The 90's Illini - Dana Howard
Why not just make this a series? I wrote about Kiwane Garris last week, and Dana Howard has now been voted into the College Football Hall Of Fame, so why not just write about a bunch of 1990's Illini players for a while? I mean, I lived and breathed Illini sports back then maybe even more than I do now - why not just pull up a bunch of memories from my giant head? So if you're having an "I knew Dana Howard was a great Illini player, but college football hall of fame?" moment right now, sit right back and you'll hear a tale...
If there is one player from my Illini lifetime (let's call it 1983, when I was 10 and began my obsession, to present) who I would want to place on the 2018 Illini team, it would be Dana Howard. No, not Jeff George or Kurt Kittner. No, not Simeon Rice rushing the passer or Brandon Lloyd catching passes. I would be a middle linebacker who cleaned up everything. And I mean everything. EVERYTHING.
Martin O'Donnell tweeted this fall that Josey Jewell was such an "eraser" for the Iowa football team. That's a great term for a great linebacker. Every defense makes mistakes - coverages, reads, etc. - but having a guy who can come through and erase those mistakes is such a plus. Dana Howard was the ultimate eraser. It felt like nothing ever got past him.
It's hard to explain to current Illini fans to have a middle linebacker who you could trust to A) make the correct read and B) make the tackle nearly every time. We've seen two linebackers come close to that in the last ten years - J Leman and, to a lesser extent, Jonathan Brown - but we haven't had another Dana Howard. And we'll probably never have another Dana Howard. Some statistics:
- Tackles, per season, from 1991 to 1994: 147, 150, 148, 150. (Illini leading tackler last season: DelShawn Phillips with 85)
- Two-time All American. We've had several one-time All Americans of late (Whitney Mercilus, Martin O'Donnell), but Howard pulled it off back-to-back.
- Two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. (When is the last time we even had someone on the first team? Mercilus in 2011?)
- 1994 Butkus Award winner.
- All-time leading tackler in the Big Ten (595 tackles).
But it's more than that.
My freshman year (1991) we win our opener against East Carolina and then nearly won at Missouri (Ken Dilger dropped the winning touchdown in the endzone in the final two minutes). We come back home and destroy a really good Houston team and then find ourselves ranked after beating Minnesota. We're #20, Ohio State is #11, and Ohio State is headed to Champaign for a matchup on national TV. Yes, we really did play games like this, even in the early 1990's.
What does a freshman Dana Howard do in that Ohio State game? He comes up with TWENTY FOUR TACKLES and Illinois, despite having zero offense that day, wins the game 10-7. And this wasn't some "he had a bunch of combo tackles and it boosted his stats". Of the 24 tackles, 20 were solo. One Illini player - a freshman - pretty much single-handedly beat mighty Ohio State.
And he wasn't done with Ohio State. In 1994 (Howard's senior season), Illinois finds themselves ranked 25th in early October but then gets stunned by Purdue at home. What does Dana Howard do? He goes to the media and guarantees a win over #17 Ohio State in Columbus the following week. And what do we go do? Beat Ohio State 24-10. What was the biggest play of the game? Dana Howard reading a slant when the Buckeyes had first and goal and stepping in front of Joey Galloway (on a play that would have been a certain touchdown) to pick off the pass. All told - 14 tackles, 2 sacks, and that huge interception.
I want to repeat that, for emphasis.
- Linebacker on unranked Illini team: "I guarantee we beat #17 Ohio State next week in Columbus".
- Linebacker on unranked team then has 14 tackles, 2 sacks, and an interception to beat #17 Ohio State in Columbus.
I mean, sure, players make guarantees from time to time, but how many of them go out and are almost single-handedly responsible for backing that up? THAT'S why Dana Howard has always belonged in the College Football Hall Of Fame. Yes, the statistics are there (leading Big Ten tackler ever), but he elevated his teams every season with otherworldly performances.
Howard continues to be an ambassador for the program, too. This is one of my favorite Illini photos. That's Kevin Mitchell with the game-saving interception at the end of the Penn State game in 2007. The guy cheering on the sideline? Dana Howard.
I saw Dana Howard at Ballpark Village in St. Louis after the Braggin' Rights win. He still had several people - including my friend Andrew who was sitting with me at the time - ask him for photos. I'm so glad that people still get it. He's Illini royalty - absolute royalty - and deserves to never buy a drink for the rest of his life.
And now he's off to the College Football Hall Of Fame. Which is perfect - absolutely perfect.