Sad Patrol December 5, 2012
The month that I received my acceptance letter to Illinois – November of 1990 – we were ranked #5 in football (yes, in the country). We had knocked off eventual national champion Colorado in a 23-22 thriller, we were undefeated in the Big Ten, and we were in the driver’s seat for the Rose Bowl. I was pretty sure I was signing on for four years of battling-for-Rose-Bowls football.
Then Nick Bell happened (Iowa’s tailback who ran all over us, crushing our Rose Bowl hopes and killing our #5 ranking). Then, at the end of my freshman year, John Mackovic took the Texas job, Lou Tepper was hired, and, well, you know…
People ask me “why do you care so much?” all the time. And it’s always asked in a way that says “poor thing doesn’t understand it will never happen for Illinois football – we should help him”. My response is simple. When I signed on for Illini football, we were #5 in the nation. We were in the midst of five consecutive bowls. We weren’t Ohio State or Michigan, but we were firmly at the top of the second tier of Big Ten football programs. So my response is always “it happened before, and it can happen again”. But we now have to climb over a mountain to get there.
This evening I heard that Butch Jones was going to take the Colorado job. Ah, yes, Colorado – our friend in FAIL. In 1990 we’re battling it out in Champaign on national TV. In 2012, we’re probably the two worst teams in any BCS conference. Colorado won a national title in 1990, almost played for the title in 2001, and now hasn’t had a winning season since 2005. After Dan Hawkins and Jon Embree failed, it looks like it will now be up to Butch Jones to resurrect.
Butch Jones. You remember him – one of the coaches who reportedly turned us down before we hired Tim Beckman. Granted, the Big East went from a BCS conference to Conference USA in the last 12 months, so I can understand why he’d want to leave now, but the fact remains that Butch Jones looked at Illinois and Colorado and liked their trainwreck better. Ouch.
I know, I know – he didn’t want to work for Mike Thomas, Mike Thomas stole his cat, Mike Thomas took Dorothy Mantooth out for a nice seafood dinner and never called her – I’ve heard the conspiracy theories. I just don’t buy them. Mostly because they excuse what we’re all trying to avoid saying: we’re one of the worst jobs in the country right now.
We are. We just are. Don’t believe me? Pretend you’re an up and coming college coach. Nearly every program wants you. Assuming the pay is similar, which schools would you turn to and say “no thanks – I’m going to take the Illinois job”?
I posed this question to my buddy Tom. Here’s his list:
Big 12: Maybe Iowa State
ACC: Duke, Wake (maybe)
Big Ten: I mean, are we worse than Indiana?
Sad patrol. Sorry – that needs an explanation. I have a “friend” (not Tom, might be me) who thought the Metallica song “Sad But True” was “Sad Patrol”. So any time I think “sad, but true” I say “sad patrol”.
It’s true – there are probably only five worse BCS jobs (not counting the “Big” “East”) in the country right now. And if you look at our bottoming out (FOUR winless and TWO 1-7 seasons in the Big Ten since 1997), you could make an argument that we’re at the bottom on the “yeah, you can win there” scale.
But what did that look like when I arrived in Champaign?
Well, we were definitely ahead of Northwestern. And Indiana. And Purdue, Minnesota, and Michigan State. And easily ahead of Wisconsin (they’d been to three bowls in 30 years at that point). Iowa was strong at the time, so let’s say we tied with them for 3rd behind Ohio State and Michigan. Illinois – 3rd best job in the Big Ten.
And then Lou Tepper was promoted instead of a national search. And then Tepper wasn’t fired after 1995. And then Ron Turner wasn’t fired after 2003. And then Ron Zook wasn’t fired after 2009. And each time recruiting (and our national reputation) sank deeper.
Look, I am all about building programs. It’s why I don’t think Tim Beckman should be fired after one year (or even two). Put in systems, recruit to those systems, see if you can win. Where I’ve changed over the last 10 years us understanding the urgency of making a change once it starts heading south (like 1-11 in 2003 or 3-9 in 2009). When that happens, it’s imperative that you have to find a new coach. If a coach can build but not sustain, get rid of them immediately (see: Auburn).
So yes, in the span of 21 years, I believe Illinois football has gone from third or fourth best job in the Big Ten to 11th. And looking at other conferences yields the same results. 20 years ago we were a better job than Missouri, or Oregon, or Louisville, or Vanderbilt, or Kansas State, or California, or a dozen other BCS conference schools. Now? Bottom five if we’re honest.
Somebody time machine me back to 1991. I want to walk up to high school senior me and tell him that Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Oregon State, Missouri, and Baylor will all be healthier football programs then the Illini in 20 years. I want to see his reaction. Bless his heart, he still thinks he’s headed to Champaign to see a 90′s-and-2000′s Wisconsin-like run.
Bless my heart, I still think we can get back there.