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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.

It wasn’t.

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.

Joe John January 26th, 2013

You arent concerned about losing the one position coach that Illinois had which had helped produced NFL’ers? Seems to be a big loss as far as recruiting goes.

But, no matter.
This staff will all be fired after next season.

That is, assuming Mike Thomas is not actually worse than Ron Guenther.
If he is, all bets are off.

illiniranger January 26th, 2013

i pretty much agree with you. Gilmore did a great job while he was here, but i think assembling a staff for anything, football, the Army, a business, whatever, has a lot to do with personalities and how they mesh. while our next DL coach may not be as good, we might get more production out of the unit simply because our coaches may be more on the same page.
i kind of feel a lot of these coaching moves are a day late and a dollar short. TB really needed to win last year. it was the most talented team he’d have in his first three years. it returned 9 starters off a top 10 defense. it had some pieces on offense, including a 3rd year starter at QB and a couple of really nice backs and TEs. so really, instead of trying to hire guys with little experience and good recruiting skills he should have hired good coaches and worried about the recruiting later. you know, kind of like professional program resuscitator Jerry Kill? yet another in a long line of first year missteps by TB. i thought the guy had a clue and was excited when i heard about that book he had about building a program. the more we see i wonder if that book is filled with coloring book pages.
this team could actually improve and still be 2-10. after last year’s stinker TB has zero room for error. i think after this year we are blowing it up all over again and starting over. which i wouldn’t necessarily mind as I think we have the wrong HC and I’d rather get it started sooner rather than later.

Illinigrad January 26th, 2013

All best are off. I have no faith in Thomas being able to fix the FB program. He already has made too many mistakes beginning with hiring Beckman and not making sure that the assistants were up to BIG standards.

PittsburghNellie January 27th, 2013

“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.”
I really thought you were going to follow this line with “It’s not a big loss because Beckman will be fired after this year and Gilmore will be gone for good”.
I sure hope that’s the case. I don’t know if I can live through a 3rd year of this foolishness. Hell, I don’t know if I can live through a 2nd!

illiniranger January 27th, 2013

I’m not sure i understand all the MT hate out there. I think he made one bad hire. But compare that to: Brian Kelly, Butch Jones, Mick Cronin, and John Groce. I think he looked at who he could get at Illinois, looked at TBs record (he did turn around Toledo), got impressed with the program building binder (i was too) and then hired a guy he shouldn’t have. 4 out of 5 successful hires isn’t bad. HR and personnel hires are tough – you don’t really know how the guy is going to do until you actually hire him and he starts working for the firm. 80% success is pretty good, and he also had a good hire with the women’s BBall coach, which many probably don’t want to bring into the discussion, but again, it’s another good hire. I think he can identify and hire good talent but missed on a big one.

illiniranger January 27th, 2013

also TB came highly recommended by guys like Urban Meyer. That carries a lot of weight in a job search. Of course, the Urbs probably recommended him because he knew he could beat him for the next few years…

ChicagoJoe January 27th, 2013

Robert, that is the single greatest evocation of those sorority-sister ads in the DI I could imagine.

You’re a tremendous writer.

Joe John January 27th, 2013

Ranger – i dont think Groce or Mick Cronin are all that good. They are average coaches, and certainly not on the level of Bill Self or Bob Huggins. I think Mike Thomas in his career has made 1 great hire (Brian Kelly) and 1 disaster hire (Tim Beckman), then the rest have been average hires. So to me…that says he’s been an average AD. But he could turn into an awful AD if he doesnt rectify what he broke at Illinois with the Beckman hire.. If he holds onto Beckman out of personal pride (like Guenther did with Turner/Zook/Weber)…he’ll show himself to be no better.

Holly January 27th, 2013

RIP, Ball-on-a-stick!

illiniranger January 27th, 2013

Joe John – Huggins better than Cronin? yes. Cronin having Cincy punching above their weight? yes. Cincy is literally the University of Cinncinatti. They are a city school. How’s SLU doing? DePaul? LaSalle? St Joe’s? St Johns? San Fransisco? Hell, UCLA? The Cincy job is tough – Huggins just did a lights out job. Hiring another Huggins is tough. Hell, Huggins hasn’t gotten it done like he did at Cincy at either KSU or WVU.
Also, Butch Davis had them routinely competing for Conference Championships and parlayed that into a great job at UT. granted, UT has fallen on hard times, but damn, that’s a 100k stadium. and they entrusted it to Butch Davis.
i agree that MT has to rectify the TB situation. at the same time, firing him after one year is VERY difficult. first, he’s paying BW and RZ at the same time he would be paying TB. What’s that, about 6-7 million a year to coaches that aren’t even coaching? that is probably the type of number that takes you from the black to the red -and that matters to ADs. as it should. Second, as bad as TB was, i think you have to see it for 2 years. i can’t think of a single coach other than the recent USM coach that got fired after one year. i’m not sure that MT really SHOULD have fired TB after one year. we’ll see if these changes mean anything.
now, that said, yeah, if MT hangs on to TB too long (i.e. giving him a 3rd year if we are a total dumpster fire) is a mistake. but MT hasn’t had the time to make that mistake yet so i reserve judgement until we see something like that.