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.
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.