Tate: It's OK to dream

Tate: It's OK to dream

Fifty years ago, when Dick Butkus was an Illini sophomore, the AP Top 10 football poll was topped by national champion USC and included Texas, Alabama, LSU and Oklahoma. Just missing the 10-team list in 1962 was Ohio State, which had finished second in 1961.

Today, if you compiled an all-time lineup since the AP poll was initiated in 1936 (76 years), you'd find the six aforementioned programs plus Notre Dame and Michigan as the top eight.

And for you youngsters who can look forward another 50 years to 2062, it'll be the same then as today. These eight may stumble along the way. They may fire coaches. They may run afoul of NCAA rules. They may be slowed by the temporary rise of a Boise State, the come-and-go emergence of a Stanford or the persistence of a Virginia Tech. Miami may rise again, and Penn State may someday climb out of the ashes. But the Elite Eight will be the teams to beat over time because their only concern is mismanagement.

This trend presents a mountain of resistance for Illinois and all those who desire an equal footing. In some cases like Ohio State and Texas, the resource advantages are overwhelming. In others like Oklahoma, the momentum stemmed from a larger-than-life coach (Bud Wilkinson) who created a monster that keeps reproducing.

Cream of the crop

More than half of California's 37 million people — which is 12 percent of the nation's 311.5 million — reside in four counties around Los Angeles. And the West Coast glamor team, USC's Trojans, get first choice on the best football talent.

You'd think UCLA would fall into this same category. But just last week a Yahoo! report fingered the Bruins as the nation's most underachieving team (beating out Illinois for that dishonor) precisely because they haven't capitalized on the surrounding resources.

The Trojans always have. They draw to a Hollywood image. Expectations are such that, as they slipped out of the NCAA doghouse this year, they were immediately ranked No. 1. Another loss to Stanford changed that, but the point remains: USC is an elite program because of the built-in advantages of population, weather, resources, tradition and a national brand.

If the state is broke, it's not too far in debt to support a team boasting seven Heisman trophy winners (OK, Reggie Bush was vacated) and just three losing seasons in a half-century.

That's what Illinois walked into Jan. 1, 2008, at the Rose Bowl. To the surprise of no one, USC won 49-17. And that's what Illinois faces on a number of fronts. The reasons vary, but a group of powerhouse programs have taken a stranglehold on major college football, and we tend to be surprised any time that is challenged.

The boss is, well, the boss

— Take Oklahoma. The Sooners can't do it with in-state numbers. They're 1/10th the size of California. So they work country-wide and make a special point of invading Texas, where the Longhorns have enormous advantages but must fend off myriad poachers from all sides.

Oklahoma's saving grace was an incredible coach, Wilkinson, who took over in the 1940s, put together a remarkable 47-game winning streak and captured 13 consecutive conference titles.

That's been the formula for those without resources: a bigger-than-life leader who by the force of his personality made a perennial winner popular for the fans and attractive to athletes everywhere.

Wilkinson had the same impact on Oklahoma that Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne had on Nebraska. They set a pattern and if successor coaches didn't meet that standard, they weren't around very long. Demand brings results, at least in those cases.

— Coach Nick Saban was an acceptable 23-16-1 in Big Ten play at Michigan State, and positioned himself for the best job in the South (Alabama) by posting a 28-12 SEC record at LSU.

Alabama wasn't simply football heaven for Bear Bryant. Eleven different coaches have won at least 10 games with the Crimson Tide. That's 11 different coaches, and the NCAA didn't allow more than nine regular season games until 1964.

Alabama was winning national titles and Rose Bowls in the mid-20s, and it carried through the decades. The state isn't large (less than 5 million) but it is strategically located atop Florida in the heart of the Deep South where football is king.

They've never been better than they are right now. Face it, not many teams would have wanted to face Michigan and Arkansas early this season, and Alabama made a joke of both.

— In Ohio, major cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati boast strong professional franchises. Not Columbus, which is more populous than the two combined. The city fathers long ago decided to protect the Ohio State Buckeyes. No NFL or NBA allowed.

Woody Hayes gave them what they wanted. In death, he is still larger than life. When Earle Bruce waded through six straight nine-win seasons, he fell into disfavor. John Cooper enjoyed three one-loss campaigns, but his overall record of 111-43-4 wasn't acceptable. Like Alabama (ineligible in 2002-03, vacated in 2006-07) and Southern Cal, the chief task of Buckeye coaches is to avoid NCAA sanctions. Jim Tressel won a national title and six straight Big Ten crowns before his scandal-laden departure. Then Ohio State was able to hire the coach deemed No. 1 in most circles, Urban Meyer.

Tough prospects

How do you crack into this hierarchy? How do you compete for Ohio athletes who grow up dreaming of Ohio State? How do you crack Chicago circles when everyone else has the same idea and the same distance to travel?

The Illini problem is actually quite simple. It involves recruiting. The UI has no self-perpetuating base. The five best coaches in Illini history departed on sour notes related to recruiting. It's the common denominator.

(1) Bob Zuppke fielded four unbeaten teams and four one-loss teams in his early years, and did well when the UI coaching school attracted athletes. But he detested recruiting and openly said so, and he bowed out in 1941 with 19 wins in his last seven years.

(2) Ray Eliot was an inspirational leader who retired after 18 years in 1959, stating at the time that the job of recruiting was distasteful to him and was a major consideration in his departure. Eliot's last six teams were 21-29-4.

(3) Pete Elliott inherited a thin squad from Eliot, and soon found himself in a 15-game losing streak. He managed to turn it. But the effort to improve recruiting through illegal means led to the "slush fund" scandal in 1966, setting back the program for years.

(4) Mike White revived the program in the 1980s with the help of California recruiting, and White was encouraged by UI administrative leaders to use his successes to reduce junior college acquisitions and move to a closer market. A second bout with recruiting infractions led to White's departure in 1987.

(5) John Mackovic inherited quarterback Jeff George and quality leftovers from White, and was 30-16-1 in his four seasons. But Mackovic recognized the difficulty of sustaining it, and recruiting had slipped when Texas came calling. So Mackovic jumped.

If you're wondering what it would take to lift Illinois into the elite, my response is this: It would take an honest, long-term salesman, one who loves to recruit and possesses at least portions of Zuppke's inventiveness, Eliot's inspirational qualities, Elliott's genuineness, White's join-the-fun flamboyancy and Mackovic's tactical skills. And a magic wand.

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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GlenM wrote on September 24, 2012 at 7:09 am

Loren, I like your indefatigable work ethic and your association with all things Illini.  I have been an Illini fan for 25 years and have learned to be patient.  I also know that everyone wants a strong football program, and we are starting from behind.  And surely the big football schools have powerful brands and fan loyalty and enviable recruiting bases.

But by the same metric you mention from Butkus' days, the current AP top 10 reads as follows:

1 Alabama (59) 4-0 1499
2 Oregon 4-0 1414
3 LSU (1) 4-0 1346
4 Florida State 4-0 1340
5 Georgia 4-0 1245
6 South Carolina 4-0 1147
7 Kansas State 4-0 1067
8 Stanford 3-0 1055
9 West Virginia 3-0 1045
10 Notre Dame 4-0 1003

Fully 7 of these schools weren't in your legendary top 8.  Oregon has Phil Knight.  Florida State has an enviable recruiting base.  What do the other schools have that is unique?

Or consider the Big Ten at the moment.  Every team in our division except OSU looks beatable by a reasonably well-run Illinois program.  Heck, it might still happen.

The state of Illinois is not Texas or Florida or California.  But it is the fifth-largest state in the country by population.  It also this year is home to ten recruits that will ply their trades at 'elite' programs (or Illinois) next fall.   There's enough talent here that can be supplemented by the coaches' friends and family recruiting.

The U of I has never in my life had a strong identity with the state, especially in athletics.  And succeeding at Illinois in football will be difficult, just as it is for any school.  But it will never happen if we don't try.

houstonillini84 wrote on September 24, 2012 at 10:09 am

Yes, there is decent talent in Illinois, although like the rest of the midwest its fallen off through the years relative to the south and west (see my post below). BUT. Illinois has to compete against schools like Notre Dame, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa for that limited talent. Kids in the Catholic league have more loyalty to Notre Dame than they do to UI. And schools like Wisconsin and ND are as close to Chicago as UI.

Now look at Texas. Texas has far more top recruits than Illinois, but faces less competition for that greater number/quality of recruits than UI does. Do the math. Ditto for USC and the Florida schools. There is so much talent in those areas that there is plenty to go around. Not so in the midwest, not anymore.

tunacommander wrote on September 24, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Illinois needs to recruit in California. My son's high school (NORCO) spawns 3-5 Div. 1 players a year. Nobody from Illinois has ever set foot here. We had 16 scouts/reps from Div. 1 schools here for our spring game. Illinois can't continue to recruit against Notre Dame, Michigan and Wisconsin with a "no-name" head coach. Even more so, since Illinois is such a low life producer for football recruits. It's obvious that the AD is trying to skimp-out budget wise by hiring a no-name but as you can see, it's not working out. Losing "money" games is an embarrassment to the University.

illini82 wrote on September 24, 2012 at 7:09 am

After Saturday night I felt that Illinois football had slipped to it's lowest point since the dark days of the Moeller years. We seem to be adrift in an abyss with no way out.

As a fan, and a season ticket holding fan at that, I feel like a chump, a sucker. Like the person who keeps giving their spouse "one more chance" after being promised that "things have changed" for good. I wasn't so much mad Saturday nite as I was disgusted not just with the team but,  as much or more with myself

for being sucked into being a fan and a ticket buying fan of one of the most underachieving college football programs in the country. Why would anyone want to be an Illini football fan? 

The biggest, I guess is because I'm an alumni. You support your school in good times and bad. Supporting another team would be like taking care of your neighbors lawn instead of your own because well, you just like to look at it.

The other reason was because I was lucky (or perhaps unlucky) enough to have gone to school here in the 80's during the Mike White years. There were a couple of bumps but he and later Mackovic made winning in football the "new normal". The dark ages of Moeller and the vestiges of the slush fund were gone. We're relevant again. Since then it's been mostly disappointment with the occasional tease like 1999 and 2001. I still wonder what woulld have happend to the program had we had instant replay during the 2000 Michigan game. In the end maybe nothing as Turner had a disdain for recruiting.

Then there was the 2007 tease. 5 star recruits being signed and a win over #1 OSU capped by a Rose Bowl appearance. An appearance that truly was a make up call for not having been able to play in the 2001 Rose Bowl due to the National Title game in Pacadena that year. Still, we had one of the best recruiters in the business and we had taken down ranked PSU, Wisconsin and #1 OSU. On top of that we poured millions into Memorial Stadium with renovations. There was buzz and excitement.

Not to be. The program, like a long time alchoholic, fell off the wagon hard again in 09. A valiant effort to get back up in 2011 was met by an even harder fall with an 0-6 finish leaving us where we are today. We found out where we stood as a program when we had to reach down to get Beckman after being snubbed by at least 3 or 4 other prefferable candidates. Thomas found himself grasping for anything that would float it seemed. I don't wish Beckman ill. No one does. But the news of his hiring was met with a resounding "who?". He appears to be in over his head given the two losses to date. And it's not that they were losses. But the WAY we lost. Blowouts and not by top 10 or even top 20 programs either.

So why do I keep buying tickets? It's a question I'll have to seriously consider over the winter unless we show signs of visible improvement the rest of the season. Is it to protect 30 yard line seating on the west side? That's like watching a bad show on HD TV. Yes the view is good but what I'm looking at is terrible. Is it to have priority to possbile bowl games? Unless it's to the Rose Bowl, a BCS or Jan 1 Florida bowl that's meaningless too. To be honest the best reason to keep buying tickets and remain a donor is protect my parking space in lot 42. Yep. The pre-game fun (all 15 minutes of it during 11:00 a.m. starts) has become the biggest reason to keep re-newing and really the stupidest I know. There are other parking spots but, there are several of us who have gotten together in that lot for many years. But for how much longer? That group keeps shrinking with each poor season.

Even the strongest structures give way to the elements over time and fans are no different. They too will succumb to fatigue eventually and that includes me. If giving up my tickets would be a guarantee of turning the program around it would be worth it. Well worth it. There's always been plenty of room on the band wagon during those infrequent years of success. For now only the band seems to be on the wagon and they HAVE to be there.

It's not even October and we're already hoping for basketball to start. Buy hey, what's new.

How sad.

Green Shirt wrote on September 24, 2012 at 8:09 am

Loren, I agree with your assessment.  It is going to take a Barry Alvarez type of savior to turn around Illini football.  The early returns do not give me confidence that Tim Beckman has the "right stuff" (the team does not give any indication of being well coached to this point) for that role, but he will be given time (3-5 years) by MT so we have no choice but to do the same.

walker wrote on September 24, 2012 at 9:09 am

I'm glad it's OK to dream.  That's about all we have left.   4 observations from the game:


1.) I spent some time watching with my binoculars our coaches on the sidelines, especially when we were on offense.  As many as 3 of them at a time, all simutaneously doing gyrations, hand signals, etc.  Sort of like a batter looking to 3 different third base coaches all on a different type of steroid.

It was almost embarrasing.  At one point, O Toole could not figure out what they were trying to tell him and had to call a precious TO while inside the ten.

2.) Why was Osei brought in at such a weird time & for only a couple of momentum killing plays.  I thought that was the sort of thing that only Ron Zook did ?  

3.) On the touchdown bomb that La Tech threw on the first series of the second half, I had been watching Terry Hawthorn w/ my binoculars because I could sense that they were going to try to seize the 2nd half momentum w/ something like that.  Again, it is just my opinion, but T H was loafing and that is a big time coaching issue if true.  When the ball was caught, T H was within a couple of yards of him.  At that point, both players fired up their jets and T H was left in the dust. (Not trying to trash T H, but he is not the future NFL defensive back that everyone thinks)

4.) Why did we not experiment with our 2 minute drill when we had the ball with at least that much time near the end of the first half. Do we even have a 2 minute drill?  Were we just terrified about throwing a pass over 10 yards to a WAC team at home?  Are we that scared of a turn over ?  Even the chance for a last second field goal would have helped our confidence ? 

Maybe someone can offer something on the above to inspire me. 





DaisyJ wrote on September 24, 2012 at 10:09 am

Why worry about this game. In a few years, we will not be playing it due to head bagging. Did you see the Oakland Raider that was hit, and was out before he hit the ground. Why. Why, so we can watch. When will sportswriters tell it like it is. Time to Stop playing this game. When you have former pro's telling us they do not want their sons to play, how is it the media cannot get that out. Or the  over 3400 lawsuits that former NFL players have filed. Did you see the JFL statistics the other day, kids concussions in the under 14 group are off the board. OFF THE BOARD. RECORD NUMBER.

W A K E   U P

DaisyJ wrote on September 24, 2012 at 10:09 am

One more item, this Sunday , the movie 2016 is being played on FOX. Please watch. Learn who your current President really is. Hi Rev. Wright.

Bwp 5P wrote on September 24, 2012 at 4:09 pm

WOW.........finally something that Daisy and I can agree on....2016!

I also read the article in SI today about the guys like Jim McMahon and their issues with concussions. Way off topic for this discussion....but certainly scary!

mankind wrote on September 24, 2012 at 10:09 am

Oh, boy, I hope everyone has stored a month of food and water in their basement. The end days are here. The first thing Illini nation must do to survive these apocalyptic events is admit that Arizona State and Louisiana Tech are good. It's early, but when the final standings come out at the end of this season it may well be that we all look back and realize that Illinois got thumped by a couple of very good football clubs. In case you didn't notice, ASU just hung a 37-7 loss on Utah that has the Utes staring at their navels, too. This year in particular the nonconference part of the schedule may prove to be the roughest part. The solution may be to simply play a Big Ten team and call the doctor in the morning.

houstonillini84 wrote on September 24, 2012 at 10:09 am

dude, when Louisiana Tech comes in to your house and lays 50 points you, there's more to it than playing Big Ten teams. How far have we fallen when people complain about Louisiana Tech being a tough non-conference schedule?

mankind wrote on September 24, 2012 at 11:09 am

Plenty of people saw this one coming. It's not really the shock you make it out to be. On name brand alone it does look terrible, but LT's offense is pretty impressive and UofI is in the middle of a huge transition.

tunacommander wrote on September 24, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Mankind shows the typical apathy of an Illini fan. L Tech a "powerhouse"? They get the 3rd-4th pick of the litter in Louisiana. Is Illinois HS football a joke? Yes, but Illinois is a fine university that should have kept Zook one more year instead of making a "knee-jerk" hiring like Beckman.

The AD should resign or be fired.

OKOMIS wrote on September 24, 2012 at 2:09 pm

it may not ne a powerhouse... but it is certainly better than ALL B1G teams, except 3 maybe...  all the talk of population shifts is bull... why would an athlete want to compete in the Big 10??

houstonillini84 wrote on September 24, 2012 at 10:09 am

its a simple fact that as the population has moved south and west, so has more of the best recruits. Schools in the south and west have seen their recruiting potential get better, and schools in the north and east have seen it get worse. Moreover, with so many big schools in the north and east, they are competing with each other for fewer and fewer top recruits. Go look at a list of the top high school recruits in any recent year: most of them are from the south and west, especially Florida, Texas and California. But even back in the days of Mike White, many of his best recruits came from California, and that was 30 years ago when midwest talent was much stronger. Hayden Fry did very well in those days recruiting from Texas too.

This isnt just a population issue, its also involves the greater popularity of basketball in the urban north (which is why basketball recruiting in the north and east hasnt dropped off nearly so much).

Tate says that Oklahoma has to go out of state to texas and poach recruits, but understand that there are many more top recruits in Texas than could ever play at UT. Plenty left over to go to A&M, the other Texas schools, Oklahoma, LSU, etc. Ditto for California and Florida. USC cant begin to take them all, nor can Florida/FSU/Miami. Plenty left over to go to other schools in the Pac12 or SEC/ACC.

This is one reason why i would have preferred a coach at UI with some access to recruiting in the south and west. Not sure that taking a midwestener is going to help. Like he is going to go into Ohio and steal away many top recruits from tOSU??

bernies wrote on September 24, 2012 at 3:09 pm

The outcome of Saturday's game shouldn't be surprising. When IlliniHQ made a call for predictions I predicted Tech would win, and they did. I predicted Tech would score 56 points, and they scored 52. Most folks predicted the Illini would win...some thought the Illini would roll over Tech. Guess that comes from Louisiana Tech not being a household name. They have one tough challenge left in the season (Texas A&M). If they handle the Aggies they very well could run the table and be the next Boise State.

Moonpie wrote on September 24, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Fifty years ago, before the Lazy Gazoo hired a whiny and arrogant and condescending Obi Wan Tate...

Yes, Illini football is a joke. I wish it weren't.

But this team is slow and not talented.

And there doesn't seem to be a real QB on the roster.

I still say use this season to try and develop O'Toole and not insist on Little Nathan.

And hope Beckman isn't another Lovie Smith.


bernies wrote on September 24, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Tate says, talking about USC: "If the state is broke, it's not too far in debt to support a team boasting seven Heisman trophy winners (OK, Reggie Bush was vacated) and just three losing seasons in a half-century."

Ummm...isn't USC a private school??

Brownshoe wrote on September 24, 2012 at 8:09 pm

The south produces the best football players simply because the black population is spread across the whole south. In the north, the blacks are mostly confined to cities.

This means that EVERY high school football team in the south is playing black players. In the north, there are virtually NO black players in the rural schools. For example, how many blacks play for St. Joseph? Or Tuscola? Similar schools in the south are loaded with black players. 

If we had blacks playing in our rural schools, we would be producing as many great players as the south does - but we don't, and consequently, we have a much small pool of great black players to draw from.

It's as simple as that. I don't mean to sound racist, but it is obvious that the great college football teams are predominantly black. So you have to recruit where you can find the most black players, and that is in the south because the vast majority of high schools in the south have a lot of black students. That is not the case in the north.


The north is hurt further because many of the blacks in the city schools concentrate on basketball and don't play football. But the big thing is that the south has so many rural schools playing black players, while there are virtually none in the north.