Ethos October 16, 2011
I get to my seat close to game time. I had hoped to get in there early today so I could pace off some nerves in the aisle, but it just didn’t work out that way. 3 minutes after I arrived at my seat, we were kicking off. 3 minutes after that, my section was complaining.
The defense wasn’t tackling correctly. We should have known what play they’d run there. “Tackle somebody!” We finally force an Ohio State third down, and the only noise, at least from my section, is more complaining.
This was nothing new, of course. I think anyone who has attended an Illinois game in the last few years, especially visiting fans who are accustomed to their home crowd, are taken aback by the negativity in Memorial Stadium. My buddy from Arkansas is accustomed to a festive atmosphere in Reynolds Stadium, with every fan “calling the hogs” and a raucous crowd from start to finish. As I said a few weeks ago, he leaned over at our first opponents third down and asked why no one was yelling.
I saw a great phrase on one of our message boards that I think fits what I’m trying to say: “there’s something uniquely negative about Illinois fans”. That’s what is bothering me. It’s not booing – all fans boo when displeased, from college football to tennis (OK, in tennis I think they whistle, but you get the point). It’s not the complaints about coaching decisions – all fans in all college stadiums do that at some point during the game. It’s not even the failure to stand and cheer – let’s be honest, there wasn’t much to cheer about yesterday. I think I’ve put my finger on what has been bothering me. It’s the ethos.
e-thos – (noun): 1. The characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as seen in its beliefs and aspirations.
You attend a game at Indiana, and you get this sense of, I don’t know, sarcasm. They’ve been terrible for 20 years and everyone is in on the joke. Let’s go tailgate so more.
You attend a game at Iowa, and there’s this unbridled overconfidence (some might say cocky – I am one of those people). The crowd certainly voices displeasure, but it’s because they’re all in on it – they’ll will this team to victory if they have to.
You attend a game at Wisconsin, and there’s almost a creepy devotion, like everyone got up in the morning and recited their oath to Barry Alvarez. But it’s a good kind of creepy – some of the loudest cheers I’ve ever been around are when Wisconsin tackles a tailback for a 3 yard gain early in the first quarter. That crowd would cheer for the trainers.
Attend a game at Illinois, and I think the description these days would have to be “uniquely negative”. We’re 6-0, ranked 15th, and the crowd is angry at the tackling on the third play from scrimmage. It’s almost as if the crowd gets excited for an opportunity to get angry, if that makes any sense.
I struggled with this on the drive home, and then a commenter in the From The Stands post helped me figure it out (thanks, Hoppy): ethos is part of Zook’s job.
At first, I didn’t think that was the case. Fans at Arkansas and Iowa and Indiana aren’t exactly coach-dependent. These fanbases have developed their ethos over generations, with many different coaches on the sidelines. How could you simply point at a coach? Wouldn’t a long-term AD be the better target?
But the more I thought about our specific situation, the more it seemed that Hoppy was right. Why do our fans look so negatively at every game situation? Because they don’t have much confidence in our head coach to make the right decision. There’s a reason “Zook” was trending on Twitter last evening, and it’s not because barefoot waterskiing pictures are suddenly all the rage. College football fans and media-types can’t wait to get their hands on the latest “Zooking”, be it not knowing the score or not kicking an obvious field goal.
Part of the job of a head coach is ethos. Part of the job is becoming a figurehead to rally around. You don’t have to be perfect – Les Miles might be insane and Mike Gundy is a man who is 40 – but you have to be solid. You have to be the immovable center of the ethos. And right now, with multiple questionable decisions in the last
two weeks 7 years, Ron Zook isn’t providing that.
I’ve said many times that I wish fans could see Ron Zook in other situations – chatting with a recruit, speaking to grandparents at a football family BBQ (he knows every name). There’s a reason he’s able to close on so many recruits just before signing day – he’s an infectious personality. Adding Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning appears to have shored up other weaknesses during his tenure, and I continue to think he does a good job with the pregame speeches and such.
But he’s not helping the ethos. With each poor sideline decision, he continues to lose the home fans a little more. And after 20 years of “we’ve arrived! *pulls rug*”, Illinois fans are edgy to begin with.
I still wish it wasn’t about the success of individual plays on the field during the game – I wish our fans simply wanted to support our team because those are our guys; if they need us to stand and yell, we’ll stand and yell, regardless of how we feel about the coaching decisions – but I think I might understand it a little more today. To build that kind of fanbase, you need a strong leader on the sideline that everyone can rally around. And we just don’t have that right now.
To the game (and this should be short, because our faults were pretty simple):
+ Maybe I’ll watch the game on tape and see that many of these balls couldn’t have been caught. But if there’s one thing I take from today, it’s that drops by wide receivers absolutely killed us.
For starters, Spencer Harris has to come up with that ball in the endzone. I’m sure there’s been much talk about the Zook decision to go for it instead of kick the field goal, but all of that is moot if Harris hauls in that TD. It would be 17-14 with 1:25 to go and two timeouts – even if the onsides kick is unsuccessful, we could still stop the clock a few times and theoretically get the ball back with time to get into field goal range.
But there were other drops, too. Ryan Lankford on third down. Harris again on third down. Again, maybe I’ll see on tape that these were not good throws. But if we can haul in most of these passes (and if AJ doesn’t fumble after one of his catches), that’s a different game.
+ It’s crazy how Tressel’d were were without Tressel on the sidelines. Their formula is so simple: Don’t turn the ball over (which is why they didn’t throw). Punts aren’t a bad thing. Win the field position battle. Force turnovers, and take advantage of those turnovers.
Done, done, done, done, and done. We made two huge mistakes, they capitalized (immediately) on both, and ballgame. Biggest play of the game, to me, was their one completion (the Stoneburner touchdown). Hold them to a field goal there, and we’re driving for the winning score with 2 minutes left.
But of course that didn’t happen. Because Ohio State did what Ohio State has been doing for years – play smart, efficient football and walk away with a victory.
+ I was very surprised to see that Ohio State only ran for 221 yards – I would have guessed 300+. I guess my initial feelings were incorrect – the defense really didn’t do anything poorly today besides not force any turnovers. If we hold teams to 228 yards and 17 points at home, we should win.
The offense, on the other hand, in their first test against a top defense, performed poorly. Costly turnovers, drops, and only 7 points. I’m hoping it was a good reality check for us – Purdue’s defense isn’t bad and Penn State’s defense is outstanding – this offense will be severely tested in the next few weeks.
Paul Petrino has shown that he can gameplan accordingly when we’re struggling – I’m expecting a much better effort next week.
+ The good: we’re 6-1, headed to a bowl game, and our defense has shown that they will get to the quarterback against every offensive line they face. That will keep us in a lot of games.
The bad: we’ve turned the ball over 8 times in three Big Ten games. Keep that up, and we might struggle to only 1 or 2 more wins.
The ugly: me choosing a game like that to bring up the subject of negative fans.