Tate: Now what?
EVANSTON — Bah! Humbug! When did my middle name become Ebenezer?
You say a sugar stick might sweeten my attitude. Well, how about winning a football game some time. How’s that for an idea?
When did Northwestern become the gridiron model for whom the Illini should aspire?
At this point, the UI would be willing to settle for Northwestern’s 10-year audit of 68-57 and 40-40 in league play with five straight bowl games.
That is Northwestern’s record, attained without a bevy of four-star recruits and with entrance requirements stiffer than most. Pat Fitzgerald has emerged as one of the nation’s premier coaches.
In the same decade, the Illini are 41-80 overall, 19-61 in conference and carrying a 14-game Big Ten losing streak. They’ve attended three bowls since 2002.
In defeating Illinois 50-14 Saturday before a paltry paid crowd of 32,415, the Wildcats completed a regular season with nine wins and three losses. In those late-game defeats, the Purple led Penn State by 11 and Nebraska by 12, both in the fourth quarter, and had Michigan on the ropes in the last 10 seconds before a Hail Mary pass set up a tying field goal leading to an overtime result. That’s how close they came to being undefeated.
Where do I start?
The Illini have always been my favorite team, dating to a distant era highlighted by Illinois’ 16-7 defeat of Ohio State in 1946. It is hard to watch what’s happening now, so I need more than one sugar stick. Give me a baker’s dozen. How am I supposed to put a happy face on an operation that:
(1) Repeatedly turned Memorial Stadium into a ghost town by halftime;
(2) Has now lost nine games in a row and 14 straight Big Ten games;
(3) Was a 19-point underdog at Northwestern and lost by 36, marking another day in which the Illini failed to make the gambling spread;
(4) Created ever-growing doubts that Tim Beckman is up to the task of turning the runaway herd;
(5) Is engulfed in wild rumors concerning internal strife and imminent staff changes;
(6) Will now lose the heart of its veteran defensive unit;
(7) Hasn’t been able to build confidence within high school coaching ranks;
(8) Made the sale of 2013 season tickets difficult in the extreme;
(9) Cast a pall over the mood of the community;
(10) Has UI students more apathetic than ever;
(11) Can’t break through in Chicagoland, showing just three committed preps from the primary recruiting base;
(12) Faces difficult academic challenges for junior college transfers;
(13) Has fans questioning the hiring acumen of Mike Thomas, despite the stunning early success of John Groce.
While doubt consumes Illini Nation, Thomas is tied to Beckman for ethical and financial reasons. Even though this team appears to have gotten away from him, Beckman deserves time to attract talent and develop athletes on campus. It’s his job to lose, and he’s made a huge step in that direction.
Sure, knee-jerk critics are already calling for change, pointing out that it’ll only be worse a year from now. Maybe so. Beckman hasn’t shown a special touch in any area — offense, defense, whatever. He hasn’t been able to demonstrate what his expertise is.
He leaves UI skeptics debating three ways to go, all difficult options, all costly.
Whether the Illini stand pat or make a daring adjustment, this much appears likely: No matter who coaches, fans aren’t likely to flock back when they’ve seen so much ineptitude. Considering the schedule and returning talent, the outlook for 2013 is dismal.
Bowl-bound Cincinnati and Washington (in Chicago) will be favored in the nonconference portion, and Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio) might be challenging. Before reaching Indiana (which won 31-17 this year), the Illini face early Big Ten games against Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State.
What will Thomas do? He is determined to ride it out with Beckman for the second year of a five-year contract, presumably overseeing staff changes for a semi-fresh start. That’s option No. 1. It’s a long shot.
But with a don’t-wait, change-now attitude among many Illini supporters — we have a divided fandom — Thomas might be advised to scan NFL ranks for a high-priced, bombshell pick. Like, say, Jon Gruden, who has already been contacted by Tennessee, or someone of that magnitude. It might cost $4 million or $5 million a year, but there’s a point of view that this is the only way Illinois can revive interest and pull itself out of the quagmire. This idea would not be well received by the campus.
A third option exists. Find football’s equivalent of Groce and couple him with some in-state assistants for recruiting purposes. Guys like Derek Leonard of Rochester. The right guy is out there somewhere, overachieving and running an offense that clicks. He’s either a young head coach or one of those rising offensive coordinators putting up incredible numbers. Illinois has always found the most success with offense-oriented leaders.
One name in this category is Oklahoma State coordinator Todd Monken, a native Illinoisan who last year set Cowboy records for points, first downs, completions, passing yards and TD passes. The Cowboys were No. 2 in the nation in scoring last season, and they’re No. 3 this season.
If we wait, Monken won’t be available next year. He’s too hot.
For Thomas, there are no guarantees. No guarantee that Beckman will make the grade, no assurance that a big-time pro could be enticed, no certainty that someone like Monken would be successful.
But for the good of a drowning program, he is obligated to consider all possibilities. Patience is a virtue, but extraordinary times may call for extraordinary measures.
The final debacle
Saturday was the final disaster in a disastrous season — three more UI interceptions, 85 yards in penalties before Northwestern had any, a defense that was shredded beyond recognition and an attacking unit that didn’t know who its quarterback was.
Early on, after violating alignment rules on a two-point conversion attempt, Beckman was overrun by an official in one of two 15-yard sideline penalties. Offensively, the visitors profited by some shoddy Northwestern tackling but managed to backfire too often to take real advantage. Once an accomplished rusher, junior Nathan Scheelhaase netted 6 yards on the ground.
Defensively, Illinois was soft as butter in the hot sun. It is difficult to comprehend how a defensive unit that returned key personnel from a nationally seventh-ranked squad could become so inept. Admittedly, turnovers set up Northwestern’s first two TDs from 18 and 12 yards out. But the Wildcats steadily broke down the Illini will, and Venric Mark had runs of 17, 18 and 15 in the third TD march. Northwestern had 48 points and 255 rushing yards by the end of the third quarter, and the game grinded to an inglorious end.
Don’t ask the next question. I don’t have the answer.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.