Win May 20, 2013
I spend my days thinking of ways for Illini football to improve. The fact that the largest state in the Big Ten footprint has such an abysmal football program (while the next three biggest states – Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan are all doing OK for themselves) is the great mystery of our time, and I believe that I, Robert, have been sent to this earth to solve the riddle.
There will be a meeting some day in Urbana/Champaign, and President Hefner will call me into his office and ask for the results of my three-year study on how to improve the football program at the University of Illinois, and I’ll hand him a two page report: a cover sheet, and then a single page with just one word:
It’s so simple that it will blow everyone’s mind. There will be murmurs among everyone in the room – in my mind, Ron Swanson is the Chancellor while the guitarist from Hum is the Athletic Director – and then someone will finally say “it’s amazing that we’ve never tried this before”.
Here’s what I mean. Have you seen Northwestern’s recruiting this month? Fitzee is killing it. It’s killing me. I lose sleep over it. 4-star kids in Illinois are staying home to play for Northwestern. Worst game-day atmosphere of any BCS-conference program, smallest crowds in the Big Ten, attend-a-game-there-and-it-feels-like-you’re-at-a-Division-II-game NORTHWESTERN is killing it on the recruiting trail. Why? Because they win football games.
Why do they win football games? Because they’ve slowly and methodically built a program. How did they do that? Well, partly because they scheduled the easiest non-conference opponents in the nation during Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure. They went 6-10 in the Big Ten in 2010 and 2011… and went to back-to-back bowl games. How did they do that? Easy – they went from 2007 to 2012 without playing a non-conference opponent with a winning record. Win three non-conference games, win three conference games, keep momentum, bowl game. Then when they have a breakout season like 2012, everything takes off. And I mean takes off. This is already the greatest recruiting class in Northwestern history, and it’s only 10 players. And it’s May.
Why the sudden surge? Five consecutive bowls. Why five consecutive bowls? Easiest non-conference schedule in the nation turned a couple 3-5 conference seasons into bowl seasons. Why easiest non-conference schedule? Because all Jim Phillips cared about was wins.
I’m so jealous. Seriously – Jan-to-Marcia-Brady jealous. While our athletic director remained the only AD in the country still following the “if you play Texas State at home, the crowd will be tiny and the revenue will be crappy” mindset, everyone else drank our milkshake. Northwestern’s Jim Phillips especially. Again, I tracked Northwestern and Illinois’ non-conference FBS opponents during The Streak from 2007 through 2011 where we didn’t play anyone with a losing record and they didn’t play one with a winning record. Those stunning numbers again:
Illini opponents: 123-57 (.683)
Northwestern opponents: 47-133 (.261)
Man, this post is halfway over and I’m not even close to my point yet. Every time I do this I get sidetracked with Northwestern jealousy. Northwestern jealousy. I still can’t believe this is happening. Here’s my point.
Win. Just focus on getting wins. When I was celebrating our scheduling of Western Kentucky and Texas State for 2014 last week – I went a little insane on Twitter with 15 years of incredulity overflowing – I still had people responding to me with “but what will be the crowds for those games? 15,000?”
I. Don’t. Care.
I don’t care if we play those games in front of 3,000 people. I don’t care if we move them to Huff Hall. Just win football games. That’s it. Win. Just win them. There are, like, a hundred thousand benefits to winning football games, but I’ll just mention 9 of them.
1. People like wins.
2. Wins are well received by recruits.
3. Team confidence is boosted by wins.
4. You can use a soft non-conference schedule to implement your schemes and prepare younger players.
5. Winning is fun.
6. People will buy tickets if you win.
7. We get to say things like “yeah, we won on Saturday” around the water cooler.
8. Losing isn’t very enjoyable.
9. Wins are pretty cool.
You ever type out a blog post and no matter how hard you try you can’t get to your point? That’s what’s happening to me right now. I just can’t get around to it. I need an outline. Here’s what I’m trying to say.
A) I don’t believe the whole “you need a schedule that is attractive to fans”. You know what’s attractive to fans? Wins. 15,000 new season ticket holders after a 9-4 season in 2007 >>>>>>>>>> “people might be interested if we played Cincinnati instead of some MAC team in Champaign”. Win consistently and they will come. A winning program is 491 times more important than sexy non-conference opponents. Sure, scheduling nobodies isn’t a guarantee that your program will improve. But scheduling everybodies is a near guarantee that it won’t.
B) I kinda don’t even believe the whole “it’s just about finding the right head coach and having him teach all 85 players exactly what to do”. That works in basketball – it really doesn’t work in football. Football is way more complicated than that. Consistency is almost more important than competency. Build a program, not a team. And the best way to build a program is to start winning and then make the right decisions when those coaches inevitably leave.
C) I’ve seen some say that they hope we tank even further this season so that Beckman will be fired. They’ve already decided he’s not the guy, so it’s best that we lose and lose often so that he’s gone as soon as possible. To that I say… win as many games as possible and let Mike Thomas handle the rest. He fired Ron Zook after a bowl season, and he would do the same again if he thought Beckman wasn’t up to the task. Tanking just further damages our recruiting, and I want as many athletes as possible for Beckman or for the next coach. So string together some wins – enough to attract recruits – and let the direction of the program decision play itself out.
Yep – still can’t find the point I set out to make. Maybe I need to talk the inverse.
I’m not saying that scheduling so we can go 6-6 (2-6) every year is the way to go. Zook accomplished that for two seasons, and I wanted him gone. And I’m not saying we schedule like that forever – eventually, the fans will desire a bump in the schedule (if the team in consistently winning).
I’m saying that every program that has gone from our side of the coin to the other in the last 20 years has done so by focusing on wins and winning seasons first. Kansas State, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, Missouri, Northwestern, Baylor, etc – all had three things in common:
1) Schedule absolutely no one until the program is built. And I mean absolutely no one. Schedule yourself four non-conference wins, even if nobody shows up at the game.
2) Have a “thing” – Wisconsin O-line and run game, VaTech defense and special teams, K-State is the destination for all top Juco players, Missouri deep shotgun spread, etc. – that gives you an identity to recruits and fans.
3) Put together a string of bowl games to sell recruits and slowly build from there.
And if you change coaches during that time, try to keep everything as consistent as possible. There was consistency from Randy Walker to Fitzee; from Alvarez to Bielema. Missouri lost their offensive guru and had his replacement groomed to step in. Change very little, and keep your thing.
What did we do while these programs were climbing the last 20 years?
1) Scheduled the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation.
2) Had multiple things. Tepper defense, Turner offense, Ron Zook NFL Training Academy. Oh, and seven different offenses the last 10 years.
3) Finished one game away from a bowl FIVE times.
Is that not unbelievable? Toughest non-con schedule and seven coordinators in 10 years should force an athletic director to be dragged to a senate hearing or something. Those 5-wins seasons that could have been six or seven are criminal in some way, right?
Win. Just win games. Score more points than the other team. Don’t care about ticket sales or strength of schedule or “doesn’t Kathy Ireland kick for Texas State?” call-outs – just go win football games. That’s the point of this entire post.