Chicagoans do not need instruction about life’s unfairness. The Cubs and White Sox can be counted on to reinforce that reality each spring and summer, and when the leaves fall the Bears are there to pound it home. It’s saturation learning, a kind of Suzuki method gone horribly wrong.
For some, even a change of scene provides little respite. I refer to those of us who attend, or have attended, the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, about 150 miles south of our hometown. While it’s a fine educational institution, allegiance to its teams only intensifies our misery in matters athletic.
In the last 50 years, the Fighting Illini—our men and women play a combined 17 varsity sports—have won national championships…twice: In 1989, the men’s gymnastics team went all the way, and in 2003 the men’s tennis team did the same. (NOTE: The men’s gymnastics team is the school’s strongest outfit, having won the Big Ten Championship five times in the last ten years. They are currently ranked #3 in the country.)
But I don’t watch gymnastics, or college tennis. Sure, I’m happy to know they win, but not that happy. I care about football and basketball.
And when it comes to the gridiron and the hardwood, it’s almost as though our Illini ballers are as unremittingly awful as the Cubs, who have compiled a record of futility that impresses Tibetan monks, Australian aborigines, and others whose sense of time is wider than ours.
Some have suggested that the Illini, like the Cubs, are cursed, and that their losing spell is tied directly to their former and politically incorrect mascot, Chief Illiniwek, who was retired in 2007.
Every decade or so our alma mater will win a Big Ten title in football or basketball—the equivalent of a baseball division title—and make us believe that some magical corner to prosperity has been turned. Invariably, though, reality asserts itself, and we’re back in the pits where we know we belong. The loss of a flame extinguished is more painful than one that’s never lit.
No academic year better illustrates this than the present one. Last fall, Illini footballers began their season with six straights wins, persuading some to check Travelocity for room rates in Pasadena come New Year’s Day. Six straight losses followed, the coach was sacked, and we wound up in some cheesy dot.com bowl (OK, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl), which was Exhibit A in many people’s too-many-bowls argument.
Then came basketball, and a surprise 15-3 start, but just as we got cocky the worm turned, or, rather, all the worms. Our team now is 17-12 and in full collapse, its usual NCAA “bubble” status all but burst. Bruce Weber, our coach, is a dead man walking. He gave his own eulogy in a news conference rant after a loss to Purdue on Feb. 15:
“You have to develop a culture,” Weber said, “and the last three years all I did was worry about winning instead of developing a culture of toughness. And that’s my fault. The kids, we’re always mollycoddling them.”
Two gone coaches in one school year is breathtaking even for Illinois, and we Illini once again must face the question of how we got into this mess. It certainly isn’t from overreaching, because our aims are not grand. We don’t seek to create dynasties like Ohio State and Michigan or even Wisconsin have done on the gridiron and hardwood—just to avoid getting blown out when we play those guys, and maybe sneak off with an occasional trophy. But even that seems out of reach.
This is a mystery to me, because Illinois is a populous state rich in athletic talent. Trouble is, the best of it matriculates elsewhere. The usual reason given is that Champaign-Urbana, the university’s seat, is a dull, rural place. But so are South Bend, Ind., State College, Pa., and Lincoln, Neb., and schools in those towns have done well enough these past many decades in big-time sports. This topic has been covered a lot lately (and not just in relation to the Illini—I’m looking at you, DePaul), especially considering the high school hoops class of 2013, which includes Simeon’s Jabari Parker, who could be the best player in the country.
Then there’s the coaching. As a U of I student (1955-59) and reporter for the Daily Illini (now imperiled) and Champaign-Urbana Courier (now defunct), I frequently brushed against athletic-department types. I rated them as less than brilliant, and nothing has happened the last 50 or so years to change that view about their successors. In that span, Illinois has had one football coach (Mike White) and one basketball coach (Bill Self) I considered exceptional. Alas, White ran afoul of the NCAA rulebook, and Self fled when a more-promising job (at Kansas) beckoned.
Our late football coach, Ron Zook, was hard working and an effective recruiter (pretty much), but even casual fans moaned with displeasure over some of his boneheaded sideline calls. The basketball incumbent, Weber, seems like a nice, guileless fellow who lacks the edge it takes to compete with the sharks at his level of the college game. He began auspiciously, posting an 89-16 record in his first three years on the job and taking the Illini to the 2005 NCAA finals, but his teams lapsed into mediocrity once he was forced to play the kids he recruited himself.
Neither Zook nor Weber instilled in their players the grit necessary for success in a tough league. Worse in an academic setting, their teaching skills seemed lacking; their players didn’t develop, and their teams got worse instead of better as seasons progressed. Zook’s signature player—the quarterback Isiah “Juice” Williams—starred as a sophomore but regressed as a junior and senior. Weber recruits Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, and Brandon Paul followed similar career trajectories. Weber and his staff never did connect with his biggest recruiting catch—Jereme Richmond of Waukegan—and the lad spiraled off into the basketball netherworld after one troubled season in Champaign.
Illinois has a new athletics director in Mike Thomas. His new football coach is Tim Beckman, ex of the University of Toledo, who was on nobody’s A-list for the job. The hope is that he’ll outperform his credentials. Thomas will have to find a bigger name in basketball, where expectations are higher. But any coaching change affects recruiting, and both new guys will need time to install their “systems” (whatever those are), so the short-term outlook for each isn’t bright. We old Illini aren’t packing away our orange-and-blue gear, but experience has taught us not to hold our breath waiting for better days.
Tomorrow, the Fighting Illini hoops crew hosts the No. 13 Michigan Wolverines, before finishing the regular season against the No. 15 Wisconsin Badgers. I might skip them both and watch the men’s gymnastics team take on Ohio State. I just need to figure out how to find them on TV.
* * * * *
ABOUT FRED KLEIN: Fred is the former national sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He blogs at fredkleinonsports.blogspot.com.
ART: Re-mixed photo of Illinois hardwood courtesy anarchosyn/cc.