PMP 2023: JJ O'Laughlin

PMP 2023: JJ O'Laughlin

Next up on the Pick My Post list, a very specific question about a very specific Illini player. And it's actually not the most specific question I was asked as part of this. That one comes later (and it's a doozy).

First up, a big thank you to Michael Gidley for his donation to the scholarship fund. Here is his question:

Please tell me everything you know about JJ O'Laughlin in a million words or less, then tell me a fanciful story about how awesome it would have been to have a competent offense to go with the early 90's defenses. How happy would this have made our undergraduate years.

First, everything I know about JJ O'Laughlin:

When I got to campus in 1991, he was the next QB in line. The year before (when I was a senior in high school) we had transitioned from Jeff George to Jason Verduzco. And Verduzco was just a sophomore that year, so he was still going to be the starter in 1991 and 1992. Then JJ O'Laughlin had next.

But, like every college football program ever, there was a QB recruit in the 1991 class (Johnny Johnson) and a QB recruit in the 1992 class (Scott Weaver) and a QB recruit in the 1993 class (Jeff Hecklinski). So that was the QB competition after Verduzco aged out in 1992. Fall camp 1993 was the redshirt junior (O'Laughlin) vs. the redshirt sophomore (Johnson) vs. the redshirt freshman (Weaver) vs. the true freshman (Jeff Hecklinski).

When that competition ended up Weaver 1A, Johnson 1B, and O'Laughlin 3, JJ was out. He transferred at the end of camp before the season even started. And that's the last thing I know about JJ O'Laughlin.

A quick internet search does provide more info, though. I found an old story from the LA Times when O'Laughlin landed at Cal State Northridge. Want some more background on JJ leaving Illinois? Here's A LOT of background info on JJ O'Laughlin leaving Illinois:

"All (Northridge coaches) promised me was a chance to compete and contribute," O'Laughlin said before a recent practice. "I couldn't ask for anything more.
"You want to play for a coach and a team who wants you there and wants to see you succeed."
Did that last comment sound like a thinly veiled slap at Illinois?
It was.
Among O'Laughlin's most cherished possessions is a ring commemorating a Big 10 Conference co-championship won by Illinois in 1990. He says he misses good friends and his girlfriend, Kathleen Shannon, the setter on the Fighting Illini women's volleyball team. But he does not miss Lou Tepper, the school's second-year football coach.
Tepper replaced John Mackovic, the coach who recruited O'Laughlin to Illinois.
When Mackovic went to the University of Texas, O'Laughlin said, his chances of becoming quarterback went south with him. In his three years at Illinois, O'Laughlin trained under two head coaches and three offensive coordinators.
O'Laughlin emerged from drills last spring in a three-way battle with Johnny Johnson and Scott Weaver. During summer workouts, it became apparent he was the odd-man out. O'Laughlin even fell behind Jeff Hecklinski, a freshman, according to some accounts.
Convinced he was not being given a fair opportunity, O'Laughlin looked for a place to transfer near his home in Glendora. When his mother, Terry, phoned Northridge, Burt said he recalled watching J.J. play in high school. He welcomed O'Laughlin to try out if Illinois would release him from his scholarship.
O'Laughlin was a quarterback without a football team when he came to the coaches' office in Northridge's North Campus Stadium locker room the day after the Matadors dropped a 34-17 decision against San Diego State.
Asked what he knew of the Northridge program before that day, O'Laughlin said, "Not a lick. Just what I could tell from the stats in a magazine."
He entered the room. Matador coaches were poring over film.
Images of a football game were projected not on a screen, but onto a wall. When the lights came on, O'Laughlin noticed a hole in the wall.
At Illinois, there were no holes.
Not in the walls, nor in the football team's lineup. In his years as a member of the Fighting Illini, he rarely ventured between the chalk lines.
He was insurance, one of the good hands people.
When O'Laughlin played, it was not at quarterback. Last fall, he appeared in four games, each time as a member of a special "good hands" kickoff return squad that was inserted specifically in onside kick situations.
Coming out of summer drills this season, he seemed destined for similar duties.
So, he weighed his options.
On one hand there was Illinois, Big 10 Conference football and raucous crowds in the neighborhood of 100,000. There were state-of-the-art training and playing facilities. And, even for third- and fourth-stringers, there was the adulation of the fans.
On the other hand there was Northridge, something called cost-containment Division I-AA football and crowds that would fit comfortably in a Memorial Stadium washroom. There was a stadium that was once a 1940s horse racing track. And, even for star quarterbacks, there was apathy.
O'Laughlin glanced at the hole. He saw an opening.

(Man, sportswriting just ain't what it used to be. That's the good stuff.)

O'Laughlin showed up on our radars again when his son was a football recruit out of Fenwick HS back in 2018. He had some great offers (including Ohio State) and ended up choosing West Virginia. And no, according to his online recruiting profiles, he did not have an Illinois offer. I'm assuming there's still some bad blood there (O'Laughlin's wife was an Illinois volleyball player but I believe she also transferred to Cal State Northridge so neither mom nor dad finished their careers in Champaign). Mike O'Laughlin has one year of eligibility left and will be playing his final season at Houston this fall.

Further research shows that his brother Casey played baseball at Northwestern and then Azusa Pacific and that his younger sister Shannon will be a freshman on the volleyball team at Elon this year. So yeah, genetics still work the way they've always worked. Two athletes meet at Illinois, they get married and have three kids, and all three play Division I (three different sports).

One final note: the part of that LA Times story that sticks out to me is the "two head coaches and three offensive coordinators" part. There are so many quarterbacks we've put through that ringer over the last 30+ years. Recruited by one coach with one coordinator, we immediately change the offense the next year. Here's hoping we're done with all of that.

As for the second part of that question, I covered that a fair bit (with this question in mind) when I recorded the podcast about 1991 through 1994. But I do have more words about that. In my mind, it all comes down to two Lou Tepper decisions:

1. Hiring Tom Beck to be the OC in 1992.
2. Hiring Paul Schudel to be the OC in 1995.

Greg Landry in 1993 and 1994? He was fine. He wasn't some superstar offensive coordinator, but he was fine. Yes, the 0-3 start to 1993 meant that fans soured on him quickly, but he was easily (by a factor of 10, maybe) the best OC we had during that era. So much of Tepper's failure rests on Beck in 1992 (and not maintaining the momentum of the Mackovic years) and then Schudel in 1995. A few paragraphs on each:


The Big Ten was so, so bad in 1992. Maybe the worst Big Ten ever? Three teams won 6 or more: Michigan (9-0-3), Ohio State (8-3-1), and Illinois (6-5-1). Every other team had a losing record. No, you're reading that correctly. Every other Big Ten team had a losing record. Michigan State went 5-3 in the Big Ten but 0-3 in the non-conference. Iowa went 4-4 in the Big Ten but 1-2 in the non-conference. Losing record after losing record.

And we had an experienced offense (with a very experienced senior quarterback) which should have been ready to dominate. And it just wasn't there. The losses to Minnesota (they started the season 1-10 with the one win being an 18-17 win over Illinois) and Northwestern (we led 26-6 in the fourth quarter and let 1-5 Northwestern score 21 unanswered points to lose 27-26) were about as unacceptable as losses can be.

We should have had a dominant offense that year and it just fell flat. Beck was fired after only one year (a year that could have so easily been 9-2) and we started over again with Landry in 1993.


Yes, there was the Tepper-Landry-Chris Redman thing where Landry was fired and our star QB recruit immediately bailed. But those failures would manifest themselves later down the line (when we didn't have a QB in 1997/1998). The Schudel hire sank the whole thing. And 1995 was perhaps the best example of "even the 90th-best offense in college football could have pushed that team to 8 wins, but instead we had the kind of offense that ranked last or next-to-last in nearly every category."

Some scores that season:

Illinois 9, Arizona 7
Illinois 7, East Carolina 0
Northwestern 17, Illinois 14
Wisconsin 3, Illinois 3

Any kind of offense that year and we're bowling. Actually, I should use the word from the original question here because it fits what we saw in 1995 (or 1992): any kind of competent offense that year and we're bowling. Greg Landry put together a competent offense in 1993 and 1994. Still wanted more but the offense was at least competent.

1992 and 1995? Decent offensive lines, capable skill players, and absolute ineptitude in the scheme department. If you go back that far with Illinois football, even if you hated Landry, I'm guessing you at least agree with this outline:

1993: Still need more from the offense but at least there's a clear direction.
1994: The offense is right there. So close to what we need. Wish it was just 15% better.

Story of our football lives, right?