Tate: Winning over Chicago
The word "paradox" was magically formed with seven letters to reflect the UI's relationship with Chicagoland.
The university's enrollment reflects the lakefront community's size and diversity. Many UI students come from there and return there. It's like a partner you can't live with and can't live without.
For Illini athletic teams, it remains an enigma, a seemingly crackable safe that resists filed fingertips and explosives.
Ron Guenther, an Elmhurst York product, spent extensive time up north before directing Illini athletics. He knew the city and arrived with confidence that he could open Windy City pocketbooks and school doors. This was part of his thinking when he hired Bears staffer Ron Turner to coach the football team.
It is now Mike Thomas' turn. The new athletic director made news recently by taking a shot at Soldier Field next year in the replay of a 1994 disappointment.
Those who witnessed the 10-9 football loss to Washington State (announced attendance: 39,472) wondered if the Illini would ever try that again. We'll see it 19 years later when Washington's Huskies come to the lakeshore. It puts no great dent in the 2013 home schedule because the Illini still have seven games. The excursion is probably worth another try.
Says Illini recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh: "I'd like to see a game in Chicago every year. Until we win over the state (recruitingwise), and as long as we are forced to go outside, it'll be tough for us."
Within those Golesh words lies the difficult challenge facing Illini football. Repeat for emphasis: "As long as we are forced to go outside, it'll be tough for us."
Yes, tough. And maybe impossible. Only a few football teams in the country are consistently successful without dominating their in-state high schools.
Crossing the border
So far, those doors have been resistant to Tim Beckman.
Of 18 committed UI prospects for 2013, six hail from Ohio and three from Michigan. There are seven Illinoisans but only three from vast Chicagoland. Two hail from Charleston and Peoria, and two from Belleville and O'Fallon, A 3-for-18 ratio from Chicago and suburbs is out of line with population demographics, but then ... that's an old story. Most of the elite Chicago-area stars have been migrating elsewhere and will in 2013. Joliet Catholic's spectacular Ty Isaac, the likely Player of the Year and former teammate of Illini Josh Ferguson, will take his ball-carrying talents all the way to USC. Other seniors of his ilk are heading to points far and wide.
Ron Zook's recruiters recognized this and saw the necessity of scouring the hinterlands. This year's top five returning inside linebackers and all three freshman linebackers on scholarship are out-of-staters. At receiver, the three starters and three backups are not from Illinois.
In my newly formed 50-man depth chart, three-deep at a few tossup positions and disregarding scholarship kickers Justin DuVernois (Florida) and Ryan Frain (Indiana), we find 16 of 50 from Illinois, eight from Ohio, and 17 from points south (seven from Florida).
That's how Beckman's first Illini team is being constructed. Home-state products are noticeably short on the defensive side, and it'll be even more so in 2013 when seniors Michael Buchanan, Glenn Foster, Supo Sanni, Terry Hawthorne and Jack Ramsey are gone. There'll probably be no more than one or two in-state products among the 14 players in the two-deep linebackers and secondary in 2013.
A winning season built on tenacious defense is definitely possible this year. A third consecutive bowl trip appears likely. But who believes, in the long term, that the UI can meet its goals by attracting Ohio athletes that Ohio State overlooks and Florida athletes that the major Florida schools pass over? Golesh hit it. There'll be no consistency over time unless the Illini can break through and attract blue-chippers north of Interstate 80.
When did that happen?
Sometimes, in what Illinoisans might call an insulting oversight of worthy accomplishments, some of the Illini's most impressive football triumphs have been diminished ... cast into the realm of happenstance ... almost accidental coincidences.
Such was the UI-Ohio State football series beginning in 1988, when the Illini won five straight and six of seven. Check Wikipedia and you'll see that Buckeyes coach John Cooper got fired because (1) he went 2-10-1 vs. Michigan and (2) his Buckeyes were 3-8 in bowls. OK, that's reason enough, even if he was 111-43-4 in Columbus. But Wiki overlooked the UI's contributions, just as Buckeyes fans and media seemed to. Those wins were forgotten so fast that it was almost as though they never happened.
As was the Texas Bowl triumph in 2010, when the Illini accomplished something for which they never received appropriate credit. Illinois shut out Baylor for more than a half, led 24-0 and won 38-14. This came against 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. RG3 signed for $21.1 million over four years with the Washington Redskins and is the talk of the NFL.
It is not exaggerating to say Nathan Scheelhaase outplayed Griffin in Houston a year and a half ago. Scheelhaase led the Illini to scores on their first four possessions, completing all 13 of his pass attempts in the first half. Illinois stifled Griffin until midway in the third quarter. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning commented later that what his unit did against Griffin was amazing — and never fully credited.
Looking back, Scheelhaase said: "Someday it'll be something I can tell my kids, that I went head-to-head with RG3 and outplayed him that day. It's nice to have that on my resume."
You'll remember, Nathan. So will Vic Koenning. But will anyone else?
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.