including four of five Rose Bowls. White is the new master of Pac-10 disaster, having been thrashed 45-9 by UCLA in the '84 Rose Bowl—"That still feels like a death in the family," he says—and then having lost to his former employer, lowly Stanford, last September, 34-19. Now this.
"Maybe we want it so bad we just try too hard," says Trudeau, who is one of 24 Illini White trucked in from California. "Or maybe it's a jinx. I hate to say it, but maybe it is."
Jinx or not, Trudeau should kiss the next NCAA official he sees in thanks for the TV ban. He fumbled three times, and his four interceptions don't leave him much room if he expects to stay under the 10 he threw all last year. Two of them came on passes so iron-poor that one had to wonder if the thrower's first name wasn't Margaret. Much of Trudeau's difficulty arrived in the form of USC noseguard Tony Colorito, a premed philosophy buff who quotes Nietzsche (Friedrich) but plays like Nitschke (Ray). "A formula for my happiness," Colorito says, quoting the former. "A yes, a no, a straight line, a goal."
Colorito's formula for Trudeau was a straight line to his face: countless harassments and enough pressure to allow USC's secondary the luxury of setting up in a nickel pass defense for most of the game.
Of course, weeks earlier Trudeau had unwittingly added to his own heap of bothers when he gave Salisbury, a longtime friend, a bit of helpful advice that the USC quarterback has used to change his fortunes. Trudeau recommended that the naturally high-strung Salisbury consult a "creative image" psychologist, like the one the Illini team uses, to help him learn to relax. Convinced, Salisbury found Marielle Fuller—a teaching therapist at UCLA, of all places—and began relaxing at the rate of $40 an hour. And it worked. The kid who came out of Orange Glen High in Escondido as the No. 1 quarterback in the country (Brigham Young wanted Salisbury first, Robbie Bosco second) had suffered three years of frustration and failure—two knee blowouts and a 4-6-1 season in 1983, his only full year. "I'd get so depressed that I would walk around campus with my Walkman on my head but no music playing," he says. "I just didn't want to talk to anybody."
Now Salisbury stares at or tries to visualize things colored light blue when he needs to calm himself (he used the sky on Saturday), and thinks of an inspiring image when he needs to excel (he pictured his father's face). He ended up completing 10 of 15 passes for 164 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Said USC coach Ted Tollner, "Sean has paid dearly to be where he is now, and I think we on the team have more respect for him than the public does." Says his tutor, the Canadian born, French-speaking, 76-year-old Mrs. Fuller (she has never been to an American football game), "He is a very sensitive boy. He is not just a big bunch of flesh and no brain."
Thankfully, in front of Salisbury was one of the bigger bunches of flesh extant, USC's offensive line, which is larger, at an average of 273 pounds per man, than the L.A. Raiders'. The Trojan linemen went through Illini defenders as if they were late for supper. "I think we could've run on 'em all day," said tackle James FitzPatrick, who stands 6'8" and weighs 285 pounds. Said tailback Fred (Four-Yard Freddie) Crutcher, who had 18 carries for 74 yards, "I know we could've. I kept wondering, 'Where are they all?' "
Where they were was under the cleats of such All-America candidates as FitzPatrick and Jeff Bregel, who have come a long way since the days when they would vie to make the largest hole in their dorm-room wall—using their heads. "There is only one level of linemen in football better than these guys," says Salisbury. "And they're all making about $200,000 a year."
The good news for Trojan fans is that USC seems to be as imposing as ever, even if the Illini are still not completely convinced. The best news is that both teams will be off probation by Jan. 1. "I'd like to see 'em in the Rose Bowl," says Williams, verbal restraint obviously still not one of his virtues. "Because if they make it, we'll beat 'em."