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The Big Kurt
ESPN The Magazine

In a bizarre twist, the Heisman race has seemingly shaped up into a QB derby -- a four-horse race between Rex Grossman, Ken Dorsey, Joey Harrington and Eric Crouch.

Now, I've made it pretty clear that I think Oklahoma safety Roy Williams is the best player in the nation -- but having come to the realization that voters won't go that route, I think there is a guy who is every bit as deserving as those other quarterbacks.

That guy is Illinois' Kurt Kittner.

For starters, Kittner wins. The Illini took the Big Ten title outright, and only Dorsey's Hurricanes have a better record. And while I agree that the Heisman isn't -- and shouldn't be -- a reward for a great career, consider how awful Illinois was the year before Kittner got there (0-11). And with all due respect to the other QBs, who all benefit from either can't-miss schemes, great offensive lines or talented receivers, Kittner means as much to this team as any of them.

I remember doing a feature on Kittner for The Magazine last year, and seeing how uncomfortable he was at the photo shoot. It was done the morning after Illinois got jobbed by the refs against Michigan on two horrible calls. Our photographer had this idea to shoot Kurt sitting at the top of Memorial Stadium overlooking the field. The picture was taken from above him.

When our photographer handed Kurt a sample Polaroid, he just winced. "Damn, I think I'm starting to get a bald spot back there," he said straight-faced. "Oh well, do what you have to do."

See, Kittner understood that this story was as much about his coach Ron Turner and the Illinois program as it was about Kurt and his relationship with his ailing mother, Lee Trantin, who suffers from multiple sclerosis.

In many ways, Kittner is the modern anti-Heisman candidate. He has no slick web site or CD-ROM to trumpet his campaign, and his style is about as flashy as a pickup truck. But he is just as reliable as an old F-150 too, especially at crunch time. He stands tall in the pocket, will take a blitz right in the chest and hang in until his man comes open. You've heard that cliche about a QB having "intangibles"? Kittner's got a ton of 'em.

Turner found that out when Kittner was a freshman and on the business end of a 41-0 loss to Ohio State. "Nobody noticed because we got killed," says Turner. "But he was brilliant.

"I reviewed the film to make sure my first impression was right. We had 63 offensive snaps and he got blitzed on 47 of them. This is a true freshman, under all that pressure. He saw everything that was happening on every play but one, when he got blindsided by a linebacker. I remember looking in his eyes, and I saw a fighter. I was amazed by his poise. I said to myself, 'There's no telling how good this kid can be.' "

From a statistical standpoint, only Grossman has better numbers. Kittner's 2,994 passing yards will easily outdo Dorsey's 2,432 and Harrington's 2,311 regardless of what those two do this weekend. He's also led the Illini to five comeback wins this fall.

"You can't just look at stats," Turner said. "Kurt is a winner, and when you look at what he has accomplished on the field and what he has accomplished since he has been with the program ... Hopefully, they'll look at all that and they'll look at the heart and they'll look at the character."

It'd be a mistake if they didn't.

·Random coaching gossip: UNC DC Jon Tenuta and former Tulane and Dartmouth head coach Buddy Teevens, a top recruiter and assistant at Florida, are now getting heavy looks by Vandy ... Oregon OC Jeff Tedford will interview at San Diego State Monday after the Ducks' regular-season finale this weekend ... Gerry DiNardo has made a good impression on the SMU folks. The next "name guy" the Mustangs are going to meet with is South Carolina assistant Skip Holtz ... Expect former La. Tech OC Clint Conque, now the head coach at Central Arkansas, to become the front runner for the vacant UL-Lafayette position.

Bruce Feldman covers college football for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at bruce.feldman@espnmag.com.



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