Ron Zook is in the CBS Sports Network studios. Bruce Weber is in Manhattan, Kansas. And Chief Illiniwek? He’s in absentia.
Former AD Ron Guenther is in retirement. His successor’s competency is still in question. Meanwhile, the football program is in the hands of a coach we barely know. Ditto for hoops.
On the academic side, there’s more upheaval, as the semester begins with Illinois’ third president in four school years.
Oh, and then, there’s the iconic Alma Mater statue.
Where does that leave the University of Illinois today?
As an Illinois alum, dedicated observer, and longtime football season-ticket holder, I don’t know. As we head into 2012-2013 with Saturday’s football opener vs. Western Michigan, I can’t recall a time when Illini Nation has suffered an identity crisis quite like this.
In some ways it’s exciting, as AD Mike Thomas, football coach Tim Beckman, and basketball coach John Groce launch a new era in Champaign. But it’s also unsettling, as neither Beckman nor Groce were Thomas’ first choices to head his department’s marquee programs and the Illini have far more questions than answers; so many that if Illinois were a freshman, his major would be undeclared.
Eighteen years ago this month, when I moved into a cramped dorm room in Forbes Hall on the Illinois campus, I didn’t know much about my own identity. But when it came to my ID as an Illini I never had any doubts.
In 1994, I knew that Illinois was the school of Lou Henson’s hairdo and Lou Tepper’s specs. It may have been two Lous too many, but I knew what I was getting when I visited Memorial Stadium for football (all-defense, no-offense) or Assembly Hall for basketball (strong first halves, sorry second ones).
As a freshman, I also took pride in knowing that Illinois’ symbol was the Chief, who electrified the Illini crowds even when the teams did not. I took pleasure in knowing the likes of Simeon Rice, Kevin Hardy, and Dana Howard were on campus–and that the nation knew their names, too. And I took comfort in knowing that Illinois’ administration was rock solid and its academic reputation pristine.
These days, a slew of coaching changes, a dearth of A-List athletes, a banished Chief Illiniwek, and an academic administration in perpetual flux, the entire picture is fuzzy.
None of this is to say that change is bad. Rather, after a string of disappointing seasons, Illinois desperately needed to inject new blood into its football, basketball and AD offices. The only question is if the transfusions administered were the right ones.
Individually, the shake-ups that resulted in Guenther, Zook, Weber and Illini women’s basketball coach Jolette Law being replaced by Thomas, Beckman, Groce and Matt Bollant weren’t all that momentous. But they did cost the school more than $7 million in buyouts. And when so many rumbles come together, it feels like an earthquake.
To find the only reasonable comparison in terms of Illini tumult, you have to go back to 1967. That was when Illinois assistant athletic director Mel Brewer, livid that football coach Pete Elliott – a “Michigan man” – had been picked to succeed longtime AD Doug Mills, marched into the president’s office and spilled the dirt about his multi-year record of improper payments to athletes.
The ensuing fallout, which came to be known as the infamous “slush fund” scandal, led to the ouster of Elliott and head basketball coach Harry Combes, as well as the suspension of some athletes. Illinois was left in turmoil. But even then it still had an identity: renegade school.
Recent Illini coaches have also brought pre-set images with them. Ron Turner arrived with an NFL pedigree, while Ron Zook was a so-called recruiting guru. On the hardcourt, Lon Kruger had a Final Four on his resume. Bill Self brought buckets of charm, and Bruce Weber followed with a lunch-pail mentality.
Today, however, Illinois’ new coaches and athletic director all stand before us as blank slates. The football and basketball rosters are starless. With nationally televised road games at Arizona State, Wisconsin, and Michigan in the coming weeks, Illini football has a chance to make a splash, or sink into mediocrity. Basketball, meanwhile, continues to chase high school shooting stars in the hopes of reenergizing a moribund program.
As this school year and football season gets underway, Illini Nation is grappling to find its identity more than at any time I can remember.
I’ll be rooting them not only to win, but to build an identity we can be proud of.
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DAVE WISCHNOWSKY, a 1998 graduate of the University of Illinois, is a Chicago writer and columnist who currently writes a sports blog forCBSChicago.com and formerly worked as a Metro reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune. His other work can be read here and atwischlist.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @wischlist.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house; photo courtesy of Todd Huffman.