If it is true that, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “the test of a first-class intellect is the ability to hold opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” then many of my friends have first-class intellects. They believe as I do (but usually not as strongly) that big-time college sports reek of hypocrisy and exploitation, but cling to the contradictory view that, somehow, their own schools “do things right.”
I am under no such illusion. I have no doubt that the University of Illinois, at which I spent four highly formative years (1955-59) and for whose teams I still cheer, engages in the same, pernicious practices as other big schools in stocking and maintaining its playing-field forces. My gripe is that it isn’t very good at them.
We old Illini don’t expect much. Most of us are Chicagoans who, unlike people from such benighted places as Kentucky, Nebraska and Oklahoma, have had many entertainments within easy reach and so don’t look to our university as a primary provider. We don’t strive to create football dynasties the way Ohio State and Michigan have; mere respectability is our goal. But alas, even that modest goal usually is out of reach.
That sad fact is especially true as another college football season begins. Illinois footballers have had just five winning seasons in the last 20, and have won just one Big Ten title in that span (14 years ago), but seem to have little chance of adding to those totals. The school fired its head football coach, Tim Beckman, two weeks before the season began, and now functions under a guy with the word “interim” in his title, meaning that recruiting is pretty much on hold until a permanent replacement is named. That puts us in the doghouse for at least a couple of years past this one.
Worse, the entire athletics department is under a cloud from allegations that, if true, are appalling. Two former football players are suing the university for mishandling their gridiron injuries, as is a woman soccer player. Further, a Federal lawsuit alleges that the school’s women’s basketball team discriminated against and otherwise mistreated black players, something that strains credulity in this day and age. Almost stranger still was a university investigation into those charges that led to the firing of an assistant coach in the program but cleared the head coach, as though that sort of thing could occur without his knowledge. Fat chance.
As a U of I student and reporter for the Daily Illini and Champaign-Urbana Courier, I frequently brushed against athletics-department types. I didn’t consider them brilliant and nothing has happened over the last 56 years to change that view. The first job of any athletics director is to hire good coaches in the so-called revenue sports, and in that period Illinois has had only one football coach (Mike White, 1980-87) and one basketball coach (Bill Self, 2000-03) I considered outstanding. White ultimately tripped over the NCAA’s fat rulebook and Self abandoned ship the first time something better crooked its finger
The current AD is one Mike Thomas, and how he keeps his job is beyond me. Besides the above-mentioned legal horrors, he’s the guy who in 2012 appointed Beckman, who was on nobody’s A-list at the time. Beckman was a flop on the field --his three-year record was 12 wins in 37 games and most of those victories were “schedule wins” over much-smaller schools hired for the purpose (as are his successor’s two wins this season). He also was clumsy in public and given to such odd gaffs as being caught chewing tobacco on the sidelines, which besides being gauche is against the rules.
Thomas’s choice for basketball coach, the next year, was John Groce. Because of his energy Groce was favorably received initially, but he’s come in second in too many recruiting battles and has yet to impart positive momentum to his teams. He’s had terrible luck in the injury department (his putative starting point guard has suffered season-ending injuries before each of the last two campaigns), and his last-year team suffered an embarrassing collapse after showing early foot. If he doesn’t produce this season, with unpromising material, he might be unemployed come March.
To the question of “what’s wrong?” there is no easy answer. Champaign-Urbana, the adjacent corn belt cities in which the University is domiciled, is widely seen as a dull, rural place that’s unattractive to young jocks (it really ain’t bad), but so is Iowa City, Ia., and State College, Pa., and they’ve done well enough, sportswise. The University of Wisconsin, in a state that has far fewer athletic resources than Illinois, has put together recent football and basketball records that put Illinois’s in the shade.
College sports are coaches’ realms and Illinois needs one in football and, perhaps soon, will in basketball. The journalistic consensus is that its history of ineptitude has made the school a Sargasso Sea that no established coach would want to navigate. So OK, Nick Saban won’t be leaving Alabama for Champaign-Urbana any time soon, but the woods teem with smart young assistant coaches and the main trick is to find one whose ties to the school or state would make Illinois a destination rather than a gig.
It also would help if the guy can hunt with the sharks without showing blood on his teeth. Appearances trump reality in a game where everybody cheats, one in which doing things well beats doing them “right.”