Tate: Illini desperately need season to kick off

Tate: Illini desperately need season to kick off

Let’s hear it for football season! Bring on the games.

Some say the sport is on life support — too many concussions — but the vital functions remain strong.

And no one needs to return to the excitement of Kickoff Saturday more than Illinois, where the consuming tide of offseason skepticism has been crippling.

Last year’s 2-10 swoon was bad enough. Since then, Illini Nation has wallowed in eight months of woe-is-us.

With games, coach Tim Beckman at least has a chance. In the current mode of grumbling public opinion, not so much. If there are internal improvements within the squad, those gains are private. In the community’s bars and barber shops, and on the Internet, expectations have seldom been so low.

(1) Early departures
No sooner had the Illini dropped their 14th straight Big Ten game, 50-14, to Northwestern on Nov. 24, than more disappointments crept onto Beckman’s doorstep. Assume the position: Whack!

Akeem Spence, standout defensive tackle, became the ninth UI star to join the NFL with eligibility remaining since Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 1,681 yards in 2007. Think how much better Illini teams would have been if Mendenhall, Mikel Leshoure, Martez Wilson, Arrelious Benn, Vontae Davis, Corey Liuget, Josh Brent (OK, he had no choice) and Whitney Mercilus had stuck around. What’s the value of having more NFL draftees than any Big Ten team in the last five years if they leave the instant they show pro potential?

Combine these NFL departures with all the other personnel absences, and Beckman finds himself with the least experienced squad in the Big Ten. There are just four 2009 squadmen taking advantage of their fifth season: Nathan Scheelhaase, Tim Kynard, Jake Feldmeyer and Steve Hull. That 2009 class was struck early by multiple decommits, standouts like tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz (Iowa). And Ron Zook’s staff soon felt the absence of key recruiters Mike Locksley and Reggie Mitchell. Nor did it help that four-star Chicago linemen Lendell Buckner and Leon Hill arrived on campus, because they weren’t here long. More than two dozen potential contributors to the 2013 team have evaporated — boy, is Jay Prosch missed — and it carries right through the most recent suspensions of receiver Darius Millines and defensive end Darrius Caldwell.

(2) The Vegas odds
Las Vegas projects that Illinois will win 3.5 games. That would be an improvement over last season. However, Indiana and Purdue are each projected to win 5.5 games. They’re the weakest Big Ten teams on the UI schedule, and both games are on the road. The over-under for Ohio State is 11.5, just ahead of Michigan and Nebraska at 9.5.

What that means for the Illini is that they’re expected to beat Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio), and then “steal” another game or two along the way. What this doesn’t take into account is the late-season status of the program if, as is predicted, October finds the Illini losing to Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Defeats have a way of multiplying as injuries and disappointments take their toll.

We’ve seen this before. Illinois shows 12 wins and 48 losses in the last six regular season games of the past 10 seasons. A dozen wins in 60 tries is 20 percent.   

Based on Vegas odds, a four-win season would be overachievement.

(3) Piling on Beckman
If there’s a penalty for piling on, it should be assessed here. I don’t recall Ron Turner (0-11) or Zook (2-9) catching this much grief after first-season disasters. Maybe it’s the increase in cyberspace interaction.

Then came Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel, adding a “worst coaches” list to his Top 10 headed by Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. You’ll find Beckman’s name in Mandel’s “worst five coaches” lineup alongside Eastern Michigan’s Ron English, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, Kansas’ Charlie Weis and USC’s Lane Kiffin.

It’s no secret that Beckman’s slow start at the UI has put both the coach and athletic director Mike Thomas under the gun. And the coach is clearly short of ammunition. In analyzing the letterman-lost percentages in the nation, Phil Steele comes up with an “experience chart” showing that 58 teams (roughly half) have at least 70 percent returnees. Based on the personnel numbers that Steele had at the time, Illinois stands 122nd out of 126 schools with 24 of 57 lettermen lost.

(4) Attendance slippage
Illinois drew more than 70,000 (paid) for 21 consecutive Big Ten games during the mid-80s. Due to renovation, the stadium can’t even seat that many today. Last crowd over 60,000 came in a 31-14 loss to Michigan two years ago. The announced average in 2012 was 45,564, marking a steady falloff from 59,545 in 2009.

Question today: Will the Illini average 40,000 in 2013? There are reports that, even at $99 season prices for students, sagging campus interest might leave an opening in the north end zone. And if the suites were sold out, they wouldn’t be offered to corporations on an individual-game basis.

There’s talk of attendance slippage across the country, but you won’t see much of a falloff for 17 schools that averaged 80,000 or more last season. Winners draw. Michigan’s Wolverines must not be feeling the effects of bankrupt Detroit as they came in at 112,252, and Ohio State was No. 2 in the nation at 105,303. So, as we enter the 2013 campaign, you can call it Leaders-Legends or East-West, but to me it’s still the Big Two and the Little Whatever.

(5) Recruiting struggles
While emphasizing Chicagoland and scouring “home territory,” UI football coaches have uncovered some quality sleepers and attracted a key transfer in Wes Lunt, but they have been unable to close on the state’s top-rated prospects.

Edgy Tim O’Halloran offers a valid list that shows, among the state’s Top 20 upcoming seniors, the Illini have one (lineman Nick Allegretti, No. 18) while 14 others have committed to Ohio State (two), Notre Dame, Northwestern (three), Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Michigan, Michigan State (two), Kansas, North Carolina State, and Iowa State. In Greater Chicago, everybody, but EVERYBODY, gets a share.

Ohio State has a handshake with the best lineman, Jamarco Jones of De La Salle. Notre Dame landed Marist tight end Nic Weishar, No. 4 on the list. Of the 20, five remain uncommitted including the Nos. 1 and 2, linebackers Clifton Garrett of Plainfield South and Nyles Morgan of Crete-Monee.

Meanwhile, in striving to crack the junior college market, the Illini staff is severely handicapped by UI academic requirements that recently eliminated roughly 85 percent of the recommended candidates.

EDITOR’S NOTE: As we saw on Phil Mickelson’s last six holes Sunday, sudden reversals can be inexplicable. There are notable revivals throughout UI history, the Illini most recently rebounding from 2-9 and 2-10 seasons to reach the Rose Bowl in 2007. Admittedly, expectations were different then. Zook’s recruiting classes were stronger. Beckman will now be called on to do more with less, and the long-awaited games will give him a refreshed opportunity to do so.  

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

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Moonpie wrote on July 23, 2013 at 10:07 am

Just the usual Sir Tate whining and elbows at fans for daring to have an opinion about Beckman or anything at all. I don't dislike Beckman and hope he shows progress this season and he desreves at least this coming season to show something. But the folks who hate Beckman already--that's their right. Tate should lay off elbowing people who don't blindly follow his dated and corny columns. But intolerance seldom changes.

jjohnson wrote on July 23, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Missed Tate's columns, but sure didn't miss Moonpie's infantile venom

PortlandIllini wrote on July 23, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Frankly,   I am still waiting for the column where Loren explains how Northwestern ( will equal or better academics standards than Illinois)  has become the best Big Ten school in the state.   Or how Northern Illinois ,  with a tiny stadium and without the academic prestige or facilities of Illinois,  can go to a BCS bowl while the Illini have become the worst team in the Big Ten.         Why are NIU and NU successful and the Illini are not?     All signs point to a management problem.    Loren,  please give us your take.

bernies wrote on July 23, 2013 at 5:07 pm

I'm siding with Portlandillini here. I would love to see a definitive article in the N-G that explains why Illinois is at an academic disadvantage in recruiting against B1G teams like Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, etc. I'm thinking their general admission standards might be about the same as the UI, if not higher in some cases.

aaeismacgychel wrote on July 23, 2013 at 5:07 pm

Huh... Vegas really has our O/U on wins at 3.5? I'm not much of a gambler when it comes to sports, but does anyone else feel like putting down a $5,000 bet on the under? Does anyone expect us to get 3 wins, let alone 4 next season? I have us down for 2 tops...

That said, Loren brings up a point in that in recent memory expectations have never been so low and that Beckman is getting more grief than Turner did after his 0-11 season or Zook did after his 2-9 season. As someone who had season tickets during the end of the Turner and Zook years, I can help explain why this was: The brief answer is that there was little talent for either coach in their first year and expectations were very low. The cupboards were bare and nothing was expected. Sure enough nothing did, but the promise was that the coaches would turn it around, and both did, starting with Turner's shocking 2001 Sugar Bowl season. No they didn't win it, but boy were they exciting to watch and did they ever play their hearts out. But as the years went on and the talent was dwindling as it became telltale by the end of Turner's tenure that he simply did not enjoy the recruiting process, many wanted and knew Turner had to go, but it was a respectful parting as they never thought the players didn't try their hardest or that Turner gave up on them. They just knew he was a decent coach but an awful recruiter.

As for Zook, the reason we went 2-10 that year was because we had the talent of a 2-10 team. Again, most fans knew that Turner left the cupboard completely bare, so yes, Zook got a pass, but he had a good recruiting year so there was some reason for optimism and that was rewarded with a shocking Rose Bowl berth.

The reason why the fanbase was so upset with Beckman is multi-fold. The first being that Vic Koenning was extremely well liked, did a great job as defensive coordinator and wasn't given a fair chance at the coaching job. This was the one thing in this chain that was not Beckman's fault. But then came the ridiculous press conference calling out Northwestern and upping the intensity of that rivalry, followed by embarassing trip to vulture PSU players which got national attention, followed by the debacle in the desert against ASU where him and his coordinators couldn't even get plays in to the players, followed by the Louisiana Tech blowout, followed by the blowout by an angry Penn State, followed by committing a secondary violation in plain sight in front of a camera on a nationally televised game, followed by more blowouts, his team quitting on him, and ending with a 50-14 loss to Northwestern, the team he called out in his first press conference, thus leading to a year with bottom 10 offense, defense, and special teams on a team expected to at the very least get to a bowl game and possibly compete for a division title. Add on to that players jumping ship, a terrible recruiting year, and what seems to be the most clownish of coaching jobs in the history of college football, and you have this.

There is good reason there is no hope and such anger and disappointment. Tim Beckman was an absolute embarassment last season in every single facet both on and off the field and brought derision and mockery to the team. There is no kind way to put it. If we do win those 3.5 games next year, it'll be miraculous. And it is at this point where I'd like to bring in our new 2013 unofficial Illini rallying call:

2013- Down with the Clown!

rdoyle wrote on July 23, 2013 at 6:07 pm

Ask cowpie Portlandillini.  Hw knows everything.

illini82 wrote on July 28, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Is there hope for this year?  The feeling among most fans is dread or that they just don't care. Either would be correct. The blame for this goes back to Lord Guenther keeping Zook after the awful 3-9 campaign. Recruiting took a huge nosedive after that and last year the talent drop really showed.  But, also blame Thomas for only have a "wish list" of coaches and not a "who can I get list" to go along with it. MT thought he could wave an open check book and good coaches would jump. Illinois is one of the worst college desinations in the country. It's a true career killer and that's the stigma we have with coaches around the country.  All that said the addition of Bill Cubit and the ability to get Wes Lunt means that the future may be looking up. too bad Lunt can't play this year.  And as crazy as it sounds a 4-5 win season might happen as Illinois tends to "surprise" us historically after terrible seasons.  As far as Beckman goes I feel for the guy. I mean who wouldnt take a D-1 B10 job and all that money but he is over his head and over matched and what Thomas saw in him I don't know. But the sooner we jettison him the sooner we can really start to rebuild.