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Mythbusters: Illinois Fighting Illini Edition, featuring The Champaign Room // B1G 2018

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Popular misconceptions about Illinois get put to the test

Ohio State v Illinois

Like any ideological group with a small number of followers whose devotion defies understanding, Illinois Fighting Illini football has many popular misconceptions. These myths circulate the world out of our control. Today, writers from The Champaign Room will help evaluate some of these myths. After all, you want to consult the experts for things like this, right?

Myth 1: “Illinois should never have fired Ron Zook, they haven’t won 7 games in a season since! You guys should have been happy with .500 seasons!”

Matt Rejc: Being a wide-eyed sophomore at Illinois during Ron Zook’s final season, I captured a firsthand glimpse at his era’s demise. Zook’s successes were always built on his ability to lure high-level athletes to Champaign and use them to overpower his opponents. He lacked solid coaching acumen, and relied heavily upon the ability of his coordinators along with the talent of his players. Zook’s recruiting magic was clearly failing by 2011, and his classes were increasingly headlined of one or two 4-star players, and largely filled out with project-type and MAC-level recruits. Unusually high attrition had also hollowed out his roster in the later years, and had left his secondary particularly bare. Had Zook stayed on in 2012 and 2013, his results likely would have resembled those of his ill-fated successor, Tim Beckman, and he would have been fired anyway.

However, the subtext of this myth is that Illinois should “know its place” in the college football world, and should not take risks to try to improve because doing so would be futile. Such a notion is completely ridiculous, as examples abound of teams that have climbed the college football hierarchy through inspired hires. The decision to fire Ron Zook in 2011 was absolutely the correct decision. It avoided impending failure and opened the door to potential improvement, but that potential was squandered by the decision to replace Zook with the vastly inferior Tim Beckman.

Myth 2: “Lovie Smith made Illinois football terrible, they were 11-14 the two seasons prior and 5-19 since! Maybe they should have given Bill Cubit a shot!”

Brandon Birkhead: Wait, is there a stupid idiot out there who actually thinks that Illinois should have let Bill Cubit remain head coach outside of “Mr. Dagger to the Heart of the program” Paul Kowalczyk? -- WHO IS STILL ON STAFF BY THE WAY!

Ok if you are that idiot, or if you are Paul Kowalczyk reading this, listen up. Bill Cubit sucks. He is a terrible football coach. Hiring him showed that Illinois didn’t care about football. How was Illinois supposed to recruit with a coach who was grossly unqualified to be a Big Ten head coach?

You want to know how I know Bill Cubit sucks. No one hired him. Not one school even gave him a sniff to be an offensive coordinator. He actually got a high school head coaching job, which he previously held, at Martin County in Florida -- a team which reached the regional semifinals in four of the previous six seasons prior.. He resigned one year later after going 4-5. He is now done with coaching.

It was a disgrace for the University to ever have Bill Cubit as a head coach, even in the interim after Tim Beckman’s abuse scandal. I don’t even want to imagine how much worse the nuclear winter for Illinois Football would have been with Cubit in charge. Illinois might have just given the gig up and canceled football.

As for Lovie Smith, he’s done exactly what you could have expected given the circumstances in which he inherited the program. He didn’t recruit the Class of 2016, and spring practice had to be delayed after his hire in March of 2016. This effectively made 2016 year zero of the Lovie Smith era and 2017 the real first season.

Illinois could have hired Nick Saban, and Illinois wouldn’t have won any more games in 2016 or 2017. The program was given a worse punishment by hiring Bill Cubit then the NCAA handed Penn State for the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The team was left in tatters. Anyone who expected a competitive football team was kidding themselves.

The main complaint people had about Lovie is that he would have to catch up and learn the college game again, which really just means recruiting. Right now Illinois has has two top-100 commits for the class of 2019! That’s amazing for Illinois Football.

Often recruiting is treated as this mystical process that only few can understand, but really it’s simply about reputation and relationships. Lovie has done a lot of work hiring a staff with connections all around the country to go along with his Texas connections, and while he did have a unceremonious end to his NFL career, he is still a highly respected coach across the football world.

Is Lovie perfect? Hell no. His game management can be questionable, and I’m still concerned that his conservative style may hold Illinois back, but it was a minor miracle that Josh Whitman was able to convince the board of trustees at Illinois to let him hire Lovie Smith in the first place.

Lovie Smith was the best case scenario for Illinois after the hiring of Bill Cubit -- which I will never stop being mad about. At the very least he is a coach who will get Illinois back to being a normal bad Big Ten team instead of a disaster. He will help bring stability and improve recruiting. He may not be the long term answer to fix Illinois, but for now he is doing everything that is needed for Illinois to dig themselves out of this pit of despair.

Myth 3: “Illinois is eventually going to have to change their nickname on account of “Fighting Illini” being demeaning and racist”

Thumpasaurus: I covered this as part of a piece I did for this week two years ago, but I’m happy to reiterate:

The state of Illinois takes its name from the French rendering of a name the Odawa tribe used to describe the neighboring confederation of tribes in the upper Mississippi valley. These tribes would later be known as the Illinois Confederation and, informally, Illiniwek. The remnants of these tribes are now known as the Peoria and live in Oklahoma.

The word “Illini” was first recorded in 1874 when the student newspaper changed its name to “The Illini,” less than 10 years after the 1867 founding of the University. Use of the name “Illini” for those enrolled at, employed by or associated with the University actually predates the 1885 name change from Illinois Industrial University to University of Illinois.

Though “Illini” does not formally refer to any Native American tribe, the history of Native American imagery at Illinois predated Chief Illiniwek by many decades. This can be explained by the fact that “Illini” evokes no distinct image on its own and the intense predisposition of the rural Midwest at the time towards Native American imagery.

Like most sports teams in the early 20th century, Illinois had no official team nickname. What they did have, however, was national prominence as a football powerhouse. From 1914-1919 under legendary coach Robert Zuppke (after whom the field surface is named), Illinois won four conference titles and two national championships and became hugely popular. A fundraising campaign for a new stadium was put together, imploring fans to put money towards the stadium in memory of all those Illini who fought in the first World War. “Build That Stadium For Fighting Illini” was the rallying cry for the fundraising, and they did indeed. Memorial Stadium was erected in 1923, and 183 of the 200 columns on the east and west facades bear the name of an Illini who gave his or her life for the United States. This is the “Memorial” part of the stadium name. “Fighting Illini” caught on and was eventually adopted informally by the community and the press before eventually being made official at an imprecise date.

Myth 4: “Bruce Weber’s firing was totally unfair, as proven by the failure of his successor. It was foolish of Illinois to think they could do better!”

Brandon Birkhead: Bruce Weber lost the locker room, and the faith of the fanbase in 2011-12 after missing the tournament, with a team that had two future NBA players on it. If Bruce Weber couldn’t even make the tournament with Meyers Leonard and Brandon Paul on his team, how could you have expected things were ever going to get better for Illinois?

Sure Bruce made the Elite Eight with Kansas State this year, and I really enjoyed watching it, but I know many Kansas State fans who were angry about this because that meant Weber just bought himself more time at K-State by making that run, which only happened because No. 1 seed Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round. The teams K-State beat in that run were Creighton, UMBC, and a very average Kentucky team. Not exactly murderers row.

Weber’s best regular seasons with K-State (so far) and Illinois came within the first two years of his tenure, with rosters full of players from previous coaches (BIll Self and Frank Martin). While being a good tactician, Weber has shown he isn’t much of a program builder and someone who is capable of getting top recruits in.

Illinois has never been successful without a coach that was able to bring in top talent from Chicago and across the country, and it became clear that Weber couldn’t do that, so you have to make that change.

The guy they hired after Weber was worse much like with Zook -- Mike Thomas was hired specifically because of his record of hiring head coaches *starts drinking* -- but that doesn’t mean that firing Weber was the wrong choice.

Myth 5: “Illinois doesn’t win because its fans are inherently less supportive, more racist and overall just worse people than fans of other teams. Other programs still draw when the team isn’t good, so Illini fans have unrealistic expectations.”

Thumpasaurus: Let’s be real here: racism and bad behavior exist within every sports fanbase on Earth, and in fact the larger the fanbase the more of that there is. We poke fun at other teams’ fanbases and some of the hot takes they’ve uttered, but we’re all smart enough to understand that people are just people, right? Living the exact same lifestyle on the other side of the Mississippi does not give rural Iowa communities the right to look down on rural Illinois communities. Joke all you want, as long as you understand that what we primarily hate is the team represented by those fans (and in cases of large bandwagons, we often hate what we see as shallow reasons to become fans).

Furthermore, any Illini fan with their head screwed on straight cares much more about whether the teams win or lose than whether or not the Chief Illiniwek logo is everywhere.

Without dignifying that any further, the second one is what I’d really like to unpack here. Memorial Stadium’s capacity sat at just over 71,000 for a long time but with a record of 78,500 this number wasn’t fully reflective of capacity. In the mid-2000’s, AD Ron Guenther’s “Illinois Renaissance” program, aimed largely at the highest donors, replaced most of the west upper deck with a new tower of luxury suites and press boxes, reducing the capacity to around 62,000 and crucially moving the student section from the east sideline to an isolated block high above the north end zone. This interferes with the student section’s ability to lead the I-L-L chant and generally has combined with terrible results to produce much less energy in the stadium.

However, the current capacity of 61,000 has unfortunately proven more than sufficient, as attendance, outside of one sellout for the first night game of the Lovie Smith era, has rarely exceeded 50,000 in the past six years and plumbed new depths last year with a 35,404 number against Rutgers on a beautiful mid-October day. I won’t address the season finale, as “Illinois had a long history of never playing home games after Thanksgiving for a reason” is a rant for another time.

When we explain that the team is horrible, we are often confronted with evidence such as:

-Iowa has good attendance, even during the down years!
-Michigan State had good attendance even during the Williams/Johnelle eras!
-Nebraska always comes out to support the Huskers win or lose!
-Wisconsin fans just love the team so much we’d NEVER have that problem!
-Minnesota fans, having less superficial moral values than people who live in Illinois, always show up even when the team is bad!
-Michigan didn’t desert the stadium when they sucked!

Notice how comparisons to Indiana and Purdue aren’t usually mentioned. The problem is that over the last 25 years, the older Illini fans have become conditioned to expect failure and take success with a grain of salt, as an isolated winning season among a sea of putrid ones does little to restore confidence. Long-term, people becoming fans of college football on any level increasingly understood that Illinois will usually be bad.

A great picture of what I mean by “sustained consistent losing” can be found on Winsipedia, specifically the Record (Winning%) graph right near the top of each team’s page. Illinois’ page is here. This really shows you just how few and far between seasons above .500 are. But it’s not just the lack of winning, it’s also the depth of the losing. Look how many times Illinois reaches to the bottom over the last 50 years. The only Big Ten program that can match us over the last 25 years is Indiana, and wouldn’t you know, in 2011 when things were at their worst, their attendance was barely above 40K.

“Well,” you might say, “lump Indiana in with Illinois as programs whose fans just don’t have the appreciation of other teams’ fans! Minnesota wouldn’t do this!” This is one of the more believable ones, given the fact that attendance neared 50,000 even in the aftermath of the Brewster era. But, let’s dig a little deeper. For one, Minneapolis is the most populous college town in the Big Ten, so plenty of people were near the brand-new stadium that Minnesota had just opened then. For another, for as much as you hear about the Brewster era, it was five years long and featured two bowl seasons, and though 1-11, two bowls and then two 3-9 seasons is a tough thing to endure, it’s not quite the kind of thing that makes the diehards think it’s always going to be like this after five straight bowls under Glen Mason. Looking at the Winsipedia profile, however, leads me to that lengthy under-.500 period in the ‘90’s. Wow, would you look at that, a game against Indiana in the Metrodome in ‘97 drew only 33,905 fans of a beaten program that had just hired a coach to rescue them from perpetual mediocrity!

“Yeah, but in Wisconsin, we’re better than those simpletons in Minnesota and we’ll come out win or lose!” Winsipedia strikes again: when was Wisconsin actually bad for a sustained period? No wonder they can pack Camp Randall; look at all that time spent in the upper half of the graph over the last 25 years. But what was it like before? Look no further than 1990, when only 41,403 showed up for a game against #18 Ohio State, and I’d be willing to bet they weren’t all Wisconsin fans.

“Ok,” you insist, “but Wisconsin football isn’t the cultural institution that Michigan State, Iowa and Nebraska are. We’ve been through rough seasons and still come out and supported the team. What’s your excuse?’

In fact, there have only been two 3-win seasons for the Spartans in the last 30 years (by on-field results; they didn’t actually lose all 11 of their games in ‘94). You don’t see that much gray in this graph.

2012 and 2006 must have been tough for Iowa fans, not going to a bowl and all. In fact, they even had a trainwreck period Illinois would be proud of from 1998 to 2000. However, the 15 years before and the 15 years after were largely positive, so it’s hard to imagine longtime fans deciding Iowa is never going to be a winner just because of those 3 years in the Fry-Ferentz transition. Let’s dig deeper still, though. You can’t hide from the 60’s and the 70’s. Now there’s some consistent losing on an Illinois level. In 1973, Iowa lost every game against Power 5 competition (which was...all of its games) and drew only 31,119 to a game against Michigan State. And this was in 1973, decades before the whole trend where people don’t go to live games; televised college football was in its infancy.

Claims that Nebraska has any idea what this is like are utterly laughable in light of their record, but fine, let’s take this at face value. TASTY! Let’s look at that 20-year period from the onset of World War 2. In 1961, the Greatest Fans In College Football couldn’t even fill a 31,000 seat stadium for a game against blood rival Oklahoma. Meanwhile, two years later, Illinois, who had gone winless in ‘61, filled a 71,000 seat Memorial Stadium for a Rose Bowl run.

As for Michigan, get out of here with that bullshit. Any fans that would really stop showing up because of only the third instance of back-to-back losing seasons in the (by that point) 120+ year history of the football program deserve shame.

There you have it. Debunked.

Myth 6: “Illinois just needs to recruit Chicago and they’d be a powerhouse!”

Kyle Huisinga: This is more prevalent in basketball than in any other sport, but the idea that somehow Illinois should stick to its state in recruiting and everything will end up roses is absurd. Sure, of course there are some great basketball players to come through Chicago and Illinois in general through the years. There is more than one way to skin a cat, however.

It shouldn’t be perceived as failure when the best of the best in Chicago go somewhere else. It’s not as if every public league program is overflowing with talent. Sorry, but the Simeon connection has dried up. The two players we most recently received commitments from didn’t provide much of anything. Morgan Park has a solid program, but that’s about all I can think of right now. Orr hasn’t given us any players. Peoria has provided little. I just think the basketball purists who think there’s some magic wand we can wave to land every major Illinois player every year are delusional.

It seems that Underwood understands that as well, as we are recruiting more players from the East coast, and trying to establish a pipeline to Texas. Same goes for football. You don’t see Lovie groveling to the CPL trying to eke out an existence in Chicago. Texas, Florida, California, Missouri even, have more players and therefore have more talent from which to choose. It’s really very simple. Don’t stroke the egos of coaches who haven’t done much for you lately. Find other resources. Go to other places and find the talent. The fans will understand when you start winning.

Myth 7: “The only reason basketball players from Chicago ever went to Illinois is because Lou Henson gave them SUVs”

Thumpasaurus: Exhausted after thoroughly debunking one of the most enduring misconceptions about Illinois, I will lean on the words of John Brumbaugh from his retrospective on Illinois sports since the slush fund scandal. He’s written a lot about the history of Illinois and the NCAA.

The TL;DR of this incident is: Bruce Pearl desperately wanted to prove himself early in his coaching career as an Iowa assistant by recruiting Chicago star Deon Thomas, but when he joined an Illinois program coming off a Final Four berth, Pearl switched tactics and began illegally recording all his calls to Thomas. He openly stated in an NCAA hearing that he planned to have Thomas come to Iowa by having him declared ineligible to play at Illinois. To this end, after countless hours of calling a teenage boy at all hours of the night, he finally put together a tape that made it sound kind of like Thomas had accepted $80,000 and a new Chevy Trailblazer as the price of his commitment to Illinois. Though an exhaustive investigation found no evidence this had occurred, the NCAA punished Illinois anyway because reasons.

Anyway, the following excerpt is from part three, which is linked here. If Illinois Week hasn’t done enough to explain how the last 50 years of Illinois football and basketball went down, it’s a hell of a read.

Henson’s hard work, dedication and tremendous love of basketball propelled him to a great career at Illinois. It is not the purpose of this column to discuss his career highlights. Rather, we must limit discussion to the Slush Fund aftermath. Unfortunately, even after Henson overcame all the initial negativity and problems and developed Illinois into a perennial Big 10 and national contender, new problems cropped up that became more magnified and ultimately hurt us simply because our reputation had preceeded us.

Illinois was not being accused of recruiting violations during the first few years of Lou Henson’s regime because other schools were openly stealing the state of Illinois’ best players for themselves. Problems started, however, when Lou finally developed the program to the point he could compete with those other schools for the top talent. In particular, Bobby Knight had had complete success taking any Illinois player he wanted, including Quinn Buckner, Isaih Thomas, Jim Crews, Jim Wisman, Glen Grunwald and Derek Holcomb (who later preferred to play at Illinois without benefit of a scholarship). But he was not at all happy when Providence St. Mel All-American Lowell Hamilton chose Illinois prior to the 1986 season.

Knight turned Illinois into the NCAA because of its recruitment of Hamilton. Lowell’s mother had taken a job in a company owned by an Illinois alum, so Knight accused Henson of arranging the job in return for Hamilton’s commitment. The NCAA found the Illini innocent of the charges, but that didn’t end the incident. Showing his true Scorpionic nature, Knight continued to backstab Illinois by telling anyone who would listen that Illinois cheated for recruits.

Whether the charges were true or not, Illinois supporters saw Knight’s behavior as a childish tantrum at his first recruiting loss in the state of Illinois. But those who chose to believe Knight redeveloped their distrust of Illinois, and this belief in our guilt hurt us mightily a couple of years later when Iowa and Notre Dame representatives conspired to get Illinois into major trouble with the NCAA.

The specific incident is discussed in this Brumbaugh writeup:

Illinois never “tacitly admitted” the basketball program was “dirty.” In fact, it proved the program was much cleaner than almost every other school in the country. How many programs could withstand the intense, biased, emotionally-charged long-term investigative process and find only ten minor infractions? Even clean programs may self-report that many or more infractions each year. Illinois and its supporters continue to explain these things exactly because of posters like this. Every time one person retells the NCAA/Iowa/Bruce Pearl version of events, someone from Illinois has to correct the lies. No one else will do it for us, and they truly need correcting.

From yet another:

We KNOW that Bruce Pearl was self-serving and used unethical and possibly illegal tactics in his attack on Illinois. We KNOW that Pearl conspired with one or more members of the NCAA to help Iowa and bring down Illinois. We KNOW that Bobby Knight, seeking vengence on Illinois for successfully recruiting Lowell Hamilton (the first Illinois basketball player he wanted to not attend Indiana), started a whisper campaign that created an environment around the country to discredit Illinois. It was Knight’s influence that encouraged Digger Phelps to lie to aid Pearl’s attack on Illinois, and it is Knight’s influence even today that convinced national sports writer Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe to declare to declare publicly that Illinois cheated. We KNOW the NCAA was acting like a bully and chose trumped up charges of “lack of institutional control” to punish Illinois for daring to stand up to their all-powerful authority and accepting punishment it hadn’t earned.

Myth 8: “There’s a bulldozer underneath Memorial Stadium” ---TRUE

Matt Rejc: This was simply cold, calculated economics. What would you do if you were in charge of building a football stadium in the 1920s, and one of your bulldozers got stuck in the mud? Apparently, the most cost-effective solution at the time was to leave it there and build over it, so that’s exactly what happened. The bulldozer is still down there somewhere, and it’s borne witness to more maddening Illini football moments than any person living today.

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