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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.