Broken February 4, 2013
I’m a glass-is-half-full-but-watch-out-for-evaporation kind of guy. Cautious optimism, we’ll call it. Internally, I see no need to dwell on the negatives. I’m a worrier, so I’m never comfortable in my optimism – I’ve never once been confident with a 20 point halftime lead – but more or less, I try to stay positive. A game is never as bad as Twitter makes it sound.
But today, in the first half, right about the time where Wisconsin took a 14-9 lead, I broke. I felt it go. The season, my optimism, everything. Broken. I sent out a Tweet saying such (with some “Really? Now? Early in the first half?” responses). I just felt it click. A must win game, at home, after three straight home losses, against the worst Wisconsin team in a decade, and we score 9 points in the first 10 minutes. I just…
When that dam breaks, it gets dark quickly. No bowl, no tournament sinks in (again), and I question my entire sports belief system. Why am I a college >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> pros guy again? Why do I see it as my personal duty to wear Illini gear everywhere I go? Why do I keep reassuring my boys “don’t worry, there’s a payoff coming for all of these bad seasons”?
And then the stats hit. I started thinking back over the past five years.
2008/09: 5-7 football team after starting the season ranked; basketball team loses to Western Kentucky in the first round.
2009/10: 3-9 disaster of a football season; lose-at-home-to-Minnesota-to-lose-our-tourney-spot basketball season.
2010/11: Surprising 7-6 football season (with a chance for so much more); an actual NCAA tournament win as a 9 seed.
2011/12: 6-0 becomes 6-6 for football; 15-3 becomes 17-15 for basketball. Both coaches fired.
2012/13: 2-10 disaster for football (one of the worst Big Ten seasons for any team in 15 years); from ranked #10 to maybe even missing the NIT for the basketball team.
Which leads me to that keeps-getting-worse, gut-punchiest stat of them all.
Last two seasons of Big Ten football: 2-14 in the Big Ten.
Last two seasons of Big Ten basketball: 8-19 in the Big Ten.
Ten. And. Thirty-three.
At this point, I always try to rally. I switch sports to the next season. I honestly tried to cheer myself up with a football scenario like this:
“You know, maybe football can surprise next year. I mean, Jonathan Brown was only healthy for 3 games last year – he and Monheim can really change the look of this defense. And Jon Davis – he’ll be healthy again, too. Bill Cubit will love finding ways to get him the ball. Beat SIU and Miami (OH) and then maybe steal one against Butch-Davis-is-now-gone Cincinnati…”
Stop. STAHP. Stop doing this to yourself. It’s all gone, and it might never come back. 2000-2006 might just have been the best basketball run of my lifetime. The 1980′s will never come again for football. It was broken to the point of Mike Thomas throwing crazy money at Kevin Sumlin… and he didn’t want to touch it. And then Mike Thomas throwing crazy money at Shaka Smart… and him choosing VCU over Illinois. It’s all broken, and we’ve called around, and it doesn’t look like anyone in the entire country is willing (or able) to fix it.
I keep typing out posts like this, hoping that we’ve bottomed out. I think I’ve declared rock bottom – “it can only get better from here” – at least three times in the last few years. And it keeps getting worse. 10 Big Ten wins in two seasons in two sports. 12th out of 12 when you rank the Big Two sports across the Big Ten. I kept saying it and saying it to try to force it all to sink in, and about the 10:00 minute mark of the first half today, it pushed its way in.
The hardest part of the whole thing? In those 43 Big Ten contests I’m talking about, we had more raw talent than our opponent in at least half the games. Yes, at least as far as this year is concerned, in both sports, the players are all learning new systems. It takes time to install everything (and to recruit players for these systems). So even in all this darkness, I’m still patient.
But I’m also broken. I woke up today certain that this would be the turnaround. This isn’t a very talented Wisconsin team, we’re at home, and we’re playing for our tournament lives. I was there in person to see us destroy Ohio State just one month ago. No way we lose to Wisconsin at home. Win this, steal a win at struggling Minnesota, and we’re back on track for the tournament.
Nope. And so I’m left to search for a new statistic that I can let marinate over the next 48 hours. Found it:
Football and basketball, the five seasons listed above, number of times we finished above .500 in conference: TWO. Two for ten in just trying to finish above .500. Twice. Two times.
OK, THERE’S rock bottom. It can’t get any worse. The climb back starts next year.
What’s that? Both the football and basketball teams, due to heavy graduation losses, might actually be worse next year?
It’s like a broken record.