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Decay January 20, 2013

I haven’t really been able to get 9-30 out of my head the last two days. It’s well past midnight, and I can’t sleep because of it. It’s fairly sad that the current trajectory of Illini football and basketball can keep me up most of the night.

9-30 refers to our combined Big Ten record last year and this year. Football finished 2-6 and then 0-8, and basketball went 6-12 and now 1-4. 39 times we’ve watched, 9 times we’ve won.

Where does that stack up against the rest of the conference? Here:

Michigan 29-10
Michigan State 28-12
Ohio State 27-12
Wisconsin 26-13
Purdue 20-19
Northwestern 18-21
Nebraska 17-23
Indiana 16-22
Iowa 16-23
Penn State 16-24
Minnesota 13-26
Illinois 9-30

(This, of course, is a rather dumb way to put together a statistic, given that there are eight games in the football season and 18 in the basketball season, meaning that Penn State finishing 5-3 in the football season is much more satisfying than Purdue finishing 10-8 during the basketball season. I probably should have gone with some other statistic. But it’s late and compiling those numbers took a long time.)

How did we sink so low? How is NORTHWESTERN 18-21 while we’re 9-30? Sure, their football program has surged while we’ve stagnated, but how are they ahead of us in all four standings that I looked up? They’ve never been to the NCAA tournament, and in the last 12 years we had a run of seven consecutive years with a five seed or higher. And now they’ve won 4 out of 6 from us and might finish ahead of us in the Big Ten basketball standings for the second year in a row. What in the name of Evan Eschmeyer is going on?

It can’t be as simple as Ron Guenther. It just can’t. I refuse to believe that the decisions of one athletic director killed a football program for 20 years and took a once proud basketball program from the statistics listed above to now (likely) four missed tournaments in six years. It can’t be that easy.

I struggled with this most of yesterday and today, and then a quote from a Golf Channel commentator illuminated my light bulb. (Yes, I watch TONS of the Golf Channel. I love watching sports, but most of the time, with my teams, they let me down. The Golf Channel never lets me down. Somebody always wins!)

They were discussing some golfer (Stewart Cink, I think?) and Brandel Chamblee (I think?) said this: “In golf, you’re either incrementally getting better or your incrementally getting worse. And if you don’t stay on top of that decay, it gets away from you.”

Yep.

If you don’t stay on top of that decay, it gets away from you. For football, it’s easy to see what happened. Lou Tepper’s recruiting was never up to par, and after missing a bowl in 1995… he kept his job. 1996 was a disaster, Tepper was fired a year to late, and the program started to lose everything it fought for in the 1980′s. Ron Turner built it back up, at least temporarily. But his ranked team in 2002 missed a bowl, 2003 was an 1-11 disaster… and he kept his job. And Illini football slipped a little further. Ron Zook took over and took us to Pasadena. His ranked team in 2008 missed a bowl, and that was followed by a disastrous 3-9 season, his recruiting fell apart… and he kept his job. And Illini Football slipped a little further.

And now we’ve lost 14 straight Big Ten games and we’re staring at another long rebuilding job. Oh, and did I mention that very few have any faith that this coach is the right one to build us back up?

But basketball – decay could never happen to basketball, right? We’re ILLINOIS BASKETBALL. We can be TRUSTED. We’re decay proof.

Nope.

From 1999/00 through 2005/06, Illinois Basketball never lost more than 5 Big Ten games. 5 or less conference losses for seven straight seasons. Bruce Weber then lost seven or more for SIX consecutive seasons… and he kept his job (well, until after the last one). 16-19 (5-13) in 2007/08, recruiting in the tank, all the magic (and the sellouts) from 2005 gone… and he kept his job.

So maybe it can all be put on Ron Guenther. His commitment to loyalty for the sake of loyalty was probably the impetus for our decline. When Guenther took over the athletic department, we were in the midst of five straight bowl games and just coming off a Final Four. I don’t hesitate to say that at the beginning of the 1990′s, combining both major sports, the Big Ten was Michigan, then Ohio State, then Illinois, and then the rest. The Bruce Pearl saga took a lot of that away very quickly, but football was still primed for a long run.

Now? Well, just taking the results of the last two seasons, we’re probably last. Two NCAA tournaments in five seasons (5-seed and a 9-seed) and 22-38 in football over those same five seasons. There’s a decent chance we can beat out Minnesota with those numbers, but I think that’s it. Even Northwestern is ahead. WAIT, Indiana would be worse, at least statistically. I mean, they’re ranked in the top-5 and all, now, but EAT THE DUST FROM UNDER OUR FEET THE LAST FIVE YEARS, HOOSIERS.

So I guess that’s how history will see the Guenther era. From clearly the third best athletic department when he took over to “we’re probably better than Minnesota, right?” when he left. Yikes.

Is the answer a revolving door for coaches? I’m not saying that, either. Most coaches need time to build a program. It’s not until the third or fourth season that you can accurately assess their progress (in my opinion). But if it’s going poorly then (or any season soon thereafter)? You do what Kentucky did with Billy Gillispie and what Florida did with Ron Zook and you pull the plug immediately before your program deteriorates any further. Our coaches… kept their jobs.

I’ve always maintained that Ron Guenther did a lot of good in his 19 years, at least architecturally. The Memorial Stadium renovations, Ubben, Bielfeldt, the Irwin complex, etc etc. Our facilities are up to par, and facilities lead to recruiting, and recruiting leads to wins.

But that won’t be the legacy that Ron Guenther leaves, unfortunately. He will be remembered for the health, or lack thereof, of the two major sports when he left. Yes, he built a lot of fine looking buildings, but his loyalty to coaches was the decaying beam in the basement.

And if you don’t stay on top of decay, it gets away from you.

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18 Comments
loyalillini January 20th, 2013

And he knows it the way he slipped out of sight (altho that was his style anyway). How about an analysis sometime why our last 3-4 ADs has been able to get away with blatant performance gaps.

GrogsBBQPepperoni January 20th, 2013

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It’s just sports, Robert. As much as we all like to come here (to your blog) to blow off steam and vent or thump our chests (well, we used to do that), it certainly isn’t worth losing sleep over. Sports are supposed to be the distractions from those things that keep us up well past midnight.
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Take a step back, bud. Illinois is a great school. I really enjoyed my time there. And whether some kid one or two years out of high school can shoot a three or catch a punt won’t change that. Sure, I’d like them to be great, but right now we’re just not that great at sports. Okay.

illiniranger January 20th, 2013

i can buy RG ruining football but not bball. Weber had a bad season a mere two years after getting to the NC game. i think Weber earned the long rope he received. Also, as bad as the consecutive hires of Tepper, Turner, and Zook were, in bball there was a magnificent run of Kruger, Self, and Weber. Although Weber ultimately failed, 2003-2005 was a tremendous run and if he gets the blame for the dissolution he also gets the credit for the success.
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the problems with these teams, right now, this season, is their culture. a lot of that is leftover from what was in place before they got there. i think we have one program that is struggling, but has the right framework in place. it has a coach who always uses the same talking points, shows flexibility in his play calling, seems to have a vision of the type of player he wants to recruit, recruits that player regardless of “star” ranking and is a great interview. We have another program that is struggling but showing almost no signs of life. that program has a coach that hired a bunch of guys that were unqualified for their positions, doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do offensively except be spread-y, is a goofball with a mic in his face, seems to constantly be searching for another new harry high school motivational technique and didn’t show a single piece of improvement over the course of an entire season.
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it’s on the coaches to improve the culture of their programs. the right guy can turn it around, and turn it around quickly. look no further than Bill Snyder at KSU or Frank Beamer at VaTech. Look at Stanford football. STANFORD FOOTBALL! in the space of 5 years and under two different coaches they have earned the respect of being a top 10 program.

GrogsBBQPepperoni January 20th, 2013

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Stanford football has a really good legacy to point to. Been to the Rose Bowl 13 times. I think that’s 2nd most appearances by a Pac 10/12 team behind juggernaut USC. Illinois has no real legacy in football to point to. I don’t ever seen us being that relevant in football, especially not now with Nebraska added. In my opinion, we really had an “anomaly” run from the early 80s to mid 90s. Overall, that program does not have much tradition or history of being good.
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Here is our bowl history (year of season)
1946, Rose
1951, Rose
1963, Rose
1982, Liberty
1983, Rose
1985, Peach
1988, All American
1989, Citrus
1990, Hall of Fame
1991, John Hancock (Sun)
1992, Holiday
1994, Liberty
1999, MicronPC
2001, Sugar
2007, Rose
2010, Texas
2011, KFHB

You could argue the last two bowls shouldn’t even exist (I think you should have to be over .500 to make a bowl). We had Tony Eason, Jack Trudeau, Jeff George in that run from 83 to 94 (among others, obviously). All went on to have NFL careers. Seems if we don’t have a top-flight QB, we don’t have sustained relevance in the football world. We became a defense school with stud linebackers in the mid to late 90s but that seems to have dried up (and Studwell, Butkus and others before, of course). Then we had three hot-shot running backs recently in Pierre, Rashard and Mikel but that wasn’t sustained. Seems we have no real identity anymore. When I think Wisconsin, I think running. Penn State, linebackers. Michigan, defense (minus the Rich Rod years) and running backs. I think there are so many running schools in the B1G now that our identity should go back to passing. That should be our thing – again (harken back to the days of David Williams, Mike Bellamy, Brandon Lloyd, etc.) That’s why I kind of like the Cubit hire.
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I guess the one thing Illini football can offer right now is playing time. And lots of it. Those years of 0, 1 and 2 wins are like scarlet letters that have, if not ruined whatever reputation we had, certainly almost ruined it. I think we have many years of mediocre football ahead of us. I certainly hope I’m wrong, though.

ATOillini January 20th, 2013

Grog. I’m with you big time. I have been trying for ages to do exactly what you just laid out. Not sleeping because a bunch of 18-22 year olds that I’ve never met just lost a football or basketball game?
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I went to the University of Illinois to get a great education. Mission accomplished many years ago, and from everything I continue to read this wonderful institution still has an international reputation in academic circles. Isn’t that why it exists in the first place?
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Of course, I sure wish Nick Anderson had snatched that rebound in the last 5 seconds against Michigan and Luther had hit that 3 pointer against NC……….

GrogsBBQPepperoni January 20th, 2013

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Ugh, no doubt, ATO. Nooooooooooooo doubt.
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Anderson’s (non) box out, especially. I loved that Flyin’ Illini team. And we had completely throttled Michigan twice already that year. For them to win when it really mattered…..stung.

GrogsBBQPepperoni January 20th, 2013

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I just went back and looked at the ’89 results. We beat Michigan at home by 12 when they were #6 in the country. At the end of the season, we went to their place and beat them by 16 when they were #8 in the country.
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We ended the regular season winning at #3 Indiana (Nick Anderson 30-foot 3 pointer), blowing out #15 Iowa 118-94 (a team that had BJ Armstrong and Roy Marble) at home and then a double digit win at #8 Michigan (above). Wow – some finish. We’re a basketball school, no doubt.

Lou-a-villini January 20th, 2013

Guenther, White, Hermann, List, Keeps, Going, On.

Joe John January 20th, 2013

Rivals has Illinois football recruiting class ranked #4 in Big 10.
But its ranked last in average stars per recruit.
Quantity over quality?

mlp94595 January 20th, 2013

For the next few years, the football coaches will need to coach these guys up to attract better recruits. I watched Cubit’s press conference, and he at least gave me some hope. He talked about WMU playing big time programs and having to figure out how to score with less talent. He also has experience reviving down programs. Let’s hope he’s as good as he seems.

HHSILLINI January 20th, 2013

Scout has them ranked 5th in the B1G just behind Michigan State, and just ahead of Northwestern and Penn State. I’m thrilled with this recruiting class all things considered!

illiniranger January 20th, 2013

yeah, i think we are going quantity over quality. not a bad strategy considering that if you can’t get the great ones, get enough good ones and a few will turn out pretty tough.
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i think our class is pretty good given how badly we played last year.
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we’ll see how this thing shakes out next year. i could see us being better but having the same record. honestly, even if we go 2-10 i’ll be happy if we show improvement and make the games close and watchable.

BigGame67 January 21st, 2013

I agree with IlliniRanger…let’s just get some players here. Who knows how it will pan out, but I’m willing to see. I mean it hasn’t gone that great thus far.

PittsburghNellie January 21st, 2013

We really need Bailey to be a difference maker. We’re going to suck for a very long time if he’s not.

illiniranger January 22nd, 2013

to reference PittsburghNellie’s comments:
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That’s why putting all the eggs in the Bailey basket is unrealistic. When you go back and look at recruiting classes, especially the very top ones, you see a lot of 5 star players. When you look at their performance over a 4-5 year playing career you generally see 1/3rd were awesome and went to the NFL, 1/3rd were OK, but didn’t meet the ballyhooed expectations of being a 5 star prospect, and 1/3rd were terrible and didn’t make it on the field or had off the field issues that submarined them.
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Look at our recent history of 5 star players. Martin O’Donnell – pretty good career, great SR year, definitely not a NFL player. Rashard Mendenhall – great JR season after two up and down FR-SO years. Good pro, but lots of injuries and is probably more a liability at this point. Rejus Benn – good, not great college career, lots of injuries, drafted in the 2nd round, lots more injuries, won’t stick around in the league too long. Martez Wilson – widely regarded as a top 5 HS player. Saw the field on ST as a FR, played out of position and adjusted to OLB as a SO, moved to MLB, season ending injury, great RS-JR season, goes to the NFL. moved from LB to DE. Terry Hawthorne – Parade All-American, beat OU for his services. Very strong FR year, injuries have slowed him down since with significant regression his SR year. Will be drafted, but probably in the 4th round or lower.
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So what does all that mean? None, and I mean NONE, of those guys slapped up 3-4 consecutive dominant years. All were solid contributors, the only truly superlative season amongst the 5 was Rashard’s 2007 campaign – and what a year that was. Meanwhile, while those 5 stars were struggling through injuries, Jeff Allen, an under-recruited 2 star tackle out of Chicago started every game he played in OandB and was a 2nd round pick. Jon Asamoah (a 3 star i think?) ended up being drafted and has been a solid contributor to the KC Chiefs. Whitney the Mercilus (a 2 star i think?) nearly set the all-time sacks record and busted into the first round of the draft. AJ Jenkins, a kid that was a 4 star but barely played his FR and SO years went on to put up far greater numbers than Rejus Benn here and was drafted in the first round. Mason Monheim, another under-recruited 2 star, just finished his FR year as the best player on our defense.
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Aaron Bailey may be great. He may also end up switching to WR. It’s not the quality of guys you get necessarily but the QUANTITY of guys you get. If you recruit two 4 star QBs one of them will work out and one won’t. if you recruit three 4 star Dlineman, 1 will be awesome, 1 will never play, and 1 will be kind of meh.
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The problem at Illinois is that we have never gotten the QUANTITY of great players. this is also a problem at PU, IU, MSU, Iowa, and basically everyone in the conference except UM and tOSU. So you have to put a premium on talent evaluation (which i think Ron Zook was TREMENDOUS at) and a premium on talent development (which i think Ron Zook was pretty average to bad at). i tend to think TB is a pretty good evaluator of talent (Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina really exceeded expectations and were about our only two FR that played) but it remains to be seen if he can coach up the 2 and 3 star players that the Illinois-type schools of the world have to settle for.

Hoppy January 22nd, 2013

I think the star power ratings are a little skewed because not every recruit at Illinois is rated with as much scrutiny as lots of others. I mean, if you were a recruit evaluator and a kid committed to Illinois would you bother putting in that extra effort on him?
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Also, many of the recruits just simply don’t get the exposure so I’m sure the evaluators go off of the data sheets and can’t add any intangibles. It’s probably what happens when you have a huge recruiting first recruiting class that is part of a rebuild.

GrogsBBQPepperoni January 22nd, 2013

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This is so sad. We couldn’t wait to talk about basketball season to put an end to our awful football season. Now, basketball sucks so bad that we’re talking football. Illinois football is our “escape”. (gulp)

PittsburghNellie January 24th, 2013

Ranger – I’m not really putting all my eggs in Bailey’s basket, especially not because he’s ranked highly. I just know that if we don’t have a quarterback capable of carrying this team we’re going to be below average at best… so since O’Toole, Nate, and Miles aren’t going to help us, we need it to be Bailey. Unless there is some stud walk-on on the roster.