Illinois-Indiana preview: Vic Koenning has Illini 'D' working like a well-oiled machine
A family man who doesn't see his wife and kids for the greater part of the week during the football season, Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning faced the reality of it all.
"I've got three boys that my wife is raising right now,'' Koenning said. "I'd like to say that I am, but I'm not.''
Koenning hopes they understand. He sacrifices time he would spend with family on raising young men on his defense. In his first fall here, Koenning's defense grew up quickly, becoming the most improved defense in the Big Ten heading into the Illini's homecoming game against Indiana on Saturday.
A porous unit that didn't give the Illini a chance last season, Illinois jumped from 91st nationally a year ago to 20th in total defense, 76th to 23rd in rushing defense and 96th to 24th in scoring defense. While the coaching staff changed, the roster stayed the same, with the exception of linebacker Martez Wilson, who missed most of 2009 with an injury.
"He's using the same players as last year,'' said Illini coach Ron Zook, acknowledging the job done on defense.
The improvement came under the leadership of Koenning, a 50-year-old native of Owasso, Okla., and former Kansas State linebacker who still likes the wide-open spaces. Already known for drawing a line in the sand and forcing his side of the ball to become accountable, Koenning brought a track record of success and innovation, tinkering with a shifting. He also treats his players like sons, and the Illini responded.
"We're from two totally different places, two totally different environments,'' said safety Trulon Henry, a native of Washington, D.C., who spent five years in prison. "He connects with us. He cares about us individually, what's going on in our lives, what's going on in the classroom. He's always asking about my wife and daughter.''
A Baptist who found strength in prayer, Koenning is here to be a server, he said.
"Not only does he push us in practice, he tells us he appreciates us and loves us as players,'' Wilson said. "It makes you want to play harder for him.''
Even if it's just a little sugar, it works, but this doesn't look like an act.
"I've said, 'One of the reasons I'm here is because I get to know you,' '' Koenning said. "I never had a coach tell me that. Except for one coach, they just cared if I was eligible.''
This interaction helped travel the cultural divide between Koenning's drawl and the city slang from D.C.
"His drawl just loosens them up,'' said Troy coach Larry Blakeney, who landed a defensive coordinator after Wyoming fired Koenning as head coach after three seasons in 2002. "He can use the drawl to relax them. His personality, no matter how he speaks, is what brings Vic across to you.''
When looking for a defensive coordinator, former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden wanted proven success. After the 2004 season, he found it with Koenning, who guided Troy to top 10 finishes nationally in scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense.
"Some people say stats are for losers,'' Bowden said. "When you're trying to hire somebody, you want a guy with a track record. If he's going to be productive in all those areas, his X's and O's mind must be pretty good.''
Under Koenning, the Tigers ranked 16th, ninth and 13th nationally in total defense in the final three seasons of a four-year run there. Last season, Koenning overhauled the Kansas State defense, improving it from 112th against the run the previous season to 16th and total defense from 117th to 40th.
His wife, Tracey, and the kids lived in a family home at Orange Beach, Ala., last year, and Koenning needed to find a place where everyone would be happy. Koenning liked the family atmosphere at Illinois.
The Koennings settled near the Sangamon River between Champaign and Monticello, and it reminds him of Owasso. His sons -- Brady, 14; Camden, 10; and Jackson, 9 -- are typical country boys with plenty of Monticello purple and gold, he said. They also like to fish and ride their four-wheelers hard.
"One of (ATVs) is broken,'' said Koenning, who also has a daughter, Kimberly, and grandson in Oklahoma. "One of their buddies hit a tree and bent the front end. That's what they want for Christmas.''
The time with his players doesn't make up for missed time with his sons, Koenning said, so he gives the young boys as much attention as possible.
"It's tough on Vic not seeing his family much,'' Tracey said. "When he has any time, he takes the kids outside. They go on hikes and build bonfires. They made an archery course. They put a canoe in the river. He amazes me sometimes. I know he's completely exhausted, and he will still happily go do whatever they want. They have a lot of fun together.''
So do Koenning and his Illini.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.
Illinois (3-3) vs. Indiana (4-2)
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium (62,870), Champaign
Series record: Illinois leads 43-21-3
Big Ten records: Illinois 1-2, Indiana 0-2
Last meeting: Indiana 27-14 (2009)
Rankings: Both teams unranked
Coaches: Ron Zook, 24-42 in sixth year at Illinois, 47-56 in ninth year overall; Bill Lynch, 18-25 in fourth year at Indiana, 99-92-3 in 18th year overall.
NCAA rankings: Illinois offense -- rushing 29th, 200.3; passing 114th, 136.3; scoring 92nd, 21.3; total 84th, 336.6. Illinois defense -- rushing 23rd, 113.0; passing 35th, 190.0; scoring 24th, 18.5; total 20th, 303.0. Indiana offense -- rushing 104th, 101.5; passing 5th, 319.3; scoring 27th, 34.1; total 37th, 420.8. Indiana defense -- rushing 85th, 169.8; passing 86th, 230.8; scoring 83rd, 28.6; total 89th, 400.6.
Notable: According to the NCAA, the Illini faced the second most difficult schedule in the nation through six games. Illinois opponents are 26-7 (not counting games vs. Illini). … Illinois is 2-3 vs. Indiana under Zook. … Illini running back Mikel Leshoure rushed for 83 yards in the loss to Michigan State, the fifth time in the last 12 games he failed to reach 100 yards. … Cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who missed the first four games because of a stress fracture in his foot, began working as a punt and kick returner this week. … Illinois safety Steve Hull is expected to play after returning from a sprained ankle. … Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell leads the Big Ten with 1,858 yards passing, with 16 touchdowns and three interceptions. … Illinois celebrates its homecoming for the 100th time.
Quotable: "They're very good against the run. They play hard. I'm sure getting Martez (Wilson) back in the middle helped them. There's good experience in the secondary. It's a combination of things. They're playing well right now.'' -- Indiana coach Bill Lynch, on the Illinois defense.
Prediction: Illinois 31, Indiana 20