Let me tell you why we suck. We hire shitty football coaches. Then we hang on to them way past the point when we realize they are craptacular. It’s like when my kids say the milk is spoiled and then put it back in the refrigerator. Trust me. It’s not going to get better by letting it hang around.
For anyone under the age of 35, you may find this hard to believe, but Illinois hasn’t always been bad. As a matter of fact, Illinois was actually quite good at football for a while. During the 11 year run of Mike White/John Mackovic, the Illinois Fighting Illini finished in the top three in the B1G seven times and snagged two Big Ten titles, including being the only team to sweep every other Big Ten team in one season. (Don’t believe me? I read it on the internet so it has to be true)
From that point forward, Illinois has made a litany of poor choices for captains to helm their football program that has led us to this.
Lou Tepper Era
Lou Tepper was the DC under John Mackovic and was promoted when Mackovic left Chambana to be HC/AD at UT-Austin. Lou Tepper was given the nickname of Coach Death Penalty by Illinois fans on his way out the door due to running the program down from the lofty heights achieved in the 1980s. There were certainly some things to like about the Tepper era when you look back. His successors made a mockery of that moniker and we certainly didn’t realize how good we had it. His teams were consistently good at defense and punting, which was at least something nice for Illinois to have. The 1994 team was top 10 in advanced stats despite finishing 7-5. All five losses were by 6 points or less and 6/7 wins were by 14 or more. We had back to back Butkus Award winners in Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy and Hardy and Simeon Rice were selected with the 2nd and 3rd picks in the NFL draft. Lou Tepper might be the only Illinois coach who didn’t lose either of his first two games against michigan.
Lou went on to a successful career coaching Div II.
The Moment Hope Died Tepper’s downfall was a constant revolving door of OCs, each more ineffective than the last, culminating in a 2-9 record in 1996 which led to his removal. The turning point was firing OC Greg Landry for interviewing for an NFL job the day after top QB recruit, Chris Redman, signed his letter of intent. Not only did he lose a competent assistant, but Illinois ended up losing a top recruit and looked like jerks for trying to hold him to a commitment after firing the guy who recruited him.
Tepper left Illinois with a 17-21-2 record in Big Ten play.
Ron Turner era
Ron Turner came aboard a floundering program with little talent in the cupboard. He sure seemed like a good guy with the occasional good soundbite. (My favorite, when asked about facing OSU LB Andy Katzenmoyer, Well, he’s bigger than all our DE and faster than all our WRs and shrugged) His first season might be the worst in Illinois history and that is saying something. 0-11 is bad, but four seasons later, Illinois would win the Big Ten title outright and go to the Rose Bowl, errrrr, Sugar Bowl. I’m still a little miffed about that as my college roommate was getting his PhD at CalTech so I had a couch to crash on to see Illinois play had it not been the year that the Rose Bowl was the title game.
The Moment Hope Died Two seasons after an outright Big Ten Title, Illinois was 1-11 (0-8) and Turner should’ve been let go there, but they gave him one more year before letting him go. I think his downfall was that he didn’t like recruiting. He wasn’t even bashful about saying he didn’t like recruiting. Early on, he was able to take a bunch of ragtag 2 stars and develop them into a Big Ten title team and then said, Hey, I don’t have to recruit with the big boys so I’ll just grab whoever says Yes first and it’ll work out. Only problem was he wasn’t able to catch that lightning in a bottle again.
Also, it was his relationships with Josh Whitman and Lovie Smith that allowed that collaboration to happen, so he was still screwing up Illinois football 15 years after he left.
Ron Turner was 20-44 in Big Ten play.
Ron Zook era
So, after a DC didn’t work, Illinois hired an OC that didn’t work, so let’s try a recruiter this time? Ron Zook brought a tremendous amount of talent to Champaign and managed to piss it all away. 2007 was a sparkling piece of corn in the turd that was the last 30 years of Illinois football as Illinois went 9-4 including a dominant win in the Horseshoe against #1 OSU and Illinois made its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1984. The Zooker’s teams were rarely boring and there were talented players on the team, but it just rarely all came together into something effective. I don’t even want to think about the number of times Illinois outgained their opponent by 100-200 yards and lost due to bad turnovers, costly penalties, and general clusterfuckery at inopportune moments.
The Moment Hope Died This moment was probably actually hilarious and awesome for everyone on the planet except Illinois fans. Just watch it. I don’t want to talk about it. A team with 25 future NFL players on it ended the season 3-9 and Zook was let go errrrr. Nope, he was allowed to flounder as a dead man walking for two more years and then let go after the 2011 season started 6-0 and ranked 15th and then lost six straight in Big Ten play. Illinois ended up winning a bowl that year as Illinois and UCLA played a bowl game in which both coaches had been fired.
Ron Zook was 18-38 in Big Ten play.
Tim Beckman era
As big of a goober as Tim Beckman was, the football team progressed from truly terrible all the way to eh, they’re not THAT terrible, I guess, during his tenure. Obviously, that’s not the whole story as (in addition to looking stupid in photographs) he was accused of attempting to force injured players to play by threatening their scholarship status. That’s clearly awful and Illinois did the right thing by letting go of him immediately upon the conclusion of the investigation into those practices.
The Moment Hope Died His introductory press conference made the entire NCAA football world collectively, go Huh? Supposedly, in one on one interactions, Timmy was very likeable and charming. However, I cringed every time he stepped up to a podium in front of a camera as a representative of my alma mater. He was like a hybrid of Michael Scott and pre-chicken wing scene Tommy Boy sputtering out sentence fragments and lighting things on fire. Here’s an article listing a few of his more embarrassing moments.
Tim Beckman was 4-20 in Big Ten play.
Bill Cubit era
Bill Cubit was terrible from the get go. Firstly, one of the more egregious accusations against Beckman turned out to actually be Cubit. (He allegedly told a player to stop taking antidepressants because they made him lose weight; however the school deemed it a supportive gesture.) He hired his son as OC though he was unqualified and his salary increased to $400,000 after getting a DUI. Cubit continued to call plays and was actually acting as HC and OC. This also set a sad precedent for our next huge, embarrassing failure. Ryan’s next job was selling insurance. Bill’s next job was coaching high school football to a losing record.
The Moment Hope Died In the interview announcing Cubit’s hire, the interim AD said, “It’s not ideal, but it’s not a dagger to the heart of the program.” There was never any hope of this working.
Bill Cubit was 2-6 in Big Ten play.
Lovie Smith era
Unlike previous hires, there was some reason to hope that Lovie Smith could win at Illinois. He took a team QBed by Rex Grossman to the Super Bowl for godsakes! Garrick McGee chose Illinois over an offer to be OC at Oklahoma (who had to settle for Lincoln Riley instead) We now finally had the staff in place to fix things. And Illinois fans bought in. My God, did we buy in! I was at the opening day sellout when Illinois faced UNC and when KeShawn Vaughn broke a long run to take the early lead, Memorial Stadium was every bit as loud as when future NFL QBs led ranked teams to victories in the 80s. And when Wes Lunt fumbled on a play where he wasn’t even touched and then stood there while the UNC defenders took multiple steps and dove on the ball, we all said, Just give him time. And look, really the only embarrassing thing about the Lovie Smith tenure was the product on the field, so that’s progress, right?
The Moment Hope Died 63-0. Those numbers still traumatize me. The fact that Iowa was the third team in 2018 to hang 63 on Illinois was just icing on the cake. A month prior to 63-0, Lovie had taken over as DC when Hardy Nickerson left for “personal reasons” after giving up 63 to Maryland. Lovie never adjusted anything on defense and I get the feeling that Lovie still doesn’t believe his defense wasn’t working, but it was just that college offenses were running the wrong plays that his defense could stop. If we could just get the offenses to cooperate and run the right plays with the right personnel, the defense would work. Lovie failed to follow in Nickerson’s courageous footsteps and not only didn’t quit after giving up 63, but kept the DC role and hired his underqualified son as an assistant (sound familiar?)
Lovie Smith was 10-33 in Big Ten play.
If you managed to read this far without drinking a gallon of bleach, Congratulations!!! You may have what it takes to be an Illini fan.
So, what does all of this mean for our current hire going forward? All these hires had two commonalities.
1. They sucked.
B. They were kept around well past their expiration date. The Lou Tepper era really should’ve ended with the 3-3 tie against Wisconsin. Ron Turner was done in 2003, but got to coach the 2004 season. Ron Zook was toast in 2009, but stayed on through 2011. Lovie Smith failed by 2018, but coached until 2020. Tim Beckman, really Mike Thomas should’ve grabbed the mike at his introductory press conference and screamed, I’ve made a terrible mistake!! and tried again. Bill Cubit never should’ve coached a Big Ten team.
Look, fans are prone to overreaction. (If you went to The Champaign Room in Dec 2019-Jan 2020, you might find about 200 posts under my username screaming FIRE UNDERWOOD!!! INTO THE SUN!!! I don’t know how it happened. Someone must’ve hacked my account.) Hiring good coaches is hard. For every Bill Snyder, Bo Pelini, or Barry Alvarez, you’ll find many more like Chris Ash, Darrell Hazell, Bill Callahan, Rich Rodriguez, Gerry DiNardo, Jim Colletto, Rick Venturi, John L Smith, Jim Wacker, Jim Harbaugh, or Jeff Brohm.
It’s hard to identify a good coach, but it isn’t that hard to identify a failure. I’ve got no idea if Bert will reach the Oh, so modest heights of mediocrity that Illinois fans are craving. The one thing that I am hoping for is that if (okay, when) we reach the point where it’s time to pull the plug, that Josh Whitman will do it and do it NOW!!! Long before our previous coaches were fired, the recruits, quality assistants, and fans knew what they were seeing and fled the scene. Please don’t make us waste any more seasons on a lost cause. Maybe we aren’t allowed nice things, but is it too much to ask to at least cut our losses when we first realize Bert isn’t the answer?