Nov. 21, 2004
SportsLine.com wire reports

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Illinois coach Ron Turner said repeatedly he hopes to stay. His players all want him to come back.

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Now it's Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther's turn to have his say.

After weeks of silence, Guenther could announce as early as Monday whether Turner will come back for a ninth season or be fired with two years left on his contract.

"Of course I'm concerned," Turner said after the Illini's 28-21 overtime loss to Northwestern left them 3-8, their third straight losing season.

"Ron and I will get together the next couple of days and talk. We really haven't talked much about it," Turner said. "We talked about the Northwestern game, we talked about preparing to win, going out there to try to win. We will get together next time, whenever, the next day or two."

Turner took the Illini to the Sugar Bowl and a final No. 12 ranking just three seasons ago. But since then, Illinois is 9-26 and has won only one of its last 15 Big Ten games.

The Illini are 35-37 in Turner's eight years and have had just two winning seasons. They've finished last in the Big Ten the past two seasons.

"We definitely made progress, no doubt about it," Turner said. "Not enough to get the record where we want to get it, but we definitely made progress. We are a better team now. We are a lot better team defensively.

"We have made progress and we have a lot of very good young players," he added. "They are going to be outstanding in the future."

Guenther never said how many games Turner had to win to keep his job, only that he wanted to see progress from the Illini. Granted, Illinois won two more games than it did last year, but one was against Florida A&M, a Division I-AA team.

The Illini were certainly more competitive. They were in the game against then-No. 15 Purdue until late in the fourth quarter and led then-No. 14 Michigan at halftime. But they were blown out by Minnesota, then lost to Iowa.

They dominated Northwestern for all but two minutes of Saturday's game, but all their momentum evaporated when Jeff Backes returned a punt 73 yards for a score that tied the game at 21. The Illini missed a last-second field goal attempt, and then played in overtime like a team that was already beaten.

"It's disappointing," Turner said. "We had a chance to finish it, we had chances to get a win. And we as a football team -- all of us, players and coaches -- didn't get it done."

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But the players insist Turner isn't to blame for the Illini's struggles. He's been upbeat and worked as hard as ever, linebacker Matt Sinclair said. In fact, when Sinclair went to get treatment at 6 a.m. last week, he found Turner had beaten him there.

"If he didn't think he was coming back, I don't know if he would be there at 6 o'clock in the morning two days before his last game," Sinclair said.

Part of Illinois' problem is youth. Against Northwestern, the Illini started a freshman and two sophomores on the offensive line, and two freshmen on the defensive line. Running backs Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey are sophomores, while leading receiver Kendrick Jones is a junior. Free safety Justin Harrison and cornerback Charles Bailey Jr. are freshmen.

But the Illini have changed quarterbacks more than players change jerseys. Illinois used three QBs this year -- even all in the same game once -- and it's hard to get any rhythm when the guy calling the plays is always changing.

Interest in the program is also lagging. Attendance at Illinois' seven home games this season averaged 48,626 in 69,249-seat Memorial Stadium.

"We have the utmost respect for Coach Turner," punter Steve Weatherford said. "If he doesn't come back, that will be a big blow to the program, I think."