Tate: Winning back fans will take time

Tate: Winning back fans will take time

A quartet of Illini football issues rose above the rest this week. Let's tackle them one by one.

They are: (1) concerns about attendance, (2) the uncertain status of Nathan Scheelhaase and his injured teammates, (3) a reluctance among fans to recognize how good Louisiana Tech is and (4) a veteran defense's ability to counter Tech's high-octane tempo.

UI underachieving

Faced with disappointing turnouts and a lopsided loss at Arizona State, the UI administration is maintaining a stiff upper lip as the Tim Beckman era tries to lift off.

Among the folks, it's very much wait-and-see after years of viewing a bad pattern. So bad, in fact, that Brody Burns compiled evidence for Yahoo!Sports last week labeling Illinois second worst among the most underachieving football programs in the last decade.

Citing money, location, talent, history and recruiting opportunity among the factors, and referring to "baffling anomalies of regular mediocrity," Burns called the UI's underperformance "blatant."

Only UCLA, which has qualified for six recent bowls with a 6-6 record, is judged more disappointing than Illinois, which is followed by Colorado and Notre Dame.

The UI's 10-year record of 43-77 and an early-September flop at Arizona State don't square with a Top 25 athletic budget and "the world's largest alumni community (so claimed, not exactly confirmed) ... that could be turned into a robust network of booster and contributors," wrote Burns.

Turnstile counts, never officially released, were below 30,000 in the UI's first two home games.

As always, there are multiple reasons ... in this case threatening weather Sept. 1 and a subpar opponent Sept. 15.

The 10-year performance, following decades of ups and downs, is the real concern. Skip the difficulty of Chicago recruiting and a subpar 2012 schedule, and you're still bucking a lagging economy, bigger home TVs offering a variety of games and the chronic disillusionment with UI expectations.

It is noteworthy, while cities like Columbus, Ohio, and Madison, Wis., are hot centers of commerce, the UI is surrounded by weakness. Within a few miles of Champaign-Urbana, we have seen towns like Rantoul, Danville (down 10,000 to 33,000) and Decatur (down from six figures to 76,000) lose business and population that, cumulatively, is in the tens of thousands ... striking directly at the blue-collar workers who attended sold-out games in the Mike White era.

Queried about attendance, Beckman said: "I don't know if I expected any more or any less. My concern is about fielding a good football team and being as good as we can be. We have to win ..."

It stops there.

Scheelhaase ready?

Vegas oddsmakers, who judge teams for a living, figure Saturday's teams are virtually even. If Illinois gets a nod, it's because of the home field.

Some oddsmakers held back early this week because of uncertainties about Scheelhaase.

"All three quarterbacks are going to play," said Reilly O'Toole, who started the last two games.

We are left to wonder. It seems likely that Scheelhaase's sprained ankle will allow him to return, many believing he was withheld as a precaution against Charleston Southern after Beckman said he "could have played in an emergency at Arizona State."

Explaining his injury policy, Beckman said: "I'm just trying to do what's best for this football team. It's been this way at the places where I've coached. I just want to protect the players and the team."

Tailback Josh Ferguson appears ready after receiving a bump on the head two weeks ago. Center Graham Pocic and receiver Darius Millines appear doubtful. These are the main concerns offensively.

With Millines out last week, the performances of receivers Ryan Lankford (seven catches for 97 yards) and freshman Justin Hardee (five for 99) were encouraging.

Said co-coordinator Billy Gonzales:

"When we lost Darius, we moved Lank over in certain sets. He is a hard worker and gives us top-end speed.

"Hardee is a quick learner. He played both ways in high school (Cleveland Glenville) and came here as a defensive back. With our thin numbers, he agreed to move to receiver. He has good athletic ability and toughness, and has done a great job in playing multiple positions."

Bulldogs are potent

Illinois could play a solid game and still lose. That's how good Sonny Dykes' team is. This is a tossup. Special teams and turnovers may decide the outcome.

Tech played two second-division SEC teams last year, beating Ole Miss 27-7 and losing in overtime to Mississippi State 26-20. Houston, Southern Miss and TCU were a combined 36-5 in 2011 — they were really good — and Tech lost to them by one, two and seven points last year.

The 2012 version of the Bulldogs is considered improved, with high-scoring wins against Houston and Rice. They get out of the gate fast. They led Houston 21-6 and 49-27 before winning 56-49, and led Rice 21-0 and 42-17 before winning 56-37.

"Their defense was good until they got those huge leads," UI co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said. "They have a lot of speed and athleticism on defense. Don't be fooled."

It's up to UI defense

More than enough has been revealed about the UI's defensive sideline-to-field communication problems at Arizona State. Those have surely been resolved by the heightened awareness and the new color scheme.

Now we'll see if the secondary, which covered so well against WMU's Alex Carder, can handle receiver Quinton Patton and the high-powered Bulldogs attack.

If the Illini are to reach a third straight bowl game, this defensive unit, featuring experienced starters and youthful backups, must carry the load. If early games are an indication, Tech presents a more explosive offense than most Big Ten teams. And the Bulldogs have momentum, showing nine straight regular-season wins, while the Illini are 2-7 in the same span.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports

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MarkHoekstra wrote on September 21, 2012 at 7:09 am

as usual, Old Guy Tate give his pal Ron "81-131-2" Guenther a free pass.  Lord Guenther did his best to kill the football program, despite calling himself a "Football Guy."  Hopefully Mike Thomas can clean up the mess.  A good start would be not scheduling games in Detroit or St. Louis or Fresno.

dcimino wrote on September 21, 2012 at 9:09 am

Two problems, game time and past performance.   1) Who from Chicago wants to go to an 11am football game?  What's that mean, leaving home at 7am, skipping tailgating, and showing up tired and dreary for a football game with a listless crowd. The students are still waking up or hungover from Friday night. Illinois is at a huge disadvantage, 1 hour compared to eastern time zone teams, and the 3 hour drive time for many fans. MT needs to get control of his game times and move them back 2 slots,... or the program dies!

2) Performance.  How did Ron Guenther not get fired? The last two football coaches lasted 17 years, during which they had a winning conference record 2 times!  And the coaches still had years left on their contracts.  Clearly Guenther's a nice guy. But how can you expect fans when you can't expect your coach to win ball games?   Mike Thomas gets it,... he'll turn it around.

walker wrote on September 21, 2012 at 10:09 am

I too believe that Thomas "gets it"    The question remains can he turn it around ?  Hopefully so.


Sounds to me like La Tech is very similar to what we will see in a middle of the pack Big 10 team this year, talent


wise.

IlliniOllie wrote on September 21, 2012 at 11:09 am

Sure, Ron Guenther's a nice guy, except when he's yelling "WARREN, YOU IDIOT!" at Warren Carter or "GET RANDLE OUT OF THERE!" at Brian Randle when sitting courtside at the NCAA tournament. Yeah, great guy.

OKOMIS wrote on September 21, 2012 at 10:09 am

1.Game times are based on your team’s attractiveness to TV.. 2. RG was a disaster, let’s hope Thomas does get it… 3. win and win consistently everything  gets better, game times..attendance..everything.

DaisyJ wrote on September 21, 2012 at 11:09 am

You want attendance at this stage, you should have hired a 4 to 7 million dollare costing coach with a name and record. Otherwise, will be a long an agonizing process. Can you imagine the hype had a big name coach come in here even with the same players. NO contest. Min. 50,000 and if you win

70,000 by the end of the year. Lets do the math, average ticket sold ( no horse cause they are already sold out) $35   times the 30,000 average extra per game = $ A cool extra 1 Million money per game extra. Now  times 6 to 7 home games. That is a lot of hot dogs.

AZ intererst wrote on September 23, 2012 at 9:09 am

I totally agree with this reader, we have a second rate coaching staff in both FB and BB.  Thomas cheaped it up, borought in people from his own FBS type programs to try and make a "statement" and he has made one....amatuers.  This is disgusting.

Salt Life wrote on September 23, 2012 at 11:09 am
Profile Picture

Worse than amateurs, coaches are clowns. Clueless and incompetent.

Ghost77 wrote on September 21, 2012 at 12:09 pm

It wasn't only the caliber of the opponent that kept attendance down last week. It also was the buzzkill of a loss to Arizona State the week before. And, of course, the 0-6 stretch last year did its bit to hold down advance sales for this whole season.

At least for the time being, this program needs games like Charleston Southern for the bulk wins needed to get to a bowl game. Is it worth scheduling a better opponent to fill an extra 10,000 seats at the cost of going 5-7 and staying home vs. 6-6 and a bowl game? Isn't it worth something to the program that the coach can go into recruits' living room and say, "We're coming off two straight bowl wins. We want you to help step it up," instead of, "There's opportunity here after a losing season"?

aaeismacgychel wrote on September 21, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Honestly, the fans are a lot worse than they used to be. We can deny it all we want due to our own personal bias, but it is the truth. Illinois has gone through much much worse droughts in both basketball and football. The mid 90s were bad for each program, and if that isn't horrendous enough for you, the 60s and 70s were flat out awful. That said, Illinois always had an active and rowdy fanbase. That is they have until recently.

People can blame inconsistency or lack of success or mediocrity for lack of support, but really, it's just as much on the fans as it is on the team. And no matter how much one wishes to argue or defend themselves and their brethren, national perception is the reality, because it's their thoughts, not yours that define how you will be remembered.

National perception is that we completely bungled our hiring processes, that we have a laughable administration, that interest has fallen off, and that the long held home court and home field advantages are no longer there. So that even if we don't want to admit it, is the truth. I was a football season ticket holder from '01-'05, which means I went to every home game of the '03-'05 seasons. For anyone who remembers watching those teams, they were the equivalent to Charleston Southern compared to our present Illini. People still came. Fans still were wild and incredibly supportive considering we won a grand total of 1 Big 10 game over those 3 years. That's right, 1. Against Indiana. That doesn't even count. Yet attendance is much much worse now. Why?

How about with basketball. Who remembers those mid 90s? During Weber's tenure, we only endured 1 season worse than from '91-'99. That's right, only 1 season. That would be the 16-19 one in '07-'08. Assembly Hall was loud and rockin' in the mid 90s though. But the past couple years, the silence at Assembly Hall was deafening, even against great competition, was it not? Heck, last year when we'd win our fans were heckling our own players. That never ever would have happened in any year prior. Why?

The truth is this has less to do about the teams we field than it is about us. Recent success has changed us from what indeed was one of the best fanbases in the nation to the mediocrity that we believe our teams espouse. Sure, wins will probably get bandwagoners back in the seats and seel some tickets, but the sad truth is the great fanbase we always enjoyed is gone. There is no bringing it back or rebuilding it. And as soon as we realize that, the easier it will be to move forward with accepting that not only have our Administrators led us to this mediocrity, but that we ourselves as fans did as well. It's sad, but who knows, maybe one day we'll get lucky and make that jackpot hire. But even sadder is the fact that due to the loss of our once esteemed fanbase, that will be the only way we can surpass mediocrity.

aaeismacgychel wrote on September 21, 2012 at 12:09 pm

By the way, Louisiana Tech is a solid mid-major and I can't say I've heard a single Illini fan "take the opponent lightly". We're one point favorites and many are looking at this game with dread. Heck even about half the media has us losing this game and espn already has us on upset alert (If a 1pt underdog beating you can be considered an upset). I'm not sure who Tate has been talking to that would lead him to believe otherwise, but if it's the coaches and the players, I'd like to change my prediction to a big Tech victory.

calvin wrote on September 21, 2012 at 12:09 pm

hate to see the attendance if we get run off the field again this weekend