Here’s my final offering for Illinois Fighting Illini week on Off Tackle Empire. I’ve gone totally off-script and ranted at length about everything that makes me sad about the past of Illinois football. Winning 5 games in 2 years will do that to you, especially if you’re staring yet another rebuilding season in the face and your team’s won more than 7 games once in the last 15 years.
However, at some point, I should probably address the future of the program, both the upcoming season we’re supposed to be talking about and beyond. To be fair, I’ve touched on the upcoming season; I expect substantial improvement on offense and continued development on defense, even if it’s not reflected in the record, but ultimately the whole season is a project year to set up for what lies beyond this season.
I am wildly optimistic about those years.
If you’ve actually read all my stuff this week, congratulations, but also you’ve picked up on the theme of poor leadership and turmoil and turnover in those leadership positions being a major culprit in the failures of this program. I believe that in the aftermath of the Cubit fiasco, that issue is solved, at least on the athletics side. Despite the poor performance of the revenue teams so far, Josh Whitman has proven to be a surprisingly competent, confident and charismatic athletic director considering he only ever had Division III experience prior to Illinois. He was recently included in SportsBusiness Journal/Daily’s 40 under 40 list, and shows the kind of leadership style Illinois has lacked over the years.
It’s not just at the AD position that stability is growing, however. Lovie Smith’s staff has not had a tremendous amount of turnover, and based on the way his assistants have been recruiting skill positions he’s probably hoping to keep Rod Smith for a while. As Lovie’s disciple, Hardy Nickerson is likely to stay on as the defensive coordinator for years. Given that they’ve only been together two seasons, this might not seem like a big deal, but considering the constant shuffle of coordinators in the Zook and Beckman years it’s actually quite significant.
The real key here is the roster, however. It would be a stretch to call the 2017 and 2018 classes “spectacular,” but the 2017 class, by early results, is full of players with the physical tools to play in the Big Ten. On paper, the 2018 class continues the trend, with athleticism being a high priority. Ron Turner once said, when asked about Ohio State’s Andy Katzenmoyer, “Well, he’s bigger than every defensive lineman on my roster and faster than every one of my wide receivers.” This Illini team will never have a talent advantage over Urban Meyer, but it certainly won’t be like THAT.
Sure, we’ve had Big Ten level athletes up and down the roster and still lost (hello 2009), but Lovie inspires much more confidence than the Zooker as an actual coach. Four consecutive classes of even replacement-level Big Ten players can combine with a coaching staff that can at least improve most of them to some degree should result in a string of seasons with win totals above four.
To Illini fans, this seems like a fever dream. To everyone else’s fans, this seems like a laughably low expectations. But I promise you that at the very least I’d love to root for a team for whom 4-8 is a disappointment. If all this plays out like it seems like it’s on its way to doing, Lovie Smith will build a program that might be able to break our tradition of going winless in conference play every 6 or 7 years.
Though I believe people will start to recognize that Illinois has picked itself up off the floor about halfway through 2019, the road there starts this fall. They’ll have to climb over someone to no longer be known as the worst team in the league; I can’t tell you who that team will be, but I can tell you that it absolutely will happen by the end of the decade. Everything at the top is in place and will be stable for years to come.
And when it does happen, I solemnly swear to all of you that I will talk wildly prodigious amounts of shit to you.
Thank you for reading, future loser.