Tate: Why can't Illini gain traction? It's a long story.

Tate: Why can't Illini gain traction? It's a long story.

As a preamble, one little story:

Nearly two decades ago, one of the nation’s still-great football coaches said he’d have interest in Illinois with one proviso.

He insisted on final say-so in admissions. He wanted any athlete approved by the NCAA Clearinghouse to be admitted. This might be perhaps five or 10 extra-special admits of roughly 7,000 new undergrads annually, with the DIA’s crack academic services staff overseeing.

You know what happened. That’s a no-no. Presidents from Stan Ikenberry to Bob Easter want UI football success but not at the expense of excessive lowering of admissions standards.

So here we are, with Tim Beckman confronting the realization that he can’t consider athletes, many of whom are Clearinghouse-qualified, that he was able to bring in at his previous stops at Ohio State, Oklahoma State and Toledo. If Ohio State doesn’t have enough advantages, the institution (like many others) has for decades taken advantage of open enrollment for in-state high school grads.

This is just one example why it’s not a level playing field ... one aspect of how the UI might take a step toward solving a nosedive that sends Illini Nation up a wall.

TROUBLESVILLE — Memorial Stadium appears gloriously ready with its new scoreboard and fresh look, even as criticism and doubt pour in east, west, north and south.

The flood of glass-near-empty sentiment is such that Tim Beckman’s chief offseason task is “emphasizing a positive attitude in everything we do.” That’s something you shouldn’t have to emphasize. It should come naturally.

The program is in a spiral featuring lopsided losses, flagging attendance and streams of top prospects leaving the state. We can’t pretend it isn’t happening.

How did we get in this fix?

After pondering this question all summer, my response is: For Johnny-Come-Latelies, this didn’t happen overnight, and the system was sputtering before Ron Turner and Ron Zook got here.

Beckman critics are reminded that teams come and go, but programs are judged by whether they are sustained over time.

Turner and Zook inherited near-impossible tasks and, while they briefly turned the tide, neither could sustain it. This was a job for Superman, and he was busy in Wisconsin, Kansas State and Virginia Tech.

Today, Illinois is not only ranked last in the 12-team Big Ten Conference, but W-A-Y last. It is arguably the lowest of many recent lows. Where unhappy fans previously thought they saw a way out ... they appear now to be broken.

The reasons are many, and some of them date back decades. This didn’t become a graveyard for coaches overnight.

Two turning points
We’ll return now to a healthier time when the UI dominated in-state football recruiting as the university churned out graduates who became high school coaches, and any in-stater with a diploma and a pulse would be accepted. A degree of in-state pride and loyalty built up, and could be measured in bursts of Illini successes under two extraordinarily popular and inspiring personalities, Ray Eliot in the 1940s and 1950s, and Pete Elliott in the 1960s.

That era ended with two distinct turning points.

(1) The “slush fund.”

That struck in 1966, three years after the last Rose Bowl championship. An era of promise and good feeling ended with the ouster of Elliott and basketball coach Harry Combes following revelations of improper payments for athletes in the wake of AD Doug Mills’ forced retirement. The fallout was devastating. In 13 unlucky years under Jim Valek, Bob Blackman and Gary Moeller, the Illini had one winning season (6-4-1 in 1974) while going 43-92. Illinois was stalled while others gained momentum.

(2) Academic limits.

It became increasingly apparent, as black athletes in Chicagoland became dominant athletically, that some of those high schools were graduating students who weren’t sufficiently prepared for the UI. Nothing kills recruiting quicker than having prospects flunk out, and that happened.

Some of the most outstanding football and basketball stars left the state essentially because the academic path was easier elsewhere. And when the UI displayed its awareness with the now-defunct summer bridge program, it served as an academic warning for some Chicagoans and displeased others when King’s super-guard Jamie Brandon and Peoria’s Willie Coleman left in midstream.

Over time, Illinois was viewed as a Top 10 public university that required its students to not only attend but also study. And more recently, campus admissions offices for the various colleges gained the reputation of being tough on marginal transcripts.

The academic side was troubled when Mike White brought in numerous junior college recruits and became more focused in the late 1980s, when the Athletic Association was dissolved in favor of the university-controlled Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Reorganization caused the screws to be tightened as the university took greater control.

Slow recovery
Mistakes and rule-breaking have consequences, often lasting.

For years, the UI had a negative reputation with the NCAA. It started with the end of the Mills era in the mid-1960s, when three illegal funds for athletes were revealed. Between the highly publicized Dave Wilson case in 1980, White’s ouster for improper benefits, AD Neale Stoner’s firing for improprieties, and the Deon Thomas case that consumed director-coach John Mackovic, the UI’s reputation suffered from more than a decade of investigations and sanctions.

These back-setting incidents created frequent tense periods that shattered the UI culture and foiled any degree of continuity.

Defensive guru Lou Tepper, promoted when Mackovic left for Texas, showed promise in 1994 when the Illini won seven games and lost five others by six points or less. But Paul Schudel replacing Greg Landry as offensive coordinator was a turning point. The Illini drifted into 5-5-1 and 2-9 seasons that ended the Tepper run.

Turner had just one year of college head coaching experience, but Ron Guenther hired the Bears’ offensive coordinator in his continuing effort to “win Chicago.” Turner started 3-19 but, in his fifth season in 2001, led a Big Ten championship team. That earned him three more years, although there were cries for his ouster after he went 1-11 in 2003.

This has been the common theme for the last three coaches: Guenther kept them too long ... as though that would have mattered.

Lack of Chicago success
The chronic condition is that, since the Eliot-Elliott days, the UI steadily lost contact with its core recruiting territory. The campus is crowded with students from the lakeside but, athletically speaking, Chicago and the Illini have wound themselves into different worlds. UI football staffers have spent thousands of hours battling for their “rightful place” in Chicagoland but with only sporadic success.

It must be faced: If you can’t attract prospects from your own state, can you expect continued success by attracting athletes from a half-continent away?

White won early with an influx of California juco transfers, a patchwork system that couldn’t be sustained in the face of campus discontent. Turner made a brief run that sputtered. Zook had some early recruiting success, in large part because of assistant coach Mike Locksley’s ties around Washington, D.C. What did we expect, that it would be sustained after Locksley left?

Following the 3-9 season of 2009, with Zook’s operation in tatters, Guenther hit on
the idea of making Zook more of an overseer by attracting two strong coordinators, Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning. That led to bowl wins in consecutive 7-6 seasons, but the six-game slide in late 2011 forced new AD Mike Thomas to remove Zook.

Then Thomas encountered the same resistance that Guenther faced in locating the perfect fit. Top choice Kevin Sumlin chose Texas A&M and, when Beckman came aboard, he let a genuine difference-maker, Koenning, slip away. Beckman’s initial hires proved faulty, and five new staffers this year threw Illini recruiting into start-over mode once again.

This is the cat chasing its tail. Winning Big Ten games becomes more difficult as the rivals grow stronger ... the UI looks back on some highly questionable decisions ... most of the state’s premier athletes look elsewhere ... and the campus keeps a tight hold on admissions.

Is there a solution?
The question remains: Mindful that nothing brings more publicity to the university than athletics, is football sufficiently important to undertake enrollment changes?

Remember, if the UI brings in about 7,000 new undergrads, these aren’t necessarily the smartest 7,000 available. You’ll recall former Chancellor Nancy Cantor emphasizing diversity ... racially, geographically, whatever. If the music school can attract a brilliant vocalist, does it matter if he/she didn’t write a 28 on the ACT? If a budding Paul Newman is available for the drama school, do we care about his GPA?

Yes, it’s true the UI admits some athletes who are below university standards. But there is still a large pool of talent that Michigan State can accept and Illinois can’t. Would another five or 10 damage the university standing?   

Proponents of modified academic standards (for athletes) point to football as part of the university brand, as a portal to engage alumni, as a path to improved fundraising. During the winning (and stadium-packing) days of White and Mackovic, the various UI colleges erected tents to welcome alumni at the home games. The advantages were obvious.

The three premier universities in the Big Ten are Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois.

The other two have found ways to be highly competitive in football without hurting their status. In fact, the other two have enhanced their brand via the gridiron.

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


News-Gazette.com embraces discussion of both community and world issues. We welcome you to contribute your ideas, opinions and comments, but we ask that you avoid personal attacks, vulgarity and hate speech. We reserve the right to remove any comment at our discretion, and we will block repeat offenders' accounts. To post comments, you must first be a registered user, and your username will appear with any comment you post. Happy posting.

Login or register to post comments

JohnUI82 wrote on August 04, 2013 at 11:08 pm

"The three premier universities in the Big Ten are Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois." School in Evanston might have something to say about that. I believe Loren omitted the word "public."

PortlandIllini wrote on August 05, 2013 at 12:08 am

Loren,   this is the same old list of excuses that Illini fans use to explain the lack of success.   I have trouble accepting the 1960's slush fund scandal as the root cause of recruiting failures in the 21st century.   Nor can I accept UI's admissions standards as root cause when Northwestern and Michigan have equal or better academic programs than Illinios.      My observation is that UI athletics has a management problem:  that is,  the athletic department has trouble identifying and retaining good coaches.  The track history is abysmal.   Whenever a coach becomes successful at Illinois,  it becomes a stepping stone to another school.  Mackovic, Locksley, Self, Koening, Kruger  Bartow, and now the women's track coach Buford-Bailey.     And they all take talented athletes from the state of Illinois with them.   So, Loren,  why is it that Illinois cannot retain good coaches???

OrlandoIllini wrote on August 05, 2013 at 6:08 am

Loren is correct on all his points, especially the constraints on admissions. All other schools in the conference (and in the other major conferences) provide access for top athletes who would otherwise not be able to meet regular admissions criteria.

And yes, Michigan, Wisconsin & Illinois are the leading academic/scholastic schools on the conference, public or private. Northwestern's admission criteria are higher (except for scholarship athletes in revenue sports), but its academics are not... one example: in the mid-70s its vaunted Medill School of Journalism almost lost its accreditation.

The UofI's leaders talk about supporting the athletic program, but they do not act to support it in ways that will improve program competitiveness. They continue to think what they've always thought, so we'll always get what we've always got.



westcoast wrote on August 05, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Proud Uof I alum here, but you are simply wrong if you think Northwestern has inferior academics to Illinois.   By vitually any reasonable, objective measure, Northwestern is the best academic school in the Big10.   It is not really a close call, except Michigan may disagree. Whatever happened to the Medill  School of Journalism 40 years ago does not support your claim.  Illinois has some programs that are stronger (engineering and accounting, for example), but Northwestern is overall stronger. 

More to the point of Loren's articlle, Northwestern's admission requirements for varsity revenue-sport athletes are at least as difficult if not much more difficult than those of Illinois.

westcoast wrote on August 05, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Proud Uof I alum here, but you are simply wrong if you think Northwestern has inferior academics to Illinois.   By vitually any reasonable, objective measure, Northwestern is the best academic school in the Big10.   It is not really a close call, except Michigan may disagree. Whatever happened to the Medill  School of Journalism 40 years ago does not support your claim.  Illinois has some programs that are stronger (engineering and accounting, for example), but Northwestern is overall stronger. 

More to the point of Loren's articlle, Northwestern's admission requirements for varsity revenue-sport athletes are at least as difficult if not much more difficult than those of Illinois.

Brownshoe wrote on August 05, 2013 at 10:08 am

Sometime in the '90s, when Brad Childress was coaching at Wisconsin, Loren and Jim had him on SMSL.

Childress was asked why he did not get more junior college players at UW, as had been done at UI when he was here with Mike White.

He replied, to Loren and Jim, that UW's academic standards were such that he could not get UW to accept the same qualiry of JC player that he took at UI.

So much for thr "tough" academic standards excuse for UI. It's phony BS.

I might add that as soon as Childress answered the above question, Loren and Jim immediately changed the subject.

jdmac44 wrote on August 05, 2013 at 11:08 am

It matters to me what their academic qualifications are, they get a real degree when they're done, don't they?  So when they sputter out after two years in the NFL they can still land a job with it, they should be qualified for that backup career.  I don't care if they have some talent that helps fills stadiums, that doesn't earn them a freebie come graduation day.  I certainly don't want a physical therapist who skated through their kinesiology degree working on me.  Perhaps "college football" shouldn't be college football, perhaps there should be vocational school football where the faster you drop out to join the draft, the greater the honors you are bestowed.  After a lifetime of living in a college town, being a fan, being let down and finding other things to occupy my attention and entertain me, I've found that I don't really need to have a great team locally to make my life worthwhile, but I do think a solid university is very important to Champaign-Urbana.  I'm glad to see that we're the university who is setting the standard and sticking to it, I want to know that when someone wears that cap and gown in May, it actually means something.

wally097 wrote on August 05, 2013 at 11:08 am

The most successful coach at Illinois for many, many years was John Mackovic.  He refused to take non-qualifiers. His players almost all graduated.  The idea that Illinois loses because it cannot take weak academic students is a joke.  In football, none of the Illinois head coaches has gone on to be successful anywhere else.  Northwestern is now succeeding without changing its standards.  It has a good coach.

Moonpie wrote on August 05, 2013 at 12:08 pm

More whining and excuse-making and blame game from Sir Tate. But what an effort it must have taken for him not blame it all on the fans, the people he hates most. He lives in the past -- the 1800s past..

aaeismacgychel wrote on August 05, 2013 at 3:08 pm

I find it very sad if it is indeed the case that the reason Illinois can't compete and is in shambles right now is because Illinios is unwilling to accept those with "marginal transcripts". But I'm not sad we won't accept "marginal transcripts", I'm sad that we'd consider it just to make our athletic teams better. Personally that's an embarassment to me or any other Illinois alum who earned admission into Illinois with their academic resume up to that point.

Sure I understand how Stanford has overlooked academics to get kids on their teasm who have no business going to school there. Yeah I know that OSU athletics and Indiana basketball allow anyone with a pulse to play so long as they have high-end athletic talent. Yes, I know that the SEC standout players would have a tough time spelling their own name. So I absolutely know how hypocritical these schools are and the NCAA who flaunt how "education" comes first to playing football.

I find it extremely sad that we'd even resort to something like an invented AFAM curriculum for our athletes like UNC has. Or faking SAT scores like Memphis. Or ignoring multiple failed drug tests until after football season like LSU, or sweeping the raping of a woman under the rug like MSU basketball. Oh and yes, I realize Illinois has been nowhere close to squeaky clean as well. But to blame our lack of success on the fact that we are unwilling to win at all costs and to play to the base minimums and toe the line of acceptability is abhorrent in my eyes.

I think if a kid doesn't want to go to college, doesn't want to learn or get a degree, then they should just go overseas to play. They'll make their money and get the athletic education they desire. This one and done or two and done garbage with no desire whatsoever to get a degree is an abomination. If you aren't going to college to get your degree, you shouldn't be there, plain and simple. But they are there, and that's not changing for as long as the NCAA can profit on it.

Perhaps then, Loren, instead of hiring a coach with a "marginal transcript" (no offense to players with "marginal transcript" who clearly were unfavorably compared to Beckman there), we should hire a coach who emphasizes the value of a degree from Illinois, who can recruit kids by saying that even if something terrible happens and they suffer a freak injury, they will always have something valuable in their back pocket. That if they come and attend Illinois, they will make sure they never become that washed up has-been football player who has no skills and wasted all their money. Perhaps instead of completely selling out and accepting high schoolers with a 2nd grade reasing level, we embrace the "rigorous standards" of Illinois. We show them the CEOs and athlete-scholars Illinois has produced along with the athletes. Perhaps then, we might not get those undeserving kids with "marginal transcripts", but at least we'll get players we can cheer for and be proud of. And you know what, Loren, I bet that coach and those kids still wouldn't lose by 28pts a game like The Clown and his Clownettes.

jturner wrote on August 05, 2013 at 4:08 pm

Administration up to the president didn't seem to have a problem with special admits when the politicians came calling. 

boneh3ad wrote on August 09, 2013 at 8:08 am

Fact #1: Stanford has a top football program and has much more difficult admissions standards that Illinois. Maybe it is a slight handicap to have strict admissions, but Stanford's example is an extreme example showing that with the right coach, it can certainly be done.

Fact #2: There are 7 players from the 2012 defensive unit currently on NFL rosters. Read that again. In 2012, we had 64% of an NFL defense fielded in terms of the athletes we had on the field despite our more stringent admissions than some schools. I think it is pretty clear that admitting athletes is not the problem here.

So what could the issue be?