"Illinois can't have nice things."
I've heard it before, and I'll probably hear it again. That joke follows the Fighting Illini through the internet. People around the B1G community don't seem to have much respect for the Illini, but it doesn't make much sense to me. When I picture the Illini among its B1G peers, I picture them somewhere in the middle, definitely not great, but not at the bottom either. Yeah, I admit they haven't been that good in the last few years.. fine, last several years... OK, the last 20 years (you happy now?), but do you all really think of the Illini as the Land of Lacking? What do the rest of you think of the University of Illinois?
It's hard for me to fully understand -- I've got homer goggles on and they're filled with orange Kool-Aid. (Kool-Aid, not orange juice. OJ stings the eyes.) To me the Illini are perpetually almost there; just barely missing that factor that can win a few more games. You may not think that's much, but a few more wins gives you a few more bowl games, which give you a few more national television appearances and maybe a few weeks ranked in the Top 25. All that ultimately attracts a few more recruits, which can carry the program into future years of success. When you're counting all the 'almost' wins, you partially forget that they still weren't.
The last few years have been rough. The Illini have been climbing out of the Zook Zone, a place so desolate and bare that free safeties have to come from the stock of wide receivers. Tim Beckman inherited a team that automatically set him back 3 years, but only a few people seem to realize that. The 2014 season is that third season. It currently like the combination of a rebuilding year and a year of judgment for Beckman. He's doing the best he can I'm sure, but life as the head coach at Illinois is one of the hardest in college football.
The Illini have all the right tools to be great. They sit on the front steps of Chicago, the third biggest city in the U.S., a resource unlike anything since the assembly line of the Model-T. They have a history that actually bests the majority of BCS schools -- not many schools can name two players with the caliber of Grange and Butkus. Go ahead and laugh but I firmly believe the gameday experience in Champaign is somewhat underrated, as is Memorial Stadium. It should all combine for a decent program, yet year after year they produce a team that struggles to get six wins.
Let's say I rank all the B1G schools by the "greatness" of their football program, taking into account the school's past as well as factoring in their recent run of success and/or failure. Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Nebraska, and Iowa would easily rank above the Illini. I consider Purdue, Indiana, Maryland, Rutgers, Minnesota and Northwestern generally ranking below, with Northwestern as the obvious bottom of all B1G schools. (No particular order here, except for Northwestern.) In no way is this an official list. It took less than 5 minutes to construct, and is giving off a somewhat orange glow, but it gives you a quaint look into how I view the B1G.
Every conference in college football has a legacy which is defined by its teams. There's a looming concept in my mind that the Illini pull the rest of the B1G down, but their history and perpetual chance to be better lifts them to the middle of the pack, right?
Whatever. Some day we'll be tearing up the Western Conference with yearly primetime television slugfests with Wisconsin and Iowa and Nebraska. Some day we'll be in a B1G Conference Championship Game wondering why it took us so long to get there. Some day.