Sep. 2—CHAMPAIGN — For Illinois football fans, he was the light at the end of the long, boring tunnel. They had seen a 0-0 tie against Northwestern for goodness sake. They wanted more.
More arrived with Mike White in 1980. Record-setting passing. Points. Then wins. Then a Big Ten title. With talented defenses, too.
Not every game produced basketball-like numbers. That is the legend. But Illinois won its share of 16-6 games, like the earth-shaker against Michigan.
White, the coach of the only team in Big Ten football history to beat everyone else in the same season, is back in Champaign-Urbana this weekend.
He will take the field with the 1983 Big Ten champions at halftime of Saturday night's Illinois-Toledo game.
Now living in California, White remains a beloved figure for Illinois fans. Though he coached at the school for only eight years, he is considered one of the best in program history.
Certainly one of the most innovative. He was the first to embrace the West Coast offense, Air White if you will. He brought in four future NFL quarterbacks, including No. 1 overall pick Jeff George, whom he never got to coach in a game. Dave Wilson, Tony Eason and Jack Trudeau also went from Illinois to the NFL.
On White's first call as Illinois coach, he ordered Wilson to throw a deep pass against Northwestern in the 1980 opener. It didn't matter to the roaring fans that it was way incomplete. It was the thought that counted.
Illinois trailed the Wildcats 9-0 before scoring the final 35 points.
Illinois had itself a coach with a plan.He finished with winning records in five of his eight seasons and earned three bowl bids.
I caught up with 87-year-old White before he flew from California earlier this week. He came with his son and former Illini kicker Chris White.
Coach White was looking forward to the trip east.
"I'm heading your way," White said.
One of only seven stops during his coaching career, Illinois is special to White and his family.
"We've always had such a great rapport with the city," White said. "Of all my stops, that was my most joyful."
The fans loved him and the feeling was mutual.
"We really, really enjoyed it and enjoyed the people," he said.
In White's fourth season, Illinois put it all together.
After an opening loss at Missouri, Illinois ripped off 10 consecutive wins to take the school's first Big Ten title in 20 years.
"We had such a unique group of individuals," White said. "With all types of ability. One week led to another week led to another week. It was so pleasant. You had to pinch yourself because things were going well."
White and his stellar coaching staff found the right formula to go along with the talent on hand. And there was plenty of it. Future NFL players and a College Football Hall of Famer.
"We had the right combination of young men who wanted to win and wanted to find out how to win and were willing to take responsibility," White said.
Had the 1983 team been playing in the modern era, it would have likely qualified for the four-team College Football Playoff. Illinois entered the Rose Bowl ranked No. 4.
"There's no question," White said.
The matchup against then-No. 1 Nebraska would have gone better than the game against Pac-10 champion UCLA, which won in Pasadena 45-9.
Been so long
White left the program after the 1987 season. Hard to believe it has been 36 years since he paced the sidelines at Memorial Stadium.
White stays in contact the players from the 1983 team at different events.He came back when David Williams entered the Illinois athletics Hall of Fame.
The people involved with the program during his time have mostly moved on. Except ... News-Gazette icon Loren Tate.
"The oldest writer in history is still writing for the paper," White said.
White was thrilled to hear about the new Illinois football award that is being named in Tate's honor.
"We have had a close relationship," White said.
Though far away on the West Coast, White continues to follow his former program. He watched Bret Bielema win eight games in 2022.
"He's done a good job," White said.