As one of the few Illinois Fighting Illini fans to frequent these parts, I probably seem like the crazy guy yelling in the subway station. Though they don't often come around here, there are many others like me. Most of them congregate on Illinois Loyalty to collectively lose their minds over basketball recruiting. Loyalty is a pretty big Illinois forum and a good source for Illinois news. Comprehensive analysis on Illinois, both strategically and emotionally, can be found on IlliniBoard.com, home of Robert (aka ALionEye), one of the most tortured souls I've ever come across. I reference IlliniBoard frequently in posts here. Last but certainly not least is The Champaign Room, the SB Nation blog founded less than four years ago with one of the best names on the whole network. I have been an occasional contributor there lately, but our communities rarely interact. So I've set up a little Q&A with some of my fellow Illini fans. Here's what they had to say:
Thumpasaurus: So what's the backstory with The Champaign Room? What are the major Illinois communities online?
Mark Primiano: TCR isn't SBN's first attempt at an Illinois site. Hail to the Orange was the precursor and I happened to have some bonus free time thanks to a rough semester of vet school so I started writing for it. It folded two months later. SBN reached out to Tom Fornelli to launch a new site. Tom knew me from my White Sox writing and asked me to help him out. TCR was born about a month later.
Thumpasaurus: The last post that I remember seeing on Hail To The Orange was a postgame reaction immediately after we lost to Purdue in 2011 to rack up our second of six consecutive losses after six wins to start the season. This post consisted entirely of a seven minute video of a house burning down.
Brad Reppinger: ^Take it from the most interesting blogger in the world. Sir Dr. Mark Primiano himself. How old are you now?
Mark could not be reached for comment
Jim Vainisi: So I believe TCR officially got started during the Fall of 2012 under Tom Fornelli and Mark. Tom eventually left SB Nation for CBS Sports after doing a fantastic job with the site, and that gave me (some random Illinois student that occasionally discussed stuff in the comments) an opportunity help out in the Summer of 2014. We've been growing since!
Thumpasaurus: For the first time in decades, there's more excitement around Illinois Football than Illinois Basketball. Is this sustainable, or will the crazed nature of Illinois basketball fans win out in the end?
Brad: For now, football will remain the primary source of buzz on campus (unless John Groce finally lands a top tier recruit). New AD Josh Whitman is a former football player, and the moves he has made to already create a new atmosphere surrounding the program with a new coaching staff will fuel fans through this season and into the future (similar to the ‘05 campaign when newly hired Head Coach Ron Zook made his debut in Champaign). As for basketball, the team either needs to land a major recruit or make a coaching change to emulate the same kind of excitement.
Steve Bourbon: I think some of both. I think that both programs are just desperate for any kind of success, so right now the football team has hope, which is something neither program has had a lot of in recent years. That being said, I think Illinois will always be a basketball school. Even though football has lineage of Dick Butkus and Red Grange, the basketball program seems to galvanize fans in a way that football just can't match. Even in the years following the ‘05 basketball team, Assembly Hall was sold out and a truly intimidating place to play because of the fan support. I'm not sure Memorial Stadium will ever have that type of presence as a venue.
Austin Jabs: I completely agree with Steve here. I think that this new found semblance of hope in the form of Lovie Smith gives a new level of excitement and hope to the fans. Illinois fans are no stranger to misery and underachievement, so when Lovie came in and inserted his NFL caliber staff, the fan base began to see this light at the end of the tunnel so to speak. Illinois has always been a basketball school, but this year just has this buzz around it that people are grabbing on to. Basketball will still be the winner I think long term, but if the regression continues and this hopeful/potential upswing can find momentum in the form of on the field product, football could be king in Champaign.
Thumpasaurus: Wes Lunt. What's holding him back? It seems like we've been waiting for him to break out for years. What will it take for him to get drafted?
Brad: What's holding Wes back? Drops. Last season, the Illini receiving corps dropped over 50 passes that accounted for 512 yards and 6 touchdowns missed (shout out to Robert at Illini Board for his wonderful write up on this). That's horrible if you consider Illinois lost 3 games by 10 points or less, 2 of which were 1 possession games in the last 90 seconds. Lunt's completion % was 56.1% (9th in conference) with the most attempts of any team. For an offense that relied heavily on the passing attack, that needs to improve this season (both Wes' accuracy, and the receiving corps catching ability).
What will it take for him to get drafted? His ability (or lack thereof at the moment) to read the field. There is NO doubt that Wes has the arm to go pro, but his reaction off the line of scrimmage have given defenses a lot of time to read his throws. If he's going to improve his draft stock, his ability to get rid of the ball quickly (and accurately) will need to be better this season.
Steve: Brad hits the nail on the head here, so I won't repeat his points but the supporting cast hasn't really ever helped him that much. Just think back to 2012 when a four-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase and four senior wide receivers were able to put up numbers in Bill Cubit's first season as offensive coordinator. Lunt is head and shoulders more talented as a passer than Scheelhasse, but his targets have really let him down. Despite limiting turnovers -- he has 28 TDs to just nine interceptions at Illinois -- it hasn't ever felt like he's ‘taken over' a game. Sure, he dropped 456 yards against Western Kentucky in his second career start for Illinois, but since he's had just three 300+yard games in 18 appearances. Honestly, I think he could have a ho-hum year and still be a late-round draft pick. He has the size and arm strength that scouts drool over, so someone will at least take a flier on him even if he doesn't break out like Illinois fans have been wanting. If he is able to take that next step and throw for something like 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns, (and stay healthy) I don't see any reason why he couldn't be a middle-round draft pick.
Austin: Brad, Steve, spot on. As to not be a broken record here, I won't repeat the areas of concern like drops and inability to take over a game. Lunt has shown potential and flashes of brilliance in his career. I believe that if Illinois runs more of a pro style offense, which is expected, and Lunt is on the same page as his receivers, the drops should decrease. I have personally noticed when I watch Lunt closely he has a tendency to stare down receivers, like he already knows where he is passing to pre snap. If Wes is able to improve his field awareness and find those open guys, and his guys can cut down drops by 60%, you should see a stellar year from him, and he should hear his name called on draft day.
Thumpasaurus: What Illinois sport will win the next NCAA title? The next B1G team title?
Brad: Easy. Men's Golf in 2017. Head Coach Mike Small has had his eye on the prize for the last 8 seasons now, as his teams have won 7 conference championships, 4 individual conference championships, and 8 consecutive NCAA championship appearances to boot (with 2 individual national championships). While the team looks poised to make another run at the NCAA's this year in Eugene OR, next year's NCAA Championship is being held at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove IL (suburb of Chicago). Match play format has traditionally been the hurdle the Illini can't clear, but consecutive tournaments at a familiar venue and a newly upgraded practice facility could very well create the best chance Illinois has at FINALLY sealing the deal. Mind you...this season looks REALLY promising as well...
Trevor Vallese: Hard to disagree with what Brad says here. Illinois men's golf has been absolutely dominant in the Big Ten conference for the better part of a decade and I can't see any other sport immediately challenging for a B1G or NCAA title. The tennis team is ranked in the top fifteen in the country, however, so they'd be my dark horse pick.
Austin: Golf. Brad follows the golf team pretty close, so I will defer to his judgement on this one.
Jim: It's super hard to not pick Illinois Golf here. They are the Wardens of the North, after all. But Illinois' non-revenue sports have all pretty much been fantastic over the past 5-ish years. So I think two dark horse candidates for the next title are Men's Gymnastics and Wrestling.
Thumpasaurus: The Illinois trophy games don't really fall on any obvious rivalries, nor is the fanbase galvanized against any particular B1G foe. What team do you want to see fail?
Mark: Northwestern. It'd be nice to keep the Illibuck in Champaign more than once a year per decade, but we're a long way off from accomplishing that (if ever). Purdue and Indiana are both natural rivals for Illinois, but they have each other. So it's basically Northwestern by default with a heaping helping of Iowa for good measure.
Steve: Northwestern. Most of recent years have been spent trying to drum up the rivalry between these two teams, with limited success. But there's simply no way that Northwestern should be beating Illinois consistently, especially in football. Illini fans blame academic standards for shortfalls in recruiting, but Northwestern faces those hurdles as well and Pat Fitzgerald continues to put a good product out on the field. NW leads the football season series 9-4 since 2003. That's pretty unacceptable. Even Chris Collins set a program record for wins this past season in Evanston. I also wouldn't mind starting a rivalry with Rutgers, just to actually win a rivalry game every once in awhile.
Trevor: For me it's Missouri. Even though we no longer play them annually in football, I think the "border rivalry" between the Illini and the Tigers is a genuine one and if we're selecting one team we'd like to see crash and burn more than any other, I'd have to pick Mizzou.
Brad: This just about sums it up for me.
Austin: I have to agree on Northwestern here, if only because they are in the same state. Illinois has not really been good enough in football to have a natural rival, unless you count wins as a rival. (Ba-Dum-Tissssss) I miss the Mizzou game, simply because it was always an electric, fun atmosphere, even if we did get beat.
Jim: I've always wished that there was more of a rivalry between Illinois and Wisconsin. It checks a lot of boxes while mirroring some of the local professional rivalries (i.e. Bears/Packers), but there's never really been a ‘moment' between the two schools to spark something.
Thumpasaurus: What's one thing you want Off Tackle Empire to know/remember about Illinois and/or Illini fans?
Trevor: I think it's important for people who don't follow the Illini closely to keep in mind that this school pretty much hit rock bottom in the past calendar year. The head coaching scandals, the chancellor's resignation, the athletic director's firing, the poor coaching contracts, the list goes on and on. Illinois basketball went through a ridiculous slew of injuries and legal problems and Illinois football didn't reach a bowl game and fired their head coach a week before spring ball began. So let's remember when criticizing the University from afar that things had to get really bad before they can get good again. The football program is certainly hoping to turn itself around under Lovie Smith. New AD Josh Whitman looks like he knows what he's doing. So if we can give Illinois some time to climb out of the insanely deep hole it dug itself into, fans might be surprised at how competitive and entertaining the team(s) can be.
Austin: Trevor, spot on. People like to rail on Illinois because they ‘aren't good'. Yeah, we know. We have been a national laughing stock, and embarrassment, and the image of what an athletic department should not be. However, now we have hope. We see the potential for brighter days ahead and the potential to be competitive. Do not expect Illinois to be competing for a New Year's Day bowl in Lovie's first season. Give us time to get the process working. Then, celebrate with us when we have emerged from the bottom.
Jim: If/when Illinois ever gets good, the fan base will be completely unbearable on social media. Prepare yourselves, Big Ten schools.