By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) These days, he torments the orange and blue faithful at Soldier Field.
But on Tuesday, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers took a moment to instead torment the fans down in Champaign when he told “The Dan Patrick Show” that he actually wanted to play college ball for the University of Illinois coming out of his California high school in 2002. But then-Illini coach Ron Turner didn’t want him.
“I can remember the first time I started a game in college and heard the anthem and … talk about an absolute thrill,” Rodgers recalled. “We were in Champaign, I was playing the University of Illinois, who I wanted to go to out of high school. I was playing for Cal, and I just always think about that moment and how far I’ve come from there.”
After Patrick pointed out to Rodgers how his admission has to be a painful blow for Illini fans, Rodgers said, “I went out to their team camp, and they didn’t offer me. They didn’t offer me a scholarship.”
Turner, of course, wasn’t the only college coach to miss on Rodgers, who ended up going the junior college route before eventually signing with Cal. At the same time, Rodgers also didn’t attend every school’s team camp or place any other program atop his college wish list like he apparently did with Illinois.
As much as Rodgers’ admission may sting Illini nation today as fans watch a football program slog its way through perhaps the worst period in school history with 24 losses in its last 25 Big Ten games, it’s hardly the first time that Illinois “almost” had a future NFL quarterback on its roster, only to ultimately miss out due to a questionable coaching decision.
Here’s a look back at the Illini’s other near misses from the past two decades.
With Butkus Award winners Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy and the likes of sack machine Simeon Rice terrorizing opponents at Memorial Stadium, Illini coach Lou Tepper’s defenses were a force to be reckoned with during the early-to-mid-1990s.
And his offenses? They were anything but. Deficiencies on that side of the ball, particularly at quarterback, led to a poor 25-31-2 record that cost Tepper his job after five seasons on the sidelines in Champaign.
Back in 1994, the Illini’s offensive future actually looked to be in good hands when Parade Magazine’s player of the year, quarterback Chris Redman of Louisville Male High School, was convinced by Illinois offensive coordinator Greg Landry to commit to the Illini.
The day after Redman signed his letter of intent, though, Tepper unexpectedly fired Landry due to circumstances that remain unclear to this day. In the drama that followed, Tepper denied misleading Redman about Landry’s future at Illinois, but he eventually released him from his commitment.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Redman would end up playing for his hometown Louisville Cardinals and finished his college career with the third-most passing yards in NCAA history when he graduated. In 2000, he was picked by Baltimore in the third round of the NFL Draft and played for four teams before in a career that stretched into 2011.
Before he dropped the ball with Redman, Tepper made an even bigger mistake in 1993 when he failed to recognize the quarterbacking potential of a kid from Chicago’s Mt. Carmel High School by the name of Donovan McNabb.
According to a Chicago Tribune story from 2010, McNabb and his father, Sam, took an unofficial visit to Champaign, where Tepper told him that he probably would be a better fit as a receiver or defensive back because he was such a great athlete.
“Then coach Tepper asked me if I had any questions,” McNabb recalled, according to the Tribune. “I said, ‘Yes, I was just wondering if I could play quarterback?’”
Apparently, the answer was “no.” Because McNabb went to Syracuse, where he merely was named the Big East’s Offensive Player of the Year three times all while playing, yep, quarterback.
In regards to McNabb, Mt. Carmel coach Frank Lenti once told USA Today that Tepper told him, “My guy doesn’t want Donovan as a quarterback,” in reference to Landry, the offensive coordinator Tepper would later fire.
Lenti added, “I respect coach Tepper for telling me that to my face. Of course, a couple of years later they were all out of a job.”
McNabb, meanwhile, went on to lead the Philadelphia Eagles to five NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl appearance during a decorated NFL career at, yes, quarterback.
One year before he failed to offer Rodgers a scholarship despite the future NFL MVP’s desire to play in Champaign, Turner made the unwise decision to pull a scholarship offer from another future NFC North quarterback.
Namely, Jay Cutler.
Illinois was the first BCS school to show interest in Cutler during the fall of his senior year as prep quarterback in Indiana, according to a 2006 article from ESPN.com. Enamored with the idea of playing for a former Chicago Bears offensive coordinator in Turner, Cutler decided to jump on board with the Illini, rejecting interest from Purdue, Duke, Maryland and others.
However, after leading Heritage Hills High School to a state football championship, Cutler immediately began his senior basketball season and wasn’t able to visit the Illinois campus until late December, according to the ESPN.com article. By then, according to Cutler’s father, Turner was having cold feet about signing Cutler.
Turner ended up pulling the scholarship offer and instead awarded it to California quarterback Matt Dlugolecki, who never made an impact at Illinois before eventually transferring to San Diego State.
Cutler would go on to play college ball at Vanderbilt before the Denver Broncos made him a first-round NFL draft pick. In 2009, he was traded to the Bears, whose offensive coordinator was, ironically, the one and only Ron Turner.
The pair’s relationship didn’t work out there, either: Turner was fired after the season.