COLLEGE FOOTBALL ’88 : PASSING THROUGH: Jeff George Finally Settles In With Illini

Times Staff Writer

Jeff George has given his heart, and right arm, to someone new again, pledging loyalty and happiness to a team he never thought he’d be playing for. He was supposed to beat these guys, not lead them.

He was a record-setting high school quarterback from Indianapolis who decided to stay close to home, playing for Purdue and Coach Leon Burtnett. Then Burtnett got fired, Fred Akers got hired and George decided to leave after one season, rather than play for a man he perceived as a run-oriented coach.

George announced that he would play for Jimmy Johnson and the Miami Hurricanes, then changed his mind before enrolling and went back to the Big Ten, choosing Illinois and Mike White. Then White was forced to resign in the wake of a National Collegiate Athletic Assn. investigation as George sat out his transfer year, as specified, and John Mackovic took over.


Which raises the question: Is George right back in the kind of situation he left as he prepares for his first game since 1986 when Illinois plays host to Washington State Saturday?

Yes and no.

Like Purdue’s, Illinois’ program seems to be heading south. The Illini have had 7-4, 6-5-1, 4-7 and 3-7-1 seasons since a Rose Bowl appearance after the 1983 season. Attendance at Memorial Stadium has also steadily declined the last four years. This season, only two offensive starters are back from 1987, so George will be the big name, try as Illini coaches may to keep him out of that role. So much rests on him.

But there are differences. For one thing, Illinois figures to throw the ball. And for another, George is more experienced as a third-year sophomore and has had a year to adjust to Mackovic’s system without having to play. He’s also more mature.

That’s at least partially because of what he went through to get here, and not only in picking a different school. He was practically chased out of Purdue after announcing plans to transfer.

Signs were posted on his dorm room door, urging him to leave immediately rather than wait until the end of the school year, and firecrackers were tossed through an open window into his living quarters.

As the situation got progressively worse, George, a hero only months earlier after deciding to play for the Boilermakers, packed up and moved back to Indianapolis. He finished his freshman year as a commuter, driving 75 minutes each way to West Lafayette.


“I had to get out,” he said. “I never knew what was going to happen.”

Because of his move, he’s a walk-on forever at Illinois, since a Big Ten rule prohibits scholarships for inter-conference transfers. So, one of the most promising quarterbacks in the country had to pay about $10,000 last year, counting non-resident tuition, books, room and board, to play for the scout team. He will spend “about half as much” this year after having established residence in the state.

George figures his willingness to pay his way says a lot about his commitment to Illinois. He could be getting a free education and, having a much better chance of winning, at Miami or UCLA, the two other finalists in both recruiting go-rounds. He’s more of a student here instead of a star, which is just fine.

“It’s hard to think about paying my way the next three years, but it will be worth it,” he said.

“Right now I feel like a veteran. The maturity I’ve gained the past two or three years, I can’t really describe it. Not only as a player, but as a person. I feel I can handle any situation put on me.”

All this fuss over this boy George?

Indications are that he will be worth it.

Said Bill Rees, the UCLA assistant coach who tried to recruit George for the Bruins: “I first saw him as a (high school) sophomore and felt he was very far along, that he could be an outstanding player. He made a very favorable impression then. We followed him as a junior and senior, and he certainly was a tremendous quarterback and a tremendous athlete.

“At that point, I would say that he compared very favorably with some of the good ones--the (Dan) Marinos, the (John) Elways and some of the others who have gone on to do real well. He was in their league at that stage.”


Former Purdue quarterback coach Bob Spoo, a Boilermaker player in the 1950s who later worked with Mark Herrmann and Jim Everett, told the Lafayette Journal and Courier: “He is much more advanced than any quarterback I’ve ever coached.”

White, who spent time with Craig Morton, Jim Plunkett, Steve Bartkowski, Vince Ferragamo, Rich Campbell, Tony Eason and Jack Trudeau, was quoted as saying in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Jeff has an arm as good as any I’ve ever had. He can throw short, long, he has a touch. I’ve seen it daily. That’s where you start. He’s got the kind of arm everybody looks for.”

It’s not so much the strength of the arm, though, as it is the accuracy and quick release. Dropping back to pass, George looks like a baseball pitcher delivering a quick pitch. He seems to be slinging the ball while still bringing his arm back.

“It’s the package,” said Gene Dahlquist, Illinois’ offensive coordinator. “Putting all the assets together, very few people are blessed with that combination.”

Said Illini defensive back Glenn Cobb, from Pasadena City College and Muir High School in Pasadena, recalling George’s first appearance at a practice last year: “Everyone wanted to see how good he was because we had heard so much about him. We saw he was a kick-back kind of guy and he dropped back kind of slow, but when he threw, it was like fire.”

George set national high school records for career completions with 543 and touchdowns in a season, 45, and was regarded as the nation’s No. 1 prospect in 1985.


He proved to be a sound investment for an overmatched Purdue team even before playing his first game. His family and friends bought 238 season tickets for $19,992. At the time, that figure would have covered his four-year scholarship.

His first college game, against Pittsburgh on Sept. 20, 1986, was indicative of the season as a whole. He completed 28 of 50 passes for 264 yards and 2 touchdowns, but he also threw 5 interceptions and was sacked 6 times. For the season, he started 7 games, missed 4 with an injured back, and had 4 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and 21 sacks.

He also gained a reputation as being aloof and cocky and, even worse, a momma’s boy when his mother left the stands to join him on a golf-cart ride to the locker room after George suffered a mild concussion on the first series of the Minnesota game.

Said backup quarterback Doug Downing, in what has become an oft-repeated comment: “I told my mom if she ever did that, I’d knock her off the cart.”

It took all of one day for the school to respond to George’s announcement that he would transfer. Bookstores were selling anti-George buttons, and souvenir jerseys with George’s No. 12 circled and slashed went fast.

When he left Purdue at the end of the school year, he figured it was with as many friends as he’d had going in, receivers Lance Scheib and Kipp Koonce, who were his teammates at Warren Central High.


As it turned out, the Boilermakers threw the ball more under Akers than they had Burtnett, although they also ran more plays. George, however, isn’t concerned that he might have moved hastily.

“I watched their games,” he said. “They were losing, so they had to do something. You can’t run then.”

When George returned to West Lafayette last October to watch the Purdue-Illinois game, he wasn’t welcomed back. Jeff, his mother, father and girlfriend parked in a fraternity lot and were walking to Ross-Ade Stadium when the brothers greeted him with a 15-man mooning in the front window. How the house members knew the Georges would park there was, and still is, anyone’s guess, but this was obviously carefully planned.

“You hear about guys transferring without much trouble all the time,” George said. “But it didn’t happen that way with me. Probably because I was from Indiana and a hometown boy. They didn’t want me to get the best of them, but it shouldn’t have been like that.

“I don’t have any regrets about going there. If I had to do it all over again, I’d still pick Purdue (under the same circumstances). It’s a year no one can take away from me. . . . I know it sounds crazy, but I now know it will help me down the line be a better person.”

Be that as it may, George is excited about playing Purdue Oct. 8. His only regret is that he’ll have to wait until next season to play again at Ross-Ade.


On the Purdue side, they’re saying it will be business as usual for a former teammate.

“What’s happened happened,” said Downing, who replaced George as starter last season and is now a graduate assistant. “Let it rest. . . . We’ll go after every quarterback. Illinois is Illinois and Notre Dame is Notre Dame.”

George, however, considers the game special. It’s his chance to throw some firecrackers back.

“Now I’m already feeling (the excitement),” he said. “I can’t imagine how I’m going to feel that day.

“I’m the same person now as when I was at Purdue. There’s nothing different. I’m still a quiet person. But (the Illinois players) accepted me right off the bat. When they did that, I realized what kind of people there were in West Lafayette. The atmosphere here is completely different.”