clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How did Illinois get here?

New, 114 comments

A history lesson that will go as deep as you're willing to read. A program like this doesn't just happen.

Some day, Red. Some day.
Some day, Red. Some day.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Greetings, OTE. Many things have happened since my last post, an apathetic NIT preview. We fans do have a habit of taking after our teams, though, and after the Illini decided not to show up, I followed their lead. Living in the Detroit metro amplifies the sting of getting waxed by a .500 Michigan team in the BTT during a work day. But I digress. I'm here to talk about football.

I've been gathering the impression that, compared to our peers with more illustrious records in the TV era, Illinois has a program history largely unknown by the general public. This makes sense, as there has been much despair. Remember those years when it seemed like Illinois came out of nowhere? That's because they very much did.

But it hasn't always been this way.

The Big Ten Screws Us

From the days of Red Grange to the national championship of 1951, Illinois football, along with Illinois athletics, was a power in the ever-expanding world of college sports. In the 50s, however, bagmen began influencing college athletics. Michigan State wound up on probation in 1953, and slush funds started happening as recruiting got greasy. Coach Ray Eliot refused to do this and refused to kiss the asses of high school players and when he found he was no longer able to compete, he resigned and Pete Elliot took over in 1960. Illinois fans, alums and boosters then got together and decided they should start their own slush fund. However, they were really really bad at it. So bad, in fact, that this network was plainly visible to the coaches and was extensively documented. Fortunately, nobody was investigating them...

Athletic director Doug Mills was set to retire in 1966, and there was much speculation on his successor. Assistant Mel Brewer was a popular candidate, but football coach Pete Elliot ended up getting the job. Brewer was irate, partially because he didn't get the job, but also because Pete Elliot had graduated from Michigan and blah blah "MICHIGAN MAN" blah blah blah. So Brewer gathered up some of the slush fund paper trail and turned it in to the university president, who in turn brought up to the Big Ten and the NCAA that he'd just discovered that Illinois had committed small improprieties as documented in this paper trail. Certainly no Bubba Smith's Buick Riviera, but improprieties nevertheless. By being proactive and forthcoming, we hoped for the type of leniency that Michigan State, Ohio State and Indiana had gotten in the 50s.

Instead, the Big Ten decided Illinois must be made an example of. The Big Ten conducted an investigation where they interrogated all connected athletes under false pretenses. Pete Elliot was forced to resign (as well as longtime basketball coach Harry Combes) and every athlete identified was declared permanently ineligible at Illinois. Illinois was placed on major probation and a lengthy postseason ban (not that it mattered at this point) and every linked booster was banned from university contact. The Big Ten all but gave us the SMU death penalty. The NCAA merely rubber-stamped it.

With our reputation ruined and our football and basketball teams starting from scratch, we struggled for mediocrity while Michigan and Ohio State continued to ascend in perfect synchronicity with the rise of televised college football. Suddenly, these programs were visible nationwide, and that's why they've cultivated generations of fans. Illinois would have been on that gravy train had they not been tied down and run over. Under Pete Elliot, they won the 1964 Rose Bowl and finished the season ranked AP #3. 5 years later they were 0-10 under Jim Valek.

source: http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/272621-through-the-trifocals?s=169

This is where it all started: given an opportunity to make a statement about slush funds, the Big Ten offered up Illinois as a sacrifice to appeal to their public image of "Doing Things The Right Way." The fact that Illinois was the most populous state in the Big Ten footprint certainly didn't discourage representatives of rival schools from ruining Illinois, and Illinois' blueprint on how not to cheat likely served several programs well.

Jim Valek went 8-32 from 1967-1970. Bob Blackman offered a glimpse of stability, but finally got stuck on 5-6 after several years.

In 1976, Illinois hired Gary Moeller to replace a stagnant Blackman (29-36-1 at Illinois). Bo Schembechler was quite insistent that Gary Moeller was the coach Illinois needed to take them to the next level of the long rebuild back to relevance. However, Gary Moeller was a Trojan horse sent by Bo Schembechler to knock our program back to 1967, and he finished 6-24-3 in 3 seasons at the helm. Michigan fans, you might think that Gary Moeller was a good head coach, but in his second season of 1978, he opened with a scoreless tie against a Northwestern team just one season away from beginning The Streak. So intense was Schembechler's bromance with Moeller that he ran up the score to 70 against Illinois in 1981 and openly said it was in retaliation for firing his bro. Kiss my ass, Bo.

1980 brought a new athletic director (Neale Stoner), a new motto (The 80's belong to the Illini!) and a new coach, Cal's Mike White. However, in 1983, Mike White's Illini completed the greatest regular conference season in the history of the Big Ten. They remain the only team to ever defeat every other Big Ten team in a single season, and likely will forever since the Big Ten is now huge.

This team would be blown out of the Rose Bowl 45-9 by a 6-4-1 UCLA team.

White was one of the first coaches to make extensive use of junior college players. In doing so, academic qualifications became somewhat gray, and this combined with Illinois already being marked from the 60's led to the NCAA sniffing around the program for improprieties. White was fired after a second straight losing season at 3-7-1 and an additional NCAA investigation that would yield results in 1988.

John Mackovic took over in 1988 and also assumed the Athletic Director position. Mackovic quickly revitalized the program into a top-25 fixture in 1989/90, but after going 30-16-1 in four years he left for greener pastures at Texas. The end of John Mackovic's tenure was an opportunity to build Illinois football into a perennial contender, but they did not have a successor at the AD position and the university president ended up hiring defensive coordinator Lou Tepper as the next head coach.

Lou Tepper, affectionately known as "Coach Death Penalty" (because his tenure was akin to giving Illinois Football the death penalty) coached some of Illinois' all-time best defensive players (Simeon Rice, Kevin Hardy, John Holocek, Dana Howard) but went through four offensive coordinators in five years. As a result, low-scoring games that Illinois would never win became the norm, and though Tepper inherited a successful program, it began to slide. Notably, at 5-5 and needing a win to continue a bowl streak, Tepper's 1995 squad played a rebuilding Wisconsin team to a 3-3 tie.

With an actual athletic director, Illinois hired Chicago Bears OC Ron Turner. A Rock Bottom 0-11 1997 season ensued, but Turner managed to go 8-4 in 1999 behind a pro-style offense. 2001 was where everything came together for Ron Turner's Illini, as Kurt Kittner propelled an offensive machine that went 10-2 and won the Big Ten and went to the Sugar Bowl. This should have been the moment that announced that Illinois was here to stay.

After week 4 of 2002, they sat at 1-3 with losses to Missouri, Southern Miss and a San Jose State team coming off a 3-9 season. The only game the Illini won in 2003 was against Illinois State. In 2004, the Illini finished 3-8 and Ron Turner was fired. Turner's disinterest with big-time recruiting (notably offering Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler preferred walk-on spots but no scholarships) and belief that his offensive schemes were enough to win with what talent he could scrounge up locally with minimal effort ultimately led to such hilarious results as a 45-0 shutout by Minnesota.

In 2005, Florida coach Ron Zook was hired and immediately set the recruiting world on fire with a top-30 class. Two 2-win seasons built up anticipation to reap the fruits of Zook's labor in 2007. The squad led off the season by winning the coveted Fulmer Cup, awarded to the most arrested team in college football's offseason. 2007 was the season Ron Zook had been building towards Despite getting spanked in the Rose Bowl by a Pete Carroll USC team, the 9-4 season is still the last time Illinois was briefly legitimate. Ironically, many of the leaders on that team were Ron Turner recruits, but Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn and Rashard Mendenhall were Zook boys. Coming off back-to-back 2 win seasons, this was to be the breakthrough year where the Illini would establish themselves as legitimate contenders. The superstar recruiting classes would finally bring us what Zook had been hired to achieve, and we thought we were clear from the wreckage of the Turner era. Even so, this happened:

Iowa fails on third down from our 15, we lead by three, they have fourth and two and are forced to try the game tying field goal, but Zook accepts a five yard illegal formation penalty on Iowa giving them third and seven instead of fourth and two. Field goal unit comes off, Iowa offense goes back on, they throw the winning touchdown pass.

source: http://illiniboard.com/2014/11/07/have-i-ever-mentioned-that-turnovers-are-important/

In 2008, we missed out on a bowl game when we lost to Western Michigan in Detroit. Juice Williams threw for 462 yards against Minnesota, but we scored 17 points. The 2009 team had 21 players who would eventually start an NFL game, scattered on both sides of the ball, on the line and skill positions. DT Josh Brent would miss no time for his DUI, and backup QB Eddie McGee ended up not being charged with assault after reportedly choking a girl at AA Homecoming. It also had a 4th year starter at quarterback. Just 2 years removed from the Rose Bowl, the Illini were a dark horse contender for the 2009 Big Ten title. At the very least, they were supposed to beat a reloading Missouri team. Rekt. 38-9. We lost our first 6 FBS games, and around this time, CJ Fiedorowicz decided he'd had enough and flipped his commitment to Iowa. We spanked Michigan in a hilarious game, but then lost to #5 Cincy and capped the season by losing to Fresno State on this play:


I was absolutely shocked when Ron Zook was not fired after the 2009 campaign. The 2010 recruiting class had fallen apart, and the attendance fell from the packed houses of 2008 to officially 48K for the finale (I was there and there couldn't have been 15,000 people there). This was why attendance for our 2010 season noticeably suffered; nobody wanted to come back to watch more of this Zook garbage. Mike Leach was available, and I wish we'd hired him. We might not be winning, but we sure as hell would be worth watching.

In 2010, the same defense that would later hold Art Briles and Robert Griffin III to 14 points allowed 67 to Michigan in a triple-overtime loss after allowing Tate Forcier to lead a comeback with Denard Robinson's inevitable departure. Trailing 17-10 at home against #2 Ohio State with 4th down on their 13 and 4:36 to play, Zook kicked a field goal.

"When you look at that, I felt that if we get the field goal, we’re only down four, and if you hold them to another field goal we’re only down seven," Zook said.

source: http://www.thesportsbank.net/illinois-illini/ron-zook-blows-osu-game/

With 5 wins coming into Senior Day, the Illini lost to an interim-coached Minnesota team, prompting this:

2011: End Of The Zook Age. In 2011, Mike Thomas replaced the retiring Ron Guenther as athletic director. Thomas came from Cincinnati where he had been rather successful. To date, some of his non-coaching initiatives have been improvements to the stadium (new scoreboard/ribbon displays) and the Assembly Hall renovation. Yes, he sold out Assembly Hall to State Farm, but with the university budget in disarray (due to being run by the state of Illinois, possibly the most corrupt state government in the union) and the Hall being outdated (for instance, no air conditioning), he did the most prudent thing he could do in securing $60M from a central-Illinois-based company to renovate the beloved and iconic mushroom-shaped arena, shutting down talks of knocking it down.

But I digress. In 2011, the team was coming off a 7-6 season with a bowl victory over RG3's Baylor squad, but lost RB Mikel Leshoure and LB Martez Wilson to the draft. Vic Koenning's defense finished ranked top 10 in the country, and the team rattled off 6 wins including a furious 4th quarter comeback against Northwestern. A team largely led by upperclassmen (since the 2010/11 classes were quite thin) then saw 6 straight losses of increasing ridiculousness. It started with a 7-point home loss to Ohio State despite allowing one pass completion. A 7-point road loss to Purdue followed, after which Derek Dimke doinked a game tying FG off the post at Penn State. Fitzgerald Toussaint had the only decent performance of his career, running all over us, and then we blew a 14-0 lead against the Russell Wilson Badgers by allowing touchdown drives of 44, 39, 30 and 2 yards. After getting blown out by 2-win Minnesota, Zook was canned. Paul Petrino's offense was a joke that everyone had figured out (it consisted of throwing to AJ Jenkins over and over). Vic Koenning coached the team to victory in the bowl game. LB Trulon Henry returned after missing 2 games with a bullet wound to the hand he got at the type of party Zook's players frequented. Bottom line: yes, Ron Zook's last Illinois team won 6 games under him, but he was fired because they lost six in a row. After the Minnesota game, I would have been nothing short of irate if Zook hadn't been fired.

Trends you may have noticed: Ron Zook making poor coaching decisions, the team losing games they shouldn't, players being a menace to society, some very high-profile non-con opponents for such a bad program. From 2007 to 2011, Illinois' non-con opponents had a 123-57 record, good for most difficult in the country over that time. Instead of scheduling 4 wins a year like Northwestern did, AD Ron Guenther scheduled up. As a result, we couldn't string together bowls. Between those factors and the high turnover at the OC/DC positions (notably hampering the 2009 offense when TCU's Mike Schultz tried to install a conservative pro-style attack in his first year on the job after 2008's OC Mike Locksley left for New Mexico [where he lost his job after punching an assistant]), the Ron Zook Football Academy was doomed. User I-L-L matic mentioned an academic bridge program that Zook had used to help deal with Illinois' baseline admission standards, which are higher than the NCAA minimum and have been a competitive disadvantage; the grades and disciplinary records of Zook's recruits led to the end of this program. Also of note was the "Illinois Football Renaissance" renovation undertaken by AD Ron Guenther between 2005 and 2008. This did three things: added luxury suites in an attempt to get some big money from big money people, reduced the capacity from 70,000 to 60,000 and put the student section in the worst seats in the house in a highly isolated 5,000 seat box way above the north end zone.

2012 was a Rock Bottom disaster of epic proportions. Mike Thomas reportedly offered Kevin Sumlin nearly $4M/year to coach Illinois, but he took the TAMU job for half that. Mike Leach was available, and I wish we'd hired him. We might not be winning, but we sure as hell would be worth watching. However, Tim Beckman was the man chosen. The O/D line had some fringe NFL talent, as did the defense, but it was clear that the staff Beckman had cobbled together was not able to implement schemes that did anything and the whole coaching staff had a rift with many of the Zook players. The cultural change really seemed to bring the worst out of the 2012 team, and in a short recruiting cycle Beckman couldn't get much for his 2012 class.

Present Day: Beckman's Illini enter year 4 with seasons of 2, 4 and 6 wins in the last 3 years. Crucially, this team is laden with upperclassmen. Ever notice how Wisconsin's lines always have redshirt seniors all over them? That shows what a steady program they have in the trenches. We have had our OC and DC for 2 and 3 years, establishing some continuity. We have a low attrition rate, and a pretty soft non-conference schedule. These are all things the program lacked under Ron Zook.

Beckman is still kind of a doofus who just can't do media, as evidenced by his challenge to the media to be more positive about him. He'd just gotten an upper-half-of-the-conference recruiting class signed, and he immediately made a doofus of himself again. However, the fact that we have an experienced team with schematic continuity, decent grades, low attrition/arrest rates that has shown tractable improvement for comprehensible reasons shows that Beckman is trying a totally different approach than we've been using to build a program. Beckman's teams have never lost to a MAC school, and if you look back on the seasons, the only time they've really lost to a team they were better than was last year's Purdue game, complicated by the injury to our starting QB forcing us to abandon our original gameplan.

Could we be on the precipice of sustaining a middling program instead of our brief glimpses of glory quickly giving way to despair? 12 games in the fall will yield the answer.

So, that's the gist of it. I went to Illinois during the Zook era, so forgive me for my excessive coverage of that train wreck. Just as a successful program doesn't just appear out of nowhere, there's a lot that goes into building a program so adept at tripping whenever it seems to take steps forward. From the capricious Big Ten to the indifferent university administration, from Mel Brewer to Ron Guenther, many made this possible. And every single one of them pisses me off.

Next time you roll into Champaign to celebrate on our field with your team that just predictably waxed us when we desperately needed a win, take another look at the Red Grange statue and see if you notice the lead albatross that is this inglorious history hanging from his neck.

With this novel unpacked, I'd better never again hear another "BUT YOU SHOULD NEVER HAVE FIRED ZOOK! THAT'S WHY YOU GUYS ARE BAD NOW!"