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Top 5 Fighting Illini football head coaches all time
Robert Zuppke, right, with Red “The Galloping Ghost” Grange, left. (Courtesy: University of Illinois Athletics)

Top 5 Fighting Illini football head coaches all time

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (BVM) — The Illinois Fighting Illini football program is over 130 years old. In that time, it’s seen many successful coaches at the helm of the team. Here’s a look at the top five.

5. Arthur R. Hall (1904; 1907-1912)

Having previously played for Illinois from 1898-1900, Hall already had roots with this program. While initially sharing the title of head coach with several others in 1904, Hall ran the team as solo head coach from 1907-1912. Hall was the first coach the Fighting Illini had that led them for longer than five seasons. This mark is a testament to the consistency Hall coached the team with. 

This consistency and drive to win would be shown in several seasons that Hall coached. Hall’s best year as head coach was in 1910 when Illinois went 7-0, outscored opponents 89-0, and won the Western Conference. The same year, Hall would lead Illinois to secure a Big Ten championship. Hall would end up retiring after 1912 with a record of 36-12-4.

4. John Mackovic (1988-1991)

While Mackovic’s tenure with Illinois wasn’t that long, he was able to make an immediate impact with the organization. Illinois’ previous season in 1987 was disappointing, as the team went a measly 3-7-1. With Mackovic stepping in as the new head coach, the organization hoped he could turn the team around. Mackovic made an immediate impact. In his first season, the team went 6-5-1 and went on to compete in the 1988 All-American Bowl. Despite losing that bowl to the Florida Gators, Mackovic’s impact was already felt.

John Mackovic Illinois Fighting Illini football
John Mackovic on the sidelines for Illinois. (Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports)

The following season in 1989 was Mackovic’s best in terms of team record. Illinois went 10-2, and the team went on to compete in the 1990 Florida Citrus Bowl where they defeated the Virginia Cavaliers, 31-21. In 1988 and 1989, Mackovic was also named Big Ten Coach of the Year.

In 1990, Mackovic had another successful run with Illinois. The team went 8-4 and would go on to secure a Big Ten championship. Illinois shared this title with Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State. Mackovic’s team would also compete in the 1991 Hall of Fame Bowl, but would lose to the Clemson Tigers, 30-0.


Mackovic’s final year was in 1991, where he led Illinois to a record of 6-5. Illinois would go on to again compete in another bowl game, the John Hancock Bowl, where they lost to the UCLA Bruins, 6-3. 

While Mackovic’s tenure with Illinois was short, it was full of postseason runs and a Big Ten championship. Mackovic would end up with a record of 30-16-1 all time in his time at Illinois.

3. Mike White (1980-1987)

White was a coach whose impact with Illinois would be immediate. Although the team went just 3-7-1 in his first season in 1980, White’s coaching style could truly be felt on the team. In 1981, the Illini went a much-improved 7-4.

The 1982 season would be another strong year for Illinois under White’s coaching, and it even saw Illinois competing in the Liberty Bowl. Illinois would lose that bowl game against the Alabama Crimson Tide, 21-15. Despite the loss, this postseason journey would mark the impact that White had on his team in just a few short years.


The 1983 season would be White’s most successful run with Illinois during his tenure. The team would go 10-2, and Illinois would secure the Big Ten championship as well as a trip to the Rose Bowl. White would also win Big Ten Coach of the Year. The 1984 season saw a slight slip in terms of success, but the team still did well with a 7-4 record. The following season in 1985 would see Illinois go 6-5-1, with a trip to the Peach Bowl.

Both the 1986 and ‘87 seasons for Illinois were disappointing as the team finished under .500 both years. This would signify the end of the White era in terms of head coaching. Despite those two disappointing seasons, White would end up with a 47-41-3 record with Illinois. 

After his stint with the Fighting Illini, White would go on to coach the Oakland Raiders for a few seasons. He eventually won a championship as a member of the coaching staff of the St. Louis Rams after Super Bowl XXXIV. 

2. Ray Eliot (1942-1959)

Eliot is a legendary figure for the University of Illinois. Dubbed “Mr. Illini,” Eliot had many roots with the school between his playing, coaching and administrative days. Eliot served as the head coach for Illinois for 17 seasons. He’s the secondlongest tenured coach in the organization’s history, and his success with the team is a large part of this reason. 


The coach’s first few seasons with Illinois weren’t exactly special. However, the mid 1940s is where Eliot’s success with the team began to shine. In 1946, Eliot led Illinois to an 8-2 record as the team secured what was at the time the Big Nine Conference championship. Illinois would also go on to compete in the Rose Bowl where they defeated the UCLA Bruins, 45-14.

Eliot’s most successful year with Illinois would be in 1951. In that season, Illinois went 9-0-1 and won both the Big Ten Conference championship and the Rose Bowl game, this time against the Stanford Indians, 40-7.

Eliot would lead Illinois to secure a third Big Ten championship under his reign in 1953. That year, Illinois would go 7-1-1. 

Eliot had a few more seasons with the team that were notable, such as his 1950 year where the team went 7-2, leading to an all-time record with Illinois of 83-73-11. His consistent postseason success with the Fighting Illini is one of the major reasons Eliot is remembered so fondly at Illinois. Being able to secure three Big Ten championships and two Rose Bowl victories is no easy feat, and that’s what cemented Eliot’s legacy.


1. Robert Zuppke (1913-1941)

Simply put, Zuppke is the greatest coach the Fighting Illini have ever had grace the field. Zuppke held on to the reins of the team for over two decades, coaching generations of talent during his titanic run with the organization. 

Within Zuppke’s first three seasons with Illinois, he racked up multiple titles. From 1914-1915, Illinois secured a national championship, as well as two Big Nine Conference championships. By the late 1910s, Zuppke would add a few more titles under his already impressive list of accomplishments. 

Robert Zuppke Illinois Fighting Illini football
Robert Zuppke spent nearly three decades on the sidelines for Illinois. (Courtesy: University of Illinois Athletics)

In 1918 and 1919, Illinois would once again have massive postseason success, adding two more Big Nine Conference championships as well as another national championship. Within those seven seasons, Zuppke had already established a Hall of Fame coaching career, but he was nowhere close to being done. 

While the next few seasons were less than ideal for Illinois, Zuppke would once again add to his legacy in 1923. That season, Illinois went 8-0 and again added both a Big Ten Conference championship, as well as another national championship. 


By the end of the decade, Illinois would once again be champions under Zuppke’s leadership, as the Fighting Illini won Big Ten titles and national championships in 1927 and 1928. 

While 1928 would be the final season where Zuppke and Illinois won a championship together, the organization still had several seasons of success under his leadership. Zuppke would still coach for Illinois for over a decade, finally retiring in 1941. His alltime record would end up being 131-82-12. In 1951, Zuppke was officially inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Photo: Robert Zuppke, right, with Red “The Galloping Ghost” Grange, left. (Courtesy: University of Illinois Athletics)