Clearing The Bar January 30, 2013
At 7:14 pm on December 31, 2011, I was walking down Market Street in downtown San Francisco. We had just beaten UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, and my flight didn’t leave until the next day, and so I just walked around downtown SF on New Years Eve. It was, without question, a top-5 Illini moment for me. I’d pass Illini fans and give them an I-L-L, I’d high five revelers who were already drunk by 7:14, and I’d toss $10 to the street musicians pretty much because Terry Hawthorne picked off that pass and took it to the house. I mentioned this before, but I wanted to Mary Tyler Moore my hat into the air.
Because Illinois won the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Over 6-8 UCLA.
I then think back to the 2002 NCAA Tournament. We had handled San Diego State and Creighton fairly easily, setting up a Sweet 16 matchup against Kansas. Kansas was favored, but it felt like we had a chance. We trailed most of the second half (by double digits as I recall) but then made a late run. Brian Cook even took a three with a chance to tie the game in the final minute. As I recall, it only hit the base of the backboard, Kansas got the rebound, we fouled, game over. And I was angry for days. We could have beaten Oregon in the Elite Eight. We should have been in the Final Four. Why couldn’t that three have gone down?
Angry. Because we “only” made it to the Sweet 16. (And don’t even talk to me about the Notre Dame loss in the Round of 32 the next year).
Yes, I am one of the 17 people who is a bigger Illini football fan than basketball fan. I’ve just always liked the sport more – college football is easily #1 on my “could watch a game between two teams I don’t care about” list, and that simply carries over to my school. As I’ve mentioned before, this leads people to think that I must hate basketball. For someone to obsessively follow the trainwreck that is Illini football, they suppose, I simply must hate the sport of basketball. Couldn’t be farther from the truth.
And I always make this point: I think it’s easier to be an Illini football fan than it is to be an Illini basketball fan. Especially in January, 2013. Here’s what I mean.
Expectations are part of fandom. VCU fans refer to the magical 2011 season where they reached the Final Four. Kentucky fans refer to the disastrous 2011 where they choked against UConn in the Final Four. That part of fandom is fairly obvious – the more you exceed your program expectations, the better your enjoyment of the season. Kentucky fans are really only happy with titles. All 34 Northwestern fans would put down their Magic the Gathering cards and go celebrate a tourney berth in the streets. But it’s still easier to be a Kentucky basketball fan. Because they do win titles. And Northwestern has never made the tournament.
But the way I see us, it goes a step further. We’re the bridesmaidiest basketball program in the country, and we’re the most schizophrenic football program in the country. And I think B is easier than A.
Illinois Basketball, in my mind, wears the “best program to never win a title” title. Five final fours, but 1-4 in the semifinals and 0-1 in the finals. And then there’s all those other statistics I talk about all the time:
- #13 all time in the NCAA in wins (#12 in winning percentage).
- #11 (tied) all time in NCAA Tourney appearances (2nd in the Big Ten).
- #18 in NCAA Tournament wins (most wins for a team without a title)
- #14 (tied) all time in Final Four appearances (tied for the 8th highest total number of appearances)
- #9 all time in collective AP poll appearances (including: #13 in weeks in the top 5, #9 in weeks in the top 10, #8 in seasons in the top 5, #9 in seasons in the top 10, #8 in seasons in the top 25)
And yet, for five plus seasons now, I’m mostly just angry at my television. We just finished our worst five-year run since the 1970′s, and it looks like it will take a while for the new coach to build it back up (if he ever does). We might scratch and claw our way into the tournament this season – which would be great, given where we finished last year – but the immediate outlook isn’t very rosy. With only one scholarship to give next year, it’s probably 2015 or 2016 before we could push the program back near the top of the conference.
Hey, speaking of angry at my television, Illini football! Last year was a disaster. We’ve now lost 14 Big Ten games in a row. But, at least for me, it has been the most satisfying sport to follow in the last seven years. Even with the 14 losses in a row.
Illinois Football, in my mind, wears the “most schizophrenic program” title. And I really only need these two statistics to prove that:
1) There have been 29 college football teams that have gone to at least two BCS Bowls. We’re one of them. Oklahoma State, Washington, Arkansas, Clemson, Pitt, Texas A&M, UCLA – all with just one BCS appearance. Illinois with two. (Missouri with zero.)
2) There have been eight 0-8 seasons in the Big Ten since 1997. Illinois has four of those eight.
0-8 is frustrating to be sure, but the view from my Rose Bowl seat was gorgeous. Losing six in a row last year after getting ranked #15 was incredibly demoralizing, but I still had a blast in San Francisco. Just get me in a bowl and give me a little hope that we’ll improve. That’s my bar.
Actually, my bar is 3-5 in the Big Ten every year (yes, really). Just win at least three Big Ten games every season and I’m happy for five years. Ron Zook averaged 2.57 Big Ten wins per season. Ron Turner averaged 2.5 Big Ten wins per season. Just get me to something like 3.3 Big Ten wins per season and I’m happy. I’m totally and completely serious. Just get us to the next plateau (consistent low-level bowls, no bottoming out). White and Mackovic built it, Tepper drove it into the ground, Turner and Zook both gave us false hope. Which has lowered my bar all the way to three Big Ten wins per season.
In basketball? My bar is seven NCAA Tournament wins in five seasons. I don’t care if it’s a missed tournament followed by a 5-1 tournament followed by a miss and then two 1-1 finishes – I just want seven in five. From 1985 to 1989 – eight tournament wins (even with the gut punch of Austin Peay in there). From 2001 to 2005 – 13 tournament wins (our best run ever). From 2008 to 2012? One tournament win.
Which means that we’re further from my basketball bar than my football bar right now. Even after 14 Big Ten losses in a row, football offers me more hope. The mess that Zook left probably bottomed out at the end of last season. The mess that Weber left probably doesn’t bottom out until the end of next season.
So when Illinois lands a recruit like Miami DE Paul James III, I begin to see the path to three Big Ten wins every year. And when we miss on Demetrius Jackson and Keita Bates-Diop, I begin to see how far the journey is to seven tournament wins in five years. It’s a strange thing, this. I have all the confidence in the world that John Groce can get us back to where we need to be – he knows exactly what he needs to do recruiting-wise. I lost 80% of my confidence in Tim Beckman after seeing the product on the field last year, dippin’ and trippin’ and whatnot. But as I write this, I feel a tiny bit better about Illini Football than I do Illini Basketball.
One needs only a short hop to get over the bar. And the other needs to make a big leap.