The unfairness of life is brought home to me every spring and summer by the performance of my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. They always come through in that respect. In recent years, however, the punishment has continued into the fall, delivered by my favorite football team, that of my alma mater, the University of Illinois. Now THAT is unfair.
I’m feeling especially put-upon these days because the erstwhile Fighting Illini are in the throes of a season that’s bad by even their standards. At this writing they are 2 and 6 in the won-lost column with four games to play, and despite Saturday’s welcome win over so-so Michigan, it’s hard to see how they can wind up better than 4 and 8. I’ve put my orange-and-blue gear into storage, and it’ll take a heckuva good basketball season to persuade me to uncrate it.
It’s not as though we Illini expect much from our gridiron representatives—a six- or seven-win season and a dot-com bowl game would satisfy us nicely. But even that modest goal has been elusive. Illinois hasn’t put together successive winning seasons since 1989-90, and have been on the plus side in just five campaigns since then. Over four recent seasons (2003-06) it had a combined won-lost record of 8-38.
It probably wouldn’t be so painful if we were perennially terrible, like Indiana. Then we could simply ignore football and save our enthusiasm for basketball, where we’re usually decent. About once a decade, though, we have a quite-successful year—such as 2007’s 9-4 record and Rose Bowl appearance—and convince ourselves that some magical corner has been turned. Inevitably this proves illusory and we’re back in the pits, where we started.
Why this should be so is a mystery. Illinois is a populous state with a rich annual crop of football talent. Trouble is, the best of it matriculates at places like Notre Dame, Michigan and, lately, even Southern California. Yes, Champaign-Urbana, where the U of I is situated, is widely viewed as a dull, rural place, but it’s not any worse in that regard than Iowa City, Ia., South Bend, Ind., or godawful State College, Pa., for heaven’s sake. Iowa and Wisconsin, which have fewer athletic resources than Illinois, consistently have managed to field good-to-excellent football teams in recent years. If they can do it, Illinois also should be able to.
The usual key factor in such a situation is coaching or the lack of it, and the chair of Illinois’s incumbent headman, Ron Zook, has become quite warm. Zook formerly was the coach at Florida, where he posted a 23-14 won-lost mark over three seasons. While that would have been fine in Champaign it got him fired in Gainesville, where expectations are higher. At Illinois, he’s had but one winning season in five, with the arrow pointing down..
By all accounts Zook’s industry has been exemplary; he’s your typical workaholic football coach for whom putting in a half-day means working 12 hours. He’s said to take his cell phone into the shower for fear of missing a call, and probably sees his family no more than a few hours a week in season. He’s gotten high grades as a recruiter, but this year’s woeful gangs on both sides of the ball put that rep into serious question.
Most disheartening has been the play of quarterback Juice Williams, the team’s leader on offense. He was sprightly as a sophomore during the ’07 Rose Bowl run but before Saturday had been sodden as a senior, a flat-footed and inaccurate passer and heavy-legged runner who had more turnovers than TDs. His regression speaks ill of Zook’s ability to develop talent, a college coach’s primary charge. Zook never has been much praised as a game-day strategist.
So fire the guy, right? OK, but then what? Recruiting (as it is) will be set back further and a new “system” (whatever that is) will have to be installed, meaning at least a couple more very bad years before any turnaround can be expected. And if the new guy succeeds there’s a good chance he’ll be lured away by a stronger program, as was the live-wire basketball coach, Bill Self. No matter how you look at it, the outlook isn’t brilliant.
But so as not to be totally negative, I do have a suggestion for short-term improvement. Illinois is known for slotting players out of position, such as Bobby Mitchell, an NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver who was an underutilized running back at Illinois, and Ray Nitschke, the all-time great pro linebacker who was a second-string fullback in Champaign. At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, Williams is bigger than the current Illini linebackers, and, probably, stronger and faster as well. His pro prospects as a QB are slight so let’s try him there next Saturday. It couldn’t hurt him or the team.