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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.