Last week, Mike Jones led off Big Ten at Ten with a little Illinois bashing. Now, to be fair, I am still not convinced that he was all that off base. I watched his press conference and while he had some, 'answers,' for what had transpired that day in State College where half of his staff was recruiting players from a crestfallen team, it still felt uneasy. Regardless of class, rules, or what not, Mike's little LOL session was not exactly considered to be all that funny by the Illini faithful. Robert from A-Lion-Eye, one of the few (if not only) active Illinois blogs in the blogosphere, took some (reasonable) offense at what was said.
In a fairly well thought out article, especially considering the legitimate annoyance factor Robert was probably feeling, Robert used Mike's post to talk about what really went down in State College. At first, when the OTE staff got wind of this rebuttal of sorts, we went into a fairly epic E-mail thread about declaring war on the apathy that is Illinois and all that jazz. After calming down a bit, however, we decided that it would only be fair to get Robert to explain the situation here at Off Tackle Empire by answering a few questions. He was extremely gracious to join us on our home turf, and honestly, his answers sounded like a real knowledgeable fan. Even in spite of Ted and I's ridiculously long rant about Illinois apathy, Robert took to the internet like a dedicated writer and the following gives me hope that Illinois can still be a real fanbase.
Jesse: Alright Robert, why don't we give you a moment to introduce yourself. Obviously a lot of our readers are not well versed in Illinois football, and as such may not know much about you. Give us a little information on how you became an Illini fan, what is up with the name of your blog, and what is your favorite Illini football moment?
Robert: That's A Lion Eye, not Illini, A Lion Eye (say it out loud, Illini = A Lion Eye). It's lame, but it's MY lame.
I'm a 1996 grad of Illinois with a degree in nothing anywhere close to writing or journalism. I worked at the local paper in Champaign in the Sports Department during my years in Champaign, and I developed a taste for it. After years of spending way too much time on Illini message boards, I started the blog in February of 2009.
Favorite Illini football moment? Easy. Day before the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, the team is volunteering at a local soup kitchen. One of diners sits down at a piano and starts playing, and this happens. I was there, covering the bowl game, standing behind the piano, watching these guys who had just endured 30 days of WHY DID YOU LOSE SIX GAMES IN A ROW? questions, pouring into this song. Yeah, it was just the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. And we were playing 6-7 UCLA. But those 24 hours - from the soup kitchen right through AJ Jenkins putting the game away with a long touchdown catch - were the best 24 hours of my Illini fandom. Those guys made the entire staff at St. Anthony's cry, and then the weight of the losing streak was released the next day. I doubt it will ever be topped.
[Ed. Note: That was really awesome. Remember when I said Illinois needs better marketing? Yeah, this stuff should have been sent to the masses. That video with the players literally putting smiles on people who feel hopeless is awesome. I approve of this and you should all watch that video.]
JC: Alright, now that we got done with the intros, let me give you a moment to kind of 'air your grievances' with OTE. Obviously you, and a lot of others, are not too pleased with the negative press Coach Beckman has been getting in light of his little tirade at media day along with Penn State players tweeting about coaches stalking them, etc. Now, I read your article on A-Lion-Eye, and I thought it was a pretty good explanation and all, but let's be honest, the perception abroad (not just on our site) is that Beckman was playing the non-denial, denial card. What do you think prompted this across the interwebs?
Robert: I think the main issue that most every Illini fan has is the misconception that Tim Beckman took his staff to Happy Valley to troll for players. Tim Beckman took his staff to Happy Valley to put the full court press on Ryan Nowicki, an offensive lineman that had let teams know he planned on transferring and reached out to Illinois (he was born in and has family in Illinois). Most obsessive Illini fans (like me) were aware from reports out of Arizona the night before (Nowicki is from Arizona) that Illinois was sending 6 coaches to see Nowicki in Pennsylvania and sending 2 coaches to see his parents in Arizona (similar to Lane Kiffin sending 6 coaches to meet with Silas Redd). But getting off the plane in Happy Valley, they ran into Bill O'Brien at the airport (on his way to Bristol to appear on Mike and Mike, where he told ESPN that he ran into our coaches). From there, it took off. ESPN reported that O'Brien saw our coaches "while leaving State College". Matt Hayes of The Sporting News tweeted that our coaches were "in the parking lot". You guys said that O'Brien saw Beckman "outside the Lasch Building". Dick Vitale said we were "vultures" and "classless".
But really, to me, it was a bloodthirsty media looking for the SMU parking lot story. Our coaches met with Nowicki and "at least one other player" off campus. They let other players know they were available to meet. Given the some PSU players have claimed they were pursued by "50 schools", I don't think this is any different than anything most BCS programs were doing. Beckman's mistake? Running into O'Brien at the airport, which led to questions at Media Day the next day.
Is it questionable for a Big Ten coaching staff to be in State College, off campus, letting players know they're "available to talk"? Maybe. But that's not the Illini fan's aggravation here. We're salty because of all the Twitsteria that our coaches were stalking players at their apartments and hanging out at the Lasch Building. There's simply not one credible report claiming any of that happened. We simply put an all out blitz on Nowicki and we reached out to any players on the "I'd be interested in transferring" list while we were there.
[Ed. Note Again... FWIW, Nowicki did end up in the Blue and Orange, so maybe it wasn't such a bad move.]
JC: Wow, okay, so General Media Outrage + ESPN getting their hands on it + OTE making fun of Illinois = Hyperbole... That seems about right. I'll give that a pass and kind of move on to one of our biggest beefs with Illinois here at Off Tackle Empire: Fan Apathy. Ted and I just wrote an article about Illinois' apathy, or at least the way that it seems like it is apathy, and we ended up with quite a bit of rambling and theories. Our conclusion was that it is a strange mix of Marketing Failure and on-the-field problems. What do you think causes this apathy, especially as an obviously dedicated Illinois fan? Also, you run a site that is dedicated to Illinois football. Do you feel that there is interest out there beyond what we see daily?
Robert: I read the article. Good work. I think a lot of it is spot on. I could probably write 1,500 words on this topic. I'll try to keep it to 800.
First off, my roommate freshman year at Illinois just flew out of his chair screaming in a language unknown to man upon reading "marketing failure". It's his pet topic. He's been ranting about it at cocktail parties since 1995. People sometimes avoid him because of it. Illinois has never, ever, ever, ever, ever successfully marketed the program. Ever. You know when you have your cousin design the website for your business instead of going with a web design firm, and it comes out looking like a Geocities site from 1997? That's the way we marketed the program under Ron Guenther, our AD of NINETEEN YEARS who finally retired last summer. You know those signs with the flashing arrow where you can change the letters like a gas station sign? The ones your local park district used in 1988 to say "CONCERT IN SCOTT PARK TONIGHT"? Illinois had those signs set up around campus as late as 2010, advertising season tickets for sale. They might still be there. (Oh God, are they still there?)
Our brand in Chicago? Nil. Our advertising? Catered around East Central Illinois. Our merchandise? From 2003. Our uniforms? So 2006. Even our nachos are bad. We've simply been small time for years. Here we are, in the largest state in the Big Ten, and there is zero momentum behind Illinois Football. Part of that is marketing, and part of that is Lucy repeatedly pulling the football away.
Mike White built the program in the 1980's, and we had a streak of 27 sellouts in a row. John Mackovic built on that, pushing us to the top-5 nationally in 1990 before fading at the end of the season. But then Mackovic left in 1992 (the same time Ron Guenther came on board as AD), and the gut punches began. Never more than 7 wins per season through the Lou Tepper era, despite having 4 NFL linebackers (including top-3 picks Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy) on the same defense. And then the bottom dropped out in 1997 with a 18 game losing streak. Ron Turner built that to an 8-4 bowl season in 1999... and then we only won 5 games in 2000. Turner took us to the Sugar Bowl in 2001... and then we only won 5 games in 2002. And after 2003's one win season, the fans quit.
Ron Zook built some excitement with some top-20 recruiting classes, and by 2007 we were back on top, in the Rose Bowl. In 2008? You guessed it - 5 wins and no bowl. And then 2009 broke the fanbase for good. There's a buzz around the preseason. Some publications have us going to a BCS bowl. Phil Steele has us going 10-2. There's probably 8-10 NFL players on the field. Aaaand 3-9. Not just 3-9, but 3-9 after losing at home to Fresno State 53-52 when Fresno State's "win if it's good, lose if it's not" two-point conversion attempt on the final play was deflected into the air and caught by a 325 pound offensive lineman who fell across the goal line to give Fresno the victory. The fanbase, from that very moment, was destroyed. It was the last straw. We've won two bowl games the last two years, and our ticket sales have plummeted each year. Fans came back after 1995 and after 2000 and after 2002 and after 2008. But 2009 broke them.
So, hey, good luck new AD Mike Thomas and new football coach Tim Beckman!!
JC: Hahaha. Nothing says awesome like knowing you're inheriting a Zookered program AND you have to win back a downtrodden fanbase. That sounds like all sorts of fun for them. Okay, so we've gotten the fan stuff out of the way. Let's talk some football. Give us your predictions for Beckman's first year. Who are breakout players we should know about now? What is the one upset you expect? What is your prediction W/L?
Robert: First off, I have this thing where I don't do a season prediction until the night before. I want to take in all the information that I can, read every preseason article, get my eyes on training camp, and then I'll make a decision. So I can't give a specific answer yet. But I can speak to your other questions.
If new defensive coordinator Tim Banks isn't too far of a drop from departed DC Vic Koenning, we should have a solid defense. DE Michael Buchanan can lead the Big Ten in sacks, LB Jonathan Brown can be top-3 in tackles, and I believe we have two of the 5 best cornerbacks in the conference in Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green (both high 4-star, top-100 recruits that Zook brought in back in 2009). Plus defensive tackle Akeem Spence should make a run at first team All Big Ten honors as well (I think he's gone to the NFL after this season). The pieces are there for a really good defense. But how much of that was Koenning's brilliant play calling and schemes? We shall see.
On offense, well, welp. We finished 85th nationally and only scored 79 points in our final seven games last year (11 points per game is bad, right?). Gone is Brother Of Petrino, in comes Billy Gonzales (Urban Meyer's left hand man - Mullen was on the right - at Bowling Green and Utah and Florida) and Chris Beatty from Vandy (he was a high school coach in 2005 when this assistant coach from Florida named Billy Gonzales arrived to recruit his star player, one Percy Harvin). Can their spread be the cure? Maybe. We have a spread QB who has been running the pro set the last two years, so hopefully Nathan Scheelhaase blossoms in this new scheme. And if he can stay healthy, I think junior WR Darius Millines is our next offensive star (but he's broken his foot, like, nine times). But given the complete offensive collapse last season, I'd say this unit has a long way to go.
The best news: Ron Zook can't lead us to 117th in punt returns and 120th in kickoff returns again.
JC: Alright. I think that's probably a good intro on Illinois football. Things always sound better from a real fan. Closing thoughts? How should we address the Illini from here on out?
Robert: As the #1 sleeper program in the Big Ten, of course. As you alluded to in your post, there's a Successful Seven and a Faulty Four in the Big Ten lately, and then there's Illinois, going to the Rose Bowl and then going 3-9. We've been to two BCS bowls - we should be in the top tier, right? Wait, we only won eight games from 2003 to 2006 - we absolutely belong in the bottom. But we had four of the first 48 draft picks in the NFL draft in April - that's not something a bottom tier team produces. Wait, with all that talent, we still lost twelve games in two seasons. Bottom tier it is.
But with a new AD, and a new football coach, and a 4-star QB on the way, and recruiters like Beatty and Gonzales, and Zook talent in the stable, OF COURSE we're about to become the resurgent program that is the talk of the nation. This giant has been asleep since 1990, and Tim Beckman is just the guy to wake him up. Just not at his apartment, of course. That would be classless.
[So there you have it. Thanks again to Robert for taking time to 'chat' with me. If you need information on the Fighting Illini, check out his blog: A Lion Eye.]