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It’s Always Darkest Before The Dawn. Or Something. April 5, 2012

I have this little thing on the blog where I can see what links people clicked on to get to the site (I’M IN UR INTERNTZ SPYIN ON UR CLIKZ). I’ll occasionally obsessively go look at the list to see if any of my posts were linked anywhere. And if it’s from some article or blog post, I’ll usually follow the link to see what they’re saying.

About a month ago, I followed a link to the great Mgoblog (yes, a Michigan website can be “great”). Brian had linked my Ain’t No Sunshine post and said the following:

A Lion Eye is depressed; A Lion Eye is always depressed. A Lion Eye reminds me of me two years ago.

Always depressed, eh? Valid. I started this blog three years ago, and in that time, the basketball team is 58-44, and the football team is 17-21. And, perhaps most importantly, I looked at that 17-21 and said to myself “you know, not really half bad, considering”. A basketball team that went from the mountaintop seven years ago tonight to one tournament win in six years. A football team that has won seven regular season games only once in the last ten years. And two coaches who wore out their welcome, stayed a few years too long, and finished their careers with epic collapses, all in the last six months.

So yeah, I’m depressed. While driving to work today, I was thinking about a Wisconsin fan I met 20 years ago. In 1992, I watched The Laettner Game on the couch of a Wisconsin fraternity house while visiting Madison for the weekend. After the game, I got to talking to some Wisconsin kool-aid drinker about their football and basketball programs. He spoke of an awakening. A dawn. “Stu Jackson and Barry Alvarez are about to put Wisconsin athletics on the map.” If I recall correctly, he predicted a top-5 ranking for both teams within four years. He hit on football for sure; it took a while for Wisconsin basketball to get up and running.

But I thought of that guy today. How comfortable he must feel. We’ve made 3 tournaments in the last six seasons? Wisconsin has made 14 straight. Wisconsin basketball. Wisconsin. When we had that conversation in March of 1992, Wisconsin hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1946. Let me say that again, in case you missed it. When I had that conversation with this guy, and he predicted future greatness for their basketball team, he was speaking of a team that had not made the NCAA tournament in 46 years. And now they’ve been to 14 consecutive NCAA Tournaments.

And football. We’ve made six bowl games the last 19 years. Wisconsin? 17 bowl games in 19 years. That day in 1992, while talking to the Wisconsin fan, we had been to eight bowls the previous 11 years and Wisconsin had been to zero bowls since 1984. I laughed in his face when he predicted Wisconsin dominance over the Illini. Like Wisconsin would ever rise above Illinois in athletic departments. Wisconsin.

Wisconsin. Here I sit, 20 years later, with 11 less bowls. And while Wisconsin has been to 14 straight NCAA tournaments, we’ve only been to 10 in that span. This guy was so right it’s insane. He predicted greatness for a football program without a bowl in 9 seasons and a basketball team without a tournament in 46 years, and he was right.

It makes me so insanely jealous. Do you know what I would give to approach this football season worried about 8 wins instead of 10? Does anyone understand how much money I’d pay to approach a basketball season without even a hint of worry about missing the tournament? Where I could write confident blog posts discussing what seed we’d get in the tourney, not if we’ll make the tourney? You think I write a lot of words on here in my spare time as it is? Just watch what would happen if we ever had an Outback Bowl – Elite Eight season. I’d start sleep-blogging.

Which leads me back to the MGoBlog comment. Do we remind people of Michigan fans two years ago, they of one NCAA Tournament since 1998 and mired in their worst three-year stretch of football in decades? Probably. Our marquee program is mired in its worst six-year stretch of basketball in decades, and our football program struggles to keep its head above water. He’s right. We’re a depressed bunch. Well, at least I am.

But looking at it that way offers hope. Two years ago, Michigan finished 5-7 in football and 15-17 in basketball. Now, two years later, they’re coming off a BCS Bowl – Big Ten Basketball Title year. Wisconsin hadn’t been to a bowl game in 9 years nor a NCAA Tournament in 46 years, yet with the right athletic director hiring the right coaches, they’ve climbed to the top in 20 years.

I’m not suggesting we’re going to suddenly become Michigan Football. Or even that we’re going to go to 14 consecutive NCAA Tournaments like Wisconsin. I’m saying that everything is new, and this could be a dawn. I’ve really enjoyed covering Illini sports in this space the last three years, but I could REALLY enjoy it in the near future.

As I pulled in to work, I realized that I had forgotten what it felt like in 1992 to have that conversation. We were coming off the late 80′s (bowl game nearly every year, top-4 tourney seed every year), and Wisconsin was completely inept in both sports. But these things are cyclical. At some point, Wisconsin football will fade. Michigan State basketball will fade. Just a few years ago, Ohio State basketball was horrendous, and look at where they are now. Purdue football faded. Iowa football surged. Minnesota’s athletic department faded horribly. Michigan State’s surged.

And if we’re at our lowest point as an athletic department since the late 1970′s, then I’m taking that as a sign that we’re about to surge. We have a new AD and two new coaches. We have football schedules that don’t contain Missouri, Cincinnati, and Fresno State in the same year. We have loaded in-state basketball classes the next few years. We have 5-star Kendrick Nunn on campus tomorrow.

This could really get fun again. I’m excited about the possibilities. I’m excited about the chance to write about these teams when they’re surging, not when they’re tanking and firing coaches. There’s enough talent on campus to make both teams successful as we begin this build. Basketball can probably get there quicker (it always does), but we have a program-builder as a football coach who is changing the competitive culture around Illini Football and attempting to build long-term success.

It’s been dark, but hopefully dawn is breaking. Maybe the next time I check the blog links, they won’t all be “check out how depressed this Illinois fan is”. Maybe they’ll be “this guy wrote 8,000 words about an Outback Bowl victory”. Or, better yet, a random Wisconsin fan, lamenting how they’re on the way down while we’re on the way up.

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12 Comments
illiniranger April 5th, 2012

robert,
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these things are indeed cyclical, but they are also to some degree a zero sum game. for us to get better someone else has to get worse. who will that be?
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Lets look at football, where we are now in a more competitive conference with the addition of Nebraska. If we break down the conference into tiers we have:
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Top Tier: tOSU, UM, Wiscy
Upper Middle Tier: PSU, MSU, Iowa, Neb
Lower Middle Tier: NU, Illinois, PU
Lower Tier: IU, Minny
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For us to move up someone has to move down. tOSU, UM, and Wiscy all look solid with two great coaches and Brady Hoke who we’ll see about once Denard graduates and takes 90% of the offense with him. But they are recruiting very, very well.
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In the upper mid tier i think PSU and Iowa are ripe to move down. it will be hard for MSU to elevate their profile with UM possibly on the rise. I think Neb is still too new to the conference to really evaluate.
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In the lower mid tier all three programs seem pretty entrenched. NU has maxed their potential, but their very wise scheduling will keep them scuffling in the 7-8 win range. PU has shown improvement, but you wonder if Danny Hope can get them to the next level. If he does, it will be hard for us to move up. in the lower tier it’s hard to see IU or Minny getting off the mat in the near term, maybe Minny into the 8 win range. again, if IU or Minny move up, someone has to move down. that could be us if we don’t schedule right in the non-con and recruit better.
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i’d also like to add, and i hate saying this about kids, but our recruiting was pretty weak the last 3 years. yes we got some playmakers like Bad News Brown, but the depth is very, very, very bad. where does this team go if we take an injury at HB? who do we throw to if Milines gets hurt? who steps in at cornerback for Terry Hawthorne? and oh by the way, who is going to play on this team in 2014? unless we turn around recruiting starting with the next class we are going to be ripe to fall into the lower tier; certainly can’t count on moving up without better recruting.

GrogsBBQPepperoni April 5th, 2012

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I like the post, Robert. Optimism. Why not start there?
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I also have a theory – maybe the world’s worst, what do I know. But I think that certain schools have a “default” in a given sport to be good or bad. A good coach keeps it going and a bad coach can derail that. For instance, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio are great football states. They turn out high school football studs all the time. Both Michigan, PSU and OSU are really good football schools. Along comes a bad coach once in a while (Rich Rod) who derails that. Throw a non-descript coach back in there and all is fixed. Boom, UM is good in football again.
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Everyone always talks about Indiana as a great basketball state. Everyone plays hoops – even in the dark, in the snow, on the driveway, with no lights…or…net…or rim. So IU is a good basketball school by default. The wrong coach (Sampson, Davis) can derail it. They are the premier school in that state for hoops. A mediocre-to-good coach steps in and that gets them back to good. By default. Well, Illinois as a state is not so different from Indiana. You often can’t tell when you’ve left Illinois and entered Indiana. There are all kinds of small towns where hoops in king. We are also the premier school in our state for hoops. So a mediocre-to-good coach should be able to step in and Illinois should default to good
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States like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania seem to be more heavily focused on football. Football programs in those states should pick up a decent amount of local kids and be pretty good (that’s what shows that Izzo is such a great coach – he’s doing more than Heathcoat ever did in that state with hoops). Illinois and Indiana seem to be more focused on basketball. I guess what I’m saying is, with a coach that has minimal effect, we should be good in basketball. The same cannot be said in football. Nobody ever said, “you have to recruit Chicago to be good in Big Ten football”. So if we’ve just hired two coaches who are decent, not great, I think we should return to the upper half of the Big Ten in hoops and continuie to languish in the middle of the pack, or lower mid-tier in football.
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So maybe time will show – were we “derailed” the last few years under BW? Because I believe our default position (and history and 4 Final Fours show) is that we are a very good basketball school. I think our default position in football is not all that great. And if we become good in both sports, it would seem that Beckman might be doing the better job.
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No doubt I’ve painted with an incredibly broad brush.

illini125 April 5th, 2012

Grogs, your theory is correct. I’ve read (and I really wish I could find this article) that there are certain teams in college football that will always, no matter what, recruit well. Teams like FSU, Florida, Texas, Notre Dame, and Michigan have had rough years recently, but they still recruit incredibly well, because of who they are. Those teams can afford a 3-9 season because it won’t hurt them. It would take a lot of bad things to happen to get bumped out of that group, and a lot of good things to happen to jump into that group.
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Look at Wisconsin. They are a perennial bowl team, they go to the occasional Rose Bowl, but they still don’t have that national recruiting power that the USC’s, Florida’s, and Michigan’s of the country have. Could you imagine Wisconsin going into California and winning a recruiting battle against USC for a top prospect? It would be rare. Where they do dominate in recruiting is the midwest.
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When I look at the list of offers we have to Wisconsin players, and see that Wisconsin has also offered, part of me already pencils those guys into the Wisconsin roster.
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So I think that’s the next step for our recruiting. Start winning back the midwest (and obviously keep mining Florida) and we’ll be on the right track.

PeoriaBucky April 5th, 2012

First things first, Robert, love your blog. I think you are the most level-headed and fair Illini writer out there. Full disclosure, I was raised in central Illinois but went to Illinois State for undergrad and then UW-Madison for graduate school, so I don’t really have any Illini ties except for lots of close friends who are alumni and/or fans.

This post resonates with me a lot since I attended UW in the late 90s/early 2000s and got to watch the basketball program really start to blossom with their first (and only) Final Four under Bennett, and also saw the best years of Alvarez as football coach. You’ve stated in this post exactly why Barry Alvarez and Bo Ryan are absolutely REVERED in Wisconsin. I’m optimistic for the future and think both programs can take the next big step by winning BCS bowls and getting to and winning a Final Four. If we can manage that, then recruiting will improve and the cycle feeds itself.

In football, one of the key reasons Barry was able to improve UW so much was because he followed Nebraska’s model (which he knew well as an assistant) of using the lines as the foundation of the offense. Fortunately for him, Wisconsin grows a lot of skilled, big lineman, and he really ‘claimed’ that as the heart of Wisconsin football. His goal was to ‘lock up’ the state borders when it came to good high school linemen. That allowed him to go with a pro-style offense and UW football has never looked back. I don’t know if Illinois can do the same type of thing; I don’t really know what Beckman’s strengths are, but if there is a natural advantage that Illinois high school football players excel at, perhaps he can build and focus on that.

As a Badger basketball fan I’m bummed to see Bruce leave. :) And frankly, I’m amazed that Kansas State hired him and is paying him so much. For whatever reason Illini players never seemed to buy into his system and trust him. If Groce can connect with the players better (which I bet he will), the team will improve. Good luck and we’ll see what he can do.

Keep up the great writing, although I’m not planning on lamenting the Wisconsin program going down anytime soon!

Robert April 5th, 2012

Wait, there are levelheaded and fair Wisconsin fans? Who knew?
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Thanks for the comments, Bucky. And don’t be a stranger. You’re welcome around here 362 days per year.

Lou-a-villini April 5th, 2012

Illinois needs to produce more cheese and less whine. (P-town native here, too.)

GrogsBBQPepperoni April 5th, 2012

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Well Lou, then getting rid of Webs was a good start.

Lou-a-villini April 5th, 2012

“There’s no doubt.”

Hoppy April 5th, 2012

Sleep + Blogging…….Slogging?

Joe John April 5th, 2012

Kendrick Nunn isnt a 5 star basketball player.

ATOillini April 6th, 2012

I am posting simply so the comments will not end with JJ…
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Actually, I do need to say something. Wisconsin is a great point of reference simply because both of their programs have an established identity. They are who they know they are…and recruit to fit. Obviously that takes great, steady coaching..
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Yes, we can do this, too.

GrogsBBQPepperoni April 6th, 2012

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ATO, along that argument (and the original one from Robert – or at least his Madison companion many moons ago), I have a buddy who proposes that the hiring of Barry Alvarez might have done more for Wisconsin than the hiring of any other coach at another school in the “modern era” (say, from 1970 onward). He makes a good point. They were a doormat back in the 80s. Now they’re a perennial force.
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I think our state and the talent in it could keep feeding a sport if it gets really good. I think “state pride” in Illinois has just taken a hit as of late and kids don’t yearn to go to Illinois. There were real chances under Mike White and Makovic to get something going for football but, sorry to overuse the term, things got derailed.
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And this may sound petty, but I think losing the Chief also may have hurt a bit. That was our identitiy and was a pretty inspirational halftime show. I know if I was an impressionable high school recruit sort of leaning toward Illinois, seeing that might be enough to nudge me completely over. Oh well…