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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.

illiniranger January 30th, 2013

great post. pretty spot on with how i feel as well.
i think Illini bball takes a Crean at IU like trajectory. puttering along for a few years and then BAM national relevance.
i honestly don’t know where Illini football goes. If TB drives this thing into the ground then we are as bad as we were in at the end of the Tepper era and the Turner era. I think we are either at or very near bottomed out in Fball. The only question is do we come out of the bottom with this coach or another? If TB rights the ship, we are probably a minimum of 3-4 years away from being as relevant in the B1G as NW or MSU currently is. If TB doesn’t right the ship and is jettisoned it will be 5-7 years.

cpbill January 30th, 2013

Thanks, Robert, but I need more help than that. I first saw the Chief dance at a U of I football game in 1946 when I was a student at the Galesburg branch of the U of I. I came there to graduate and later came to work there for 20 years before retiring and moving away. But I don’t have that much time left and need one more Rose Bowl and one more Final Four. Help me out!

SouthernIllini January 30th, 2013

I see it in 2016 for basketball, but what I see that Robert doesn’t is at LEAST continued competetiveness and maybe a tourney or two in the intervening years.

GrogsBBQPepperoni January 30th, 2013

Hmmm, I see way more upside in hoops. We were a Luther 3-pointer away from maybe winning a national title In hoops. We’ll never be anywhere near the pinnacle in football. Yes, football will always “safely” keep us grounded and not expecting much I guess. In hoops I expect another final four trip in the next 15 years or so. And maybe it’ll all come together in that run.

Joe John January 30th, 2013

I dont really get how you can say 2012 was the bottoming out of Illini football. 2013 will have a significantly worse roster and an arguably tougher schedule. I’d expect this upcoming team to be among the worst in Illini history. No talent on the field and no coaching on the sidelines. At least 2012 there was some talent on the field.

I do find it comical you refer to “the mess that Zook left”…in HINDSIGHT…but before the season you were all about “we got X amount of starters coming back”..Anything to make Beckman not look as bad eh? More oddities…the one thing every single Ilini fan was upset about was how bad the offensive line was this year…yet I look at this recruiting class that some actually like (how, i’m not sure)..and I notice what, 2 offensive lineman out of 25 commits. 0/12 out of the top offensive lineman in Illinois (in what was said to be a strong in state class).

Illinois football is nuked and there is no hope. None. Not until a change is made and the right guy brought in.

Illini basketball is in the Michigan Tommy Amaker years right now…I would have said the Mizzou Quin Snyder years…but Quin actually made the NCAAs 4 times in a row and got to an Elite 8 one year.

GrogsBBQPepperoni January 30th, 2013

Again, Eeyore brings out the Amaker and Snyder references. Amaker took over right after the Ed Martin/UM bball scandal so good luck to whoever took over the ship in that condition. In addition, he was not a great recruiter (neither of which applies to Groce’s situation – in fact, just the opposite – Groce is a good recruiter replacing a bad one). Amaker and Snyder were people who received their job s mainly because they were memorable names as college players (which really never seems to work). Again, unrelated to the Groce situation – a guy hired for his resume as a coach and assitant (i.e. paid his dues in the coaching ranks before he got his big chance), not his playing days.

illiniranger January 30th, 2013

apparently the answer has been right in front of us all this time and we never realized it – deer antler spray. think about how many deer are in Illinois? we are to deer what Florida is to high school football players. the future is LOOKING GOOD!

Joe John January 30th, 2013

Amaker got plenty of top 100 players in his stint at Michigan. He just couldnt coach them.

Illini17 January 30th, 2013

Sorry Robert, felt compelled to respond to this one. I disagree for one main reason…hoops has 25 – 30 games to get it right, and a postseason tourney to do it. Football has 12 games, and if they stumble early, you can usually write the season off. The “two BCS bowls” theory in weak IMO as I think we had more luck than skill in both those seasons (the Sugar Bowl in particular…how many things had to go right for Illinois in the last two weeks??). The winless B10 seasons are more the norm for Illinois, and this all pains me to write. Again, just my opinion.

Illinigrad January 30th, 2013

FB having a tiny sliver of hope over BB?? OMG Then we really are in trouble. Illini FB is at the bottom with no light at the end of the totally dark tunnel. BB has hope, even this season. Beckman is the worse FB hire in IL history.

illinifanbobj January 31st, 2013

Joe John is one of the main reasons why I read the comments. This guy rarely says anything positive.
Comparing Groce to Amaker is premature.
Illini BB and Illini FB are two completely different places.
Illini BB has expectations of being good/great but is currently mediocre.
Illini FB has expectations of being mediocre/good( and randomly great) but is currently horrible.
Feel better about BB because all it takes is 1 or 2 high impact guys to completely change a team.

uilaw71 January 31st, 2013

Beckman the worst hire? Compared to Valek or Moeller?

GrogsBBQPepperoni January 31st, 2013

Whatever, Joe John. We all know college basketbal is 80% recruiting. Get the right team recruited and you can almost just roll the ball out there (hello Kentucky). Sub-par results for Amaker equals sub-par recruiting.

HHSILLINI January 31st, 2013

Robert~I would venture to say that there are way more Football Die-Hard Fans for UI than you think. I am one of them. I came on strong when Juice was a freshman and Zook was first hired. I went to a small private school in central IL and never really paid one bit of attention to UI before Zook and Juice. Now, I can’t stop reading about UI football. I have purchased Collanades Club tickets and an RV just to tailgate with. Sometimes I have wondered why I even started, but then I realize that I’m ALL IN…no matter what. Can’t wait for August 31st when we take on the Salukis. Also, can’t wait to check out the new scoreboard!

GrogsBBQPepperoni January 31st, 2013

To finish my thought, I think that was the main problem with Weber. I think he’s an excellent coach – really understands the game. He just could not recruit enough good talent or the right talent. I don’t think Groce is as good of a coach as Weber, but a better recruiter and better “nurturer” of what he does have in front of him.

illiniranger January 31st, 2013

I love when an fan from the days of yore comes in and drops a truth bomb on us. “You think Tim Beckman is bad? You should have seen us under Valek and Moeller!”

Illinifan4eva January 31st, 2013

Joe John I am excited to see what happens when we land a stud recruit. I have no idea how you will turn it into a negative, but I am looking forward to it. My guess will be that you will say the recruit is overrated and somehow say it does not count. But that’s just my guess.

GrogsBBQPepperoni January 31st, 2013

I always have to give pause when I walk through our work lunchroom and CNN correspondent Joe Johns is on the screen. And then I remember how John Groce will be fired at the end of 3 years and it makes me sad.

uilaw71 January 31st, 2013

Days of yore would be correct, Ranger, as my handle suggests. Valek was actually the best option follwing the slush fund scandal. And he was a true Illini through and through. Cecil Coleman thought he was getting Bo, not Moe. Both were really bad hires though for different reasons.
Our football misfortune is not of recent vintage. We were lucky to land White and Mack, but both succumbed to Texas perils – one in recruiting the other blind ambition.
I happen to agree with Joe the John about Monken, but really that’s a guess on his part as well as mine.
My Illini tenure spans 3.5 Rose Bowls (counting Sugar as the half), and a 1 – 3 audit. In all that time, the only truly exciting season was ’83. What we experience as fans once or so every other decade is the norm in Columbus and Ann Arbor for every game. Ditto Lincoln and State College.
So from that perspective, best advice this days of yore Illini can offer is 2-part: a true Illini never cuts, and only boos the other team.

ATOillini January 31st, 2013

I just don’t know about this post, Robert. 3 Big 10 wins a year and you’re happy? Come on. Talk about low expectations. To me all that reveals is how much pathetic football we’ve had to endure fort such a long time. I really think we can get back to Mackovic type success. Not easy, but certainly possible. There is just no way that the right coach in CU can’t do a bit better than Fitzy at NW. It just has to easier. Right?

illiniranger January 31st, 2013

ATO, i think Robert’s point is that right now 3 B1G wins a year gets us to the next plateau. once we reach that plateau we then stop being happy with 3 B1G wins a year and move to the next plateau of 4 or 5 consistent B1G wins a year.
with bball, there is no next plateau. we expect and should compete for B1G championships every year and at least on Final 4 per decade.

GrogsBBQPepperoni January 31st, 2013

Let’s see, we’ve beaten the teams currently (AP) ranked #7, #9 and #11 in the country. MSU is currently ranked #13.

Joe John January 31st, 2013

To everyone that wishes the Big 10 refs would call more fouls each possession and hate the way Purdue and Wisconsin muck things up…well you got it tonight. An entire ticky tack foul fest where yes, both teams score lots of points but the game isnt any more entertaining.

Brandon Paul looked like he took Michigan State with the moneyline, and Illinois to cover tonight. That first 5 minutes of the 2nd half he literally put MSU back in the game.

ghengis khan January 31st, 2013

Haha, interesting observation JJ. I thought @SSS_UGOD summed up pretty well on twitter when he said “All we needed was a steady hand guiding the ship. Brandon Paul came out and started dancing in the lifeboat.”

But to Robert for this post all i have to say is: Go home Robert, you’re drunk.