"...but it is a thing most sorrowful, nay shocking, to expose the fall of valor in the soul." -- Melville
Illinois football was seemingly on the crest of a new renaissance in 2008, a turning point in the program's history. The previous season had been one for the ages, complete with an upset of #1 ranked Ohio State in their stadium and a berth in the coveted Rose Bowl. Now this season the fledgling Big Ten Network was going to devote a prime-time program to the drama about to unfold.
It turned out to be more drama than they bargained for. Their promising 9-4 season was followed by a humiliating 5-7 season, and it has been all downhill since then. Every time the team starts to look like they might turn it around, another setback sends them spinning into a long losing streak. How did a once-proud program fall so far in such a short time?
Throughout the 80s and 90s, Illinois was fairly consistent and sometimes excellent in football. Under coaches Mike White, John Mackovic, Lou Tepper, and Ron Turner, they stayed mostly in the upper-middle section of the Big Ten, and sometimes contended for conference titles.
They frequently appeared in bowl games during these years, and sent many players to the NFL. Among those: Jeff George, Kevin Hardy, Simeon Rice, and John Holecek. As recently as 2001, the Illini won the Big Ten title outright, finished 10-1 in the regular season (including a victory at Ohio State) and played LSU in the Sugar Bowl.
Turner could not maintain the program afterwards, and the team spiraled down to 5-7, 1-11, and 3-8 the next three seasons. It was clear they were falling behind conference powers Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State in recruiting. Fortunately, a former Ohio State assistant had just been let go by SEC power Florida and soon afterwards Ron Zook replaced Turner as the head coach at Illinois.
hope and change
Zook had been known as a solid recruiter while at Florida; new coach Urban Meyer praised him for it, and in fact 22 of the 24 starters on his 2006 BCS Championship team had been recruited by Zook. While Florida fans had lost patience with Zook's inability to get the program over the top, Illinois fans would have been more than happy with the 23 wins that Zook had accumulated during his three years directing the Gators.
Now at Illinois, Zook continued to recruit well. His 2006-2008 classes were all in the top 50 and it began to show during his second season. Despite going 2-10 in 2006, there was hope as the team was highly competitive during a three-game stretch against Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State.
The real breakthrough came in 2007 as the Illini finished 9-4, including the upset at Ohio State. After finishing 0-8 and 1-7 in conference games his first two seasons, Zook's 2007 team finished 6-2, good enough for 2nd place. Since Ohio State was playing in the BCS Championship game, Illinois received an invitation to play USC in the Rose Bowl.
Expectations were high for the 2008 season, with the return of junior quarterback Isaiah "Juice" Williams and sophomore receiver Arrelious Benn. The Big Ten Network, still only in its second season, debuted a new series called "The Journey" in which they would spend the entire season taking a close look at the Illinois football team. It appeared that the program had caught up with its conference rivals and then some.
"The Journey" ended up capturing the highs and lows of a season in which the expected excellence gave way to surprising mediocrity. A season-opening loss to Missouri (another program on the rise) was unsettling, but not fatal. Most fans expected the team to bounce back, and they did.
However, a 38-24 loss at Penn State was more revealing. The former five-star recruit Williams was upstaged by PSU's lesser-known quarterback Daryll Clark, and the Illini defense was pushed around to the tune of 241 rushing yards. It was the type of game where Illinois' improved recruiting was supposed to make the team more competitive, but it seemed like old times again.
After bouncing back against a suddenly-weak Michigan team, Illinois suffered a humiliating home loss to Minnesota. In that game, Williams threw for 462 yards but three turnovers and the lack of an effective ground game kept them from scoring more than 20 points. The Illini then lost three of their last five games to finish 5-7. The new renaissance was fading fast.
crash and burn
As bad as 2008 had been, the 2009 season was even worse. The defense gave up more than 30 points six times, and the offense was so out of sync that Zook benched senior quarterback Williams during a 30-0 shutout at Ohio State. The season ended with consecutive losses to mid-major schools Cincinnati and Fresno State, games in which the Illini gave up a combined 102 points.
Recruiting became more difficult for Zook after back-to-back losing seasons, as his 2010 class was ranked #70 by Rivals. The team returned to respectability in 2010, finishing 7-6 after a bowl victory over Baylor. Things seemed to be turning around again after a 6-0 start to the 2011 season.
It turned out to be a fluke. A home loss to a mediocre Ohio State team launched the Illini into a six-game conference losing streak. This was too much for the Illinois athletic department, and Zook was fired soon afterwards. Ironically, the Illini would go on to win their bowl game for the second straight season, a first in school history.
no hope, no change
Another former Ohio State assistant Tim Beckman was hired from Toledo to replace Zook as coach at Illinois, but the losing ways continue. The culture of losing has now initiated a vicious cycle of lower donations for scholarships, which hurts the athletic department and makes it more difficult to win, which leads to lower donations, etc.
Illinois, which was once so strong in football that they defeated Ohio State five years in a row, is now one of the doormats of the Big Ten conference. Only Purdue give the Illini hope of staying out of the conference cellar in 2014. Beckman will most likely be fired after this season. What then?
As difficult as it may be for Illini fans to hear, the answer is to find someone similar to Zook and hire him. By that I mean someone who can turn the recruiting ship around and get it headed in the right direction. For starters, the next coach will need to shore up in-state recruiting, where Notre Dame and other Big Ten schools routinely swoop in and take the best of the best.
The new coach will also have to restore confidence in the long-term future of the program by making a commitment to hiring top-notch assistants and seeking to improve the profile of the program in terms of innovation. This was the case when Mike White and John Mackovic were coaching the Illini, but Lou Tepper and Ron Turner were seen as stodgy and boring.
It may seem strange for an Ohio State writer to wish success for a rival program, but it will be good for the reputation of the conference if Illinois can get back to at least a respectable position. It will also help OSU's strength of schedule when it comes to playoff selection time.
Let Purdue and Indiana be the doormats; after all, at those schools the football team plays second fiddle to basketball. Illinois is a football school first and foremost. With a tradition that includes Red Grange and Dick Butkus, the school should be able to sell itself better to prospective players.
Illinois can and should do better. The fans should expect it. And Ohio State fans should cheer it, as long as it doesn't include wins over the men in scarlet and gray.