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Illini show they still have fight – but how much?

Illinois kicker James McCourt celebrates with teammates after kicking the game-winning field goal against Wisconsin at Memorial Stadium. (Photo: Patrick Gorski, USA TODAY Sports)

From the Saturday, Oct. 26, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

Sometimes success happens when you’re expecting, well, disaster.

Like, back on Oct. 23, 1999, for example.

On that crisp fall day, I was at The Big House in Ann Arbor to cover the Illinois-Michigan football game, and things couldn’t have looked bleaker for Ron Turner’s Fighting Illini. At 3-3, Illinois was in the midst of a three-game losing streak and fresh off a humiliating 37-7 loss to Minnesota on Homecoming in Champaign. The 5-1 Wolverines, meanwhile, were ranked No. 9, led by the quarterback tandem of Tom Brady and Drew Henson, and eager to vent their frustrations after a 34-31 loss at bitter rival Michigan State the week prior.

For the Illini, it looked like a disaster waiting to happen. Before kickoff, I even recall chatting with a former colleague about how Turner – then in his third season at Illinois with a meager record of 6-22 overall and 2-17 in the Big Ten – was in jeopardy of being fired. A few hours later, however, the Illini had turned a 27-7 third-quarter deficit into a 35-29 win that shocked the nation. The victory that nobody saw coming sparked an 8-4 season that saved Turner’s job.

Flash forward two decades later to Lovie Smith, whose seat this month has been at least as hot as Turner’s was in ’99 ­– and perhaps hotter two weeks ago when Illinois fell behind Michigan 28-0 at Memorial Stadium. Then the Illini rattled off 25 straight points against the Wolverines to nearly pull off a comeback, before ultimately losing.

As that rally against Michigan was unfolding, I couldn’t help but think back to the ’99 game in Arbor, and how it turned around Turner’s Illini program. Then last Saturday happened, with Illinois actually finishing off a jaw-dropping 24-23 upset of undefeated, sixth-ranked Wisconsin that shocked the entire planet.

Now, I can’t help but wonder if that win over the Badgers could be the game that turns around Lovie Smith’s Illini program. Regarding Lovie, I’ve long preached patience for his rebuilding operation, asking fans to give him proper time to show us one way or the other if he’s the right man for the job.

When he was down 28-0 to Michigan, I had become convinced that Lovie wasn’t. But up 24-23 over Wisconsin, I now think I’d come to that conclusion too soon. I still don’t know for certain what Lovie is or isn’t. But with a bowl game now suddenly back in the potential picture for the 3-4 Illini, today’s tilt against 2-5 Purdue (11 a.m., BTN) is a huge opportunity for the embattled coach to show us.

Grandpa Rossy Returns

David Ross wasn’t my first choice for Cubs manager. But I’m not against welcoming “Grandpa” (back) aboard. He could turn out to be great.

My preference would have been to err on the side of experience by hiring current Astros bench coach Joe Espada or former Yankees skipper Joe Girardi. I think Ross’ lack of any coaching background is a sizable gamble and I do have concerns that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are hiring their best buddy more than they’re hiring the best candidate.

But I hope that isn’t true, and similar inexperienced hires have recently worked well for the Red Sox (Alex Cora) and the Yankees (Aaron Boone). I also have always believed that the Cubs were planning to move on from Joe Maddon in 2020 after they didn’t extend him last winter. So, Epstein and Hoyer have been grooming Ross for this job for the past year. It’s not an uniformed hire.

Besides, what matters most with Ross is his roster. It needs an upgrade.