Big Ten: Kevin Hardy

Illinois' Mount Rushmore

February, 23, 2009
2/23/09
5:08
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Illinois rounds out the list of team-by-team Rushmores. I'll take a look at the Big Ten's Rushmore on Tuesday.

Despite struggling for the better part of the last 15 years, Illinois boasts several of college football's all-time greats. 

I doubt I'll get much argument with these selections, though there were some tough choices. Illinois enjoyed periods of success during the 1920s, 1960s and 1980s.

I realize my list challenges the historian inside each of you, but Illinois' not so recent past was simply too impressive to ignore. 

  • Red Grange -- Quite possibly the most dominant player in college football history, Grange earned All-America honors in each of his three seasons with Illinois and was the first recipient of the Big Ten MVP award in 1924. Grange accounted for 2,646 yards of offense and 34 touchdowns at Illinois. He's a charter member of both the pro and college football Halls of Fame and was ESPN's pick as the greatest college football player ever. 
  • Dick Butkus -- The namesake of the Butkus Award remains one of college football's greatest defensive players. Butkus twice earned first-team All-America honors, won the Big Ten MVP in 1963 and led Illinois to a Rose Bowl win on Jan. 1, 1964. He averaged 14.4 tackles a game in his Illini career and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting in 1964. Butkus and Grange are the only Illinois players to have their numbers retired.
  • Jim Grabowski -- A two-time All-American, Grabowski finished his career as the Big Ten's all-time leading rusher. Like his teammate Butkus, he placed third in the Heisman Trophy voting and claimed Big Ten MVP honors, both in 1965. He won Rose Bowl MVP honors after rushing for 125 yards in Illinois' win against Washington. Grabowski also excelled as a student and was a longtime radio analyst for Illinois football.
  • Robert Zuppke -- Zuppke laid the foundation for Illinois' early success on the gridiron, serving as head coach for 29 years. He was an offensive innovator and coached Illinois to four national titles and seven conference championships. The field at Memorial Stadium is named after Zuppke, who coached Grange and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951. 
Others considered for Illinois' Rushmore included: Tony Eason, Jeff George, Dana Howard, Alex Agase, Moe Gardner, J Leman, Kevin Hardy and Kurt Kittner.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Jeff Gross/Getty Images
 Brit Miller is looking forward to playing in front of former Illini greats on Saturday.

The 2008 Rose Bowl was still several days away, and former Illinois great Dick Butkus tried to stay calm as he talked football with a group of Fighting Illini players.

"He didn't want to get his jazz up too much in front of us," Illinois linebacker Brit Miller recalled. "It was like a Wednesday or something, so it was still a little early to get really excited."

But it didn't take long for Butkus to have a Butkus moment.

"He kind of raised his head up and stared at the guys on the team and said, 'That's when you take 'em and you break 'em,'" Miller said.

"That was giving me chills right there. When a guy like Dick Butkus says that, you know you're part of a tradition when he's talking to you and he wants the best for you."

Butkus wants to see Miller and the other Illini linebackers at their best Saturday when he watches Illinois take on Eastern Illinois at the renovated Memorial Stadium.

To celebrate the completion of a $121 million face-lift to the 85-year-old stadium, Illinois will have dozens of past players on hand as the team honors the 10 greatest players in Memorial Stadium history at each position. The team will wear throwback jerseys from the Butkus era (1962-64) in another attempt to blend past and present.

As of Thursday afternoon, Illinois expected 42 former players to attend Saturday's celebration. The list includes Butkus and his nephew, Mark, linebackers Kevin Hardy and Dana Howard, quarterbacks Jack Trudeau and Jeff George, running backs Jim Grabowski and Howard Griffith, defensive lineman Ed O'Bradovich and tight end Ken Dilger.

Who knows, maybe Red Grange will show up. He's called the Galloping Ghost for a reason.

"We seem to believe he's always around," Miller said.

The reunion holds special meaning for Miller, who grew up watching Hardy, Howard and Simeon Rice and heard about Butkus from his father. Miller has sensed similar excitement from sophomore linebacker Martez Wilson, who he describes as "a laid-back fellow" but someone who could one day hold similar legend status at Illinois.

Even players like defensive end Will Davis, who don't hail from the state, look forward to performing in front of Butkus.

"Since I've been here as a freshman, he's the main person you hear about," Davis said. "That's a name that rings far."

Illini defenders have added motivation this week after a sloppy performance in a 52-42 loss against Missouri. Miller said he missed at least four tackles in the game, three of which turned into big plays.

"We've got to represent," he said. "We let too many yards go this past weekend. These guys that are coming back, they used to run shop. They don't want to come back and see people get ran over. Those are guys I really look up to because that was Illinois football at its peak right there. We're still trying to get back to that."

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