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 State 28-12
Ohio State 27-12
Penn State 16-24
(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.”
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.
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.