John Groce, Tim Beckman and Matt Bollant have had some success, but their programs still have room to improve.
Ohio State and Indiana have basketball problems of their own. The Buckeyes have dropped four straight, and the Hoosiers can’t figure out what happened at home against Northwestern.
But Ohio State and Indiana present major road challenges for John Groce’s squad Thursday and Sunday, and if the Illini can’t shake a four-game tailspin, more setbacks would serve as a grim reminder that Mike Thomas’ replacement of coaches in football and both basketball programs will require more time before paying dividends.
Most programs countrywide, if down in one sport, are up in another. Kansas, for example, was 3-9 in football but roared back strong again in men’s basketball. Kentucky went 2-10 in football but has two sturdy basketball operations. West Virginia’s women compensate for the men with a 16-2 audit. There are multiple examples like this.
Purdue, you say? The Boilermakers were the only UI victim in Big Ten football, but they defeated Groce’s quintet at the Farm and are ranked in the Top 25 in women’s basketball.
In checking out teams from the five major conferences, it is noteworthy that the ACC had 11 bowl qualifiers, the SEC 10 and the Pac-12 nine. Bowl trips automatically eliminate those programs from my three-sport bottom-tier consideration.
Point is, Tim Beckman is not alone in facing a rebuilding situation at Illinois. The same is true for Groce and Matt Bollant. And there are only a few major programs facing such heavy digging in all three sports.
Northwestern is struggling but deserves the nod over Illinois for prevailing in football and men’s basketball while falling 76-74 to Bollant’s women. The Illini women are 8-10 and have lost six games by 20 points or more.
TCU is scraping bottom in football (4-8) and men’s basketball (0-5 start in the Big 12) but is a decent 12-6 in women’s basketball. N.C. State and Virginia went 0-8 in ACC football, but State is 16-3 in women’s basketball, and the Cavaliers are 14-5 overall and 5-1 in men’s basketball.
At Colorado, athletic director Rick George faces multiple hurdles, the footballers going 1-8 in the Big 12 and the women starting at 1-5, but the men’s quintet has been a pleasant surprise at 15-4.
For George, the major challenge is putting the program on solid financial footing. The budget is less worrisome for Thomas, even though the State Farm renovation requires a neverending search for major gifts and premium seat holders.
Show me the money
Dollars are always on the front burner — particularly with stipends for athletes around the corner — and budgets can balloon into huge deficits for losing programs. But not for Illinois, not when Big Ten revenue keeps pouring in.
As for stipends, there was modest information stemming from NCAA meetings last week in San Diego because that was simply the first careful step in reshaping the governance of NCAA athletics.
The big picture is in the midst of dramatic change. Due to the stunning surge of revenue stemming from broadcasts of major college contests, it is unconscionable not to allow the performing student-athletes — those who attract the crowds and TV viewers — to receive a share of the windfall.
The trick now is to determine appropriate stipends while operating within Title IX guidelines, and rewarding in some fashion all those athletes receiving partial scholarships in non-revenue sports.
Repeat, it is a changing world. Little more than two decades ago, the UI’s athletic program was operating in red ink and would never have supported the idea of a $2,000 stipend for Illini athletes.
The 1992 budget was minuscule by today’s standards — roughly $15 million — and new athletic director Ron Guenther looked out on antiquated facilities in need of upgrading. A two-decade outlay of roughly $300 million has been spent on that alone.
So we’re carving a new path in 2014, and it has become increasingly difficult to deny athletes “walking around money” when there is an avalanche of revenue pouring in from media rights.
Broadcast dollars in the Big Ten today outstrip the UI’s total 1992 budget by roughly $10 million. And troubled athletic departments at Rutgers and Maryland, both wallowing in huge deficits, are looking to the Big Ten to lift them out of the red.
So who’s to say the competing athletes shouldn’t receive a piece of the pie as part of their scholarships?
The flip-flop in attitudes is developing faster than opinions on gay marriage. By spring, from all indications, we’ll know the number.
And the Illini can afford it. So even as the UI continues to have problems winning football and basketball games — the three sports that Thomas sought to fix with new coaches — the financial snowball continues to roll in the UI’s favor.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.