In the middle of wrapping up my exclusive with Kurt Kittner, an overzealous autograph seeker proclaimed, quite loudly, he was in the presence of the greatest quarterback in Illinois football history.
Kittner was one of about 15-20 members of the 2001 Big Ten title team under a tent in Grange Grove that morning signing autographs when this loud super fan approached the table. That specific Illini fanatic is not wrong! Kurt Kittner is the school’s all time leader in touchdown passes, by a wide margin, and he finished his four years in Champaign just three yards shy of the Illini career passing yardage mark.
— Fully Vaxxed Paul M. Banks (@PaulMBanks) August 28, 2021
He’s also number one in QB victories and passing attempts, and sits top five to top ten for the rest of the other main passing records as well. If you don’t label Kittner the best QB in Illinois history, then maybe you can go with Jack Trudeau, but after these two, there’s a big drop-off.
In July 2007, Kittner took over color commentary for University of Illinois football radio broadcasts, replacing long-time analyst Jim Grabowski.
In 2014, he stepped away from the role, having just had his second kid with his wife Leila Cehajic, a former University of Illinois tennis player.
“I was going to home and road games, and it was just a lot on the home front and I wanted to make sure I was more present on the home front,” Kittner said.
“Not running around watching football games, which I loved, but it was just time to use that time on the home front with the family.
“It’s been well worth it, I miss it a little bit, but I’m enjoying the time with the kids…I’m trying to brainwash them into being huge Illini fans.
“They’re still young but the more you bring ’em down, the more they’re going to love it.”
Kittner only played seven games in the NFL, starting four, all of which came with the Atlanta Falcons in 2002. His final National Football League stat line reads 2 TD passes, 6 INTs, 391 yards passing with a QB Rating of 32.5.
After being released by Atlanta, he was then cut by the Bengals, Giants, Patriots, and Steelers, making it five teams within a 7-month span in 2004.
However, he led the Amsterdam Admirals to a World Bowl XIII championship, and he was MVP of World Bowl XIII. From there his former college coach, Ron Turner, then in his second stint as Chicago Bears offensive coordinator, was able to hook the Schaumburg native up with a job.
Kittner made the 2005 Bears roster, as the third string QB, but he didn’t throw a pass that regular season, and was released late that November. He qualified for the NFL pension, and then started working for the Real Estate Investment Trust run by NFL legend Roger Staubach.
The company was then sold about a dozen years ago to Jones Lang La Salle, where Kittner works as a commercial real estate analyst (the same job he started in with the firm) in the Chicagoland area.
Kurt Kittner gave his take on the just recently begun Bret Bielema era:
“I’m excited to see more competitive, disciplined football, a mentally and physically tough team.
“He’s a Big Ten guy and he knows how to win in the Big Ten. It’s going to be take some time but I’m excited to see the product on the field for sure.”
The Nebraska win in the curtain raiser certainly provided some sense of additional excitement in the base, but that all faded just as quickly as it arrived, due to Saturday night’s home loss to UTSA.
We knew this was going to take time, and it might, unfortunately, take a lot more time than we hope. Turner, Tim Beckman and Ron Zook all made bowl games in their third season on the job; Lovie Smith took four.
The magic of 2001 certainly feels like it happened more that just two decades ago, and it could be a long while before it comes back. Kurt Kittner listed some of his favorite memories of the special 10-1 regular season: the come from behind win over Wisconsin, the night game victory against Penn State, and
“any time you beat Ohio State at Ohio State is great and then winning in your last game at Memorial Stadium, with a trophy on Thanksgiving day is pretty special,” he added.
That Illini team, and what they accomplished, seems all the more amazing when you consider the program suffered through a winless season four years earlier.
2001 Big Ten Champions 20 Year Reunion Exclusives
Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News Now. Banks, the author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America” and “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGN, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune.