So it's Friday of Illinois Fighting Illini week here at Off Tackle Empire's B1G 2016 series, and here's yet another article about this team you don't care about. The few of you who will read these words will surely skip right to the comments and post a dismissive comment, an irrelevant meme, an extremely lazy quip or a discussion of teams that matter to you. And that's okay. This is, after all, the Internet, and nothing can rise above its blind cynicism, least of all a team with an extra-new coaching staff coming off a 5-7 season. So go ahead and pretend that Illinois isn't really a thing, that it's not worth paying any attention to even in passing, that its players don't have hopes and dreams and stories just like those on your team, that Mike Dudek's ACL re-injury is somehow funny and that its fans don't exist, let alone hold the University close to our hearts. I'm not addressing this post to you.
I suppose I'm just begging and pleading into the void, but want to address the entire institution of Illinois football when I implore anyone with the power to make a difference to not make fools of me and the rest of the Illini faithful.
I watched the "Believeland" 30 for 30 film on Saturday, and I had a tremendous amount of empathy for the way these beleaguered fans wore their intimate knowledge of the famous Cleveland sports mishaps like a badge of honor. These were their battle scars, the price they'd paid for their faith in their city, and though they're all punchlines in the national media, things like The Drive, The Fumble, Red Right 88 and Jose Mesa do not shame Cleveland fans. Rather, it bonds them in the adversity they've suffered together and will make that championship, if it ever comes, a time of euphoria that a Yankees or Lakers fan can never understand.
Illinois football has done the same thing over the generations since its fall from the elite ranks so long ago. Though I never believed in Tim Beckman, his progress as measured by record was tangible. At the end of 2014, we couldn't have known exactly how it was doomed to fall apart, and fall apart it did, with the investigation and all. The last time Illinois was ranked was in 2011 when they hosted Ohio State after winning 6 straight. It wasn't a sellout because fans burned by 2009 still hadn't come back, but plenty turned out to see Illinois lose its first of six straight. I went to their November game against #15 Wisconsin expecting a blowout at the hands of Montee Ball. Instead, the Illini went up 14-0 to make me believe just a little before being outscored 28-3 over the rest of the game.
Of course, 2011 never really had the same fan expectations as 2009, the last time Memorial Stadium sold out. We were two years removed from the Rose Bowl and 2007 Big Ten Coach of the Year Ron Zook had an extremely talented roster with a senior quarterback. Vegas predicted 8 wins. They produced 3. In what was supposed to be a rebound from an inexplicable and disappointing 5-7 followup to the Rose Bowl, the fans' faith and support was rewarded with a three win season.
I live in Michigan now, and as an Illinois football fan, I can't help but respect Detroit Lions fans. One of the most similar things between the Lions and the Illini is that one good season is no guarantee against the next season being terrible. The Rose Bowl drop-off was preceded by Ron Turner going 1-11 just two years after winning the Big Ten in 2001. What looked like the arrival of an era of relevance turned out to be a cliff the program dove off.
Older folks from my fraternity recalled setting fire to jerseys after a winless 1997 season and rushing the field to try to take down the goalposts after finally scoring a win in 1998. An older colleague at my previous job went to Illinois, and we bonded over times we'd almost seen good things happen. Mine was in 2010, when they pissed away a chance to take #2 Ohio State to overtime. His was in 1994, when they blew a 21-0 lead against eventual national champion Penn State. My parents told me about how their area of the Chicago suburbs went crazy for the 1983 Fighting Illini, and how they went to a huge viewing party for the Rose Bowl that may have seen them crowned national champions. They also told me how that party cleared out at halftime of a 45-9 blowout.
In the most recent crushing blow to great expectations, Illinois signed interim head coach Bill Cubit to a cheap 2-year deal just before the last game of the 2015 season after a whole season's worth of speculation on who would be the coach tapped to lead Illinois back to glory. In a stunning reversal, new athletic director Josh Whitman undid this grave error and brought in a well-regarded coach who in turn assembled what looks like a talented coaching staff.
This is exciting because we suddenly reversed course from another year or two of irrelevance to a full-on rebuild with a competent project manager. To be clear, I don't think any Illinois fans are expecting big results this season or even next, but by 2019, the Lovie Smith Illini will start to emerge and the promise of what the future holds will keep us watching until it unfolds. There's every reason to believe that this coaching staff can build a respectable program, and this is exhilarating.
It's also terrifying in a very small part of my mind simply because I am now excited for something related to Illinois Football. How will this fall apart? When will the other shoe drop? A small part of me is dreading a scenario where Illinois goes 2-10 in 2020 and people who know nothing about this team can say "see? told you. I knew I was right, not because I actually know anything, but because Illinois can't be teh haz nice things LOLOLOL IT'S ALWAYS FUNNY." I'm desperate for five wins this fall because I can't afford to spend time in court explaining that I was merely euthanizing the talking head that will inevitably have suggested we were better off with Bill Cubit. I'm not asking for a league title in the fall, or even ever. All I want is a program that can put together seasons above .500 with regularity.
Please, Illinois Football. I beg of you. Don't make that little voice in my head the voice of reason. Don't make me feel like a fool for believing you may someday win. Don't pull the football away this time, Lucy. Just once I need the promise of the future to stay unbroken by the passage of time.