So Long, Ball-On-A-Stick January 26, 2013
Probably the best thing to ever happen to this little blog was Mrs. Koenning becoming a fan. I didn’t know she was a fan, but when I arrived in San Francisco for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, at the first practice, Vic Koenning sought me out. He told me that his wife was a huge fan, and she showed him certain posts from time to time. Because of that, he said, and because he had one single game as Illini head coach, he wanted to give me as much access as I could possibly have. I usually get the “that’s hilarious… wait, you were being serious?” reaction when I say this, but the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl was the pinnacle of my Illini Football fandom. I still look back on that week with such amazing memories.
At one event, Koenning and I had the chance to chat for about 30 minutes. I asked him every question I could possibly think of, and he was more than happy to share. It was seriously amazing – I learned more about college football and how everything works in that half hour than any other single event in my life.
One of my questions was about that 2011 defense. First top-10 defense in Champaign in 15+ years. How, with an offense that simply could not move the ball and forced the defense on the field for 34 minutes every game, did they finish 7th in the country in Total D? This is a paraphrase, because the conversation was over a year ago, but he basically said this:
“This coaching staff was the best defensive staff I’ve ever been with. We clicked. We all knew what the others were thinking. You have no idea how much that can improve a defense. You have to have good athletes, but if you get four defensive coaches all on the same page, it improves every single play call throughout the game.”
He went on and on about it. He said that adding Mike Gillhamer (secondary coach that season) was the key. He could concentrate on the defensive calls (run through his linebackers), Coach Gilmore could adjust the defensive line accordingly, and Coach Gillhamer could adjust the secondary (with Ron West more the quality control guy). How do you lose Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson and improve as a defense? A coaching staff that clicks.
So now, Vic Koenning is trying to reassemble that at North Carolina. Which is why Keith Gilmore is leaving Champaign for Chapel Hill. It’s a great gain for North Carolina… but I’m not sure it’s that big of a loss for us. Here’s what I mean.
We all went into the season expecting this defense to carry us. Led by defensive linemen Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence. Both seriously considered the draft after the KFHB, but both returned. This offense may struggle, but the defensive line, still coached by Keith Gilmore, will be the rock of this defense.
While the defense wasn’t THAT awful (53rd in total defense, compared to 119th out of 120 on offense), it was still a big disappointment. Tim Banks had a pretty good track record at Cincinnati, but none of that seemed to carry over to Champaign. And for whatever reason, the way he attacked the offensive backfield at Cincinnati (#1 in tackles for loss) just didn’t carry over with this defensive line.
Which made me change my tune on Keith Gilmore as the season wore on. Don’t get me wrong – he’s a great technique coach and can really motivate his guys to compete – but I began to wonder how much it had to do with Keith Gilmore and how much it had to do with Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus. Had we sainted him for simply coaching an all-NFL defensive line?
So when I heard the rumors last week that Gilmore was maybe leaving for UNC, it really didn’t hit me in the “Koenning might not stay” spot. My first thought – God’s honest truth – was wondering if we could get Tim Banks’ defensive line coach at Cincy. They seemed to work well together, and Vic told me that similar coaching philosophies is the key to a great defensive staff, and the line really fell apart when we switched from Koenning to Banks, so maybe the philosophical differences led to all the defensive confusion last year. (Or maybe Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus were in the NFL.)
Whatever the reason, I’m just not that broken up about Gilmore leaving. Last season was a hazardous-material-laden trainwreck. Chris Beatty is gone? Fine. Luke Butkus goes? Loved the name for recruiting, but after that disaster, fine. Keith Gilmore goes? OK. If it was a year ago today, I’d be devastated. After last year’s defensive line performance, especially with Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan on their way to the NFL, I’m OK with it. Get someone who fits with Banks and improve what we see on Saturdays. And if you can’t do that, all of you will be gone.
But I am broken up over this for one reason: So long, ball-0n-a-stick. Maybe I should close this post with a DI classified ad. Not sure if it happens anymore, but when I was in school, after spring break or whatnot, there were these classified ads from sorority girls, saying things like ”Whitney, Sarah, and J-Bozz, South Padre was the greatest week of our lives! Who can forget Sarah and the curly-haired lifeguard… ‘my french fries fell in the pool!’… the guy who filled our tank in Dallas… ‘Whitney doesn’t tan, she freckles’…”
So here goes:
Goodbye, ball-on-a-stick. I’ll never forget how we met in Rantoul in 2009. You really did have a knack for helping our defensive linemen watch the ball instead of listen for the snap count. Who can forget… your special case for the trip to the bowl games… that time Glenn Foster fell on you and bent the pole a little bit… “does the ball have to be on a stick for you to not jump offsides, Kynard”… that time we added the telescoping pole. You will be missed, ball-on-a-stick. Please stay in touch. Maybe, if your schedule allows, we can go see Liuget’s Chargers play Mercilus’ Texans next year.