Tate: Future cloudy for Illini after latest debacle

Tate: Future cloudy for Illini after latest debacle

Displaying confidence in the future, Josh Whitman added Missouri's Tigers — the rival that opened six Illini football seasons on bad notes in St. Louis between 2002 and 2010 — to the UI schedule beginning in 2026.

This was based on the assumption that the Illini will be flexing muscles by then, and has reason to meet the scheduling standards of those eying the collegiate playoff.

It is heady thinking for a program, lodged in the weaker of two Big Ten divisions, that has absorbed losses in 47 of the last 57 conference games ... the current spiral of 10 consecutive losses showing all but one by double figures.

But the stout-hearted Whitman, whose leadership qualities must be admired, finds himself in a battle of wills with a broken fandom that is consumed with doubts.

No better example than Saturday when another sparse Memorial Stadium crowd — mysteriously listed at 30,456 — watched streaking Northwestern permit an opening Illini touchdown before pouring it on, 42-7.

With most students gone for the Thanksgiving holiday, barely 80 members showed up for the National Anthem, and the halftime card section turnout barely topped 100.

'Pieces falling into place'

"Great 18-year-old players get beat by average 23-year-olds," Whitman said Monday, referring to Lovie Smith's employment of 22 freshmen this season.

"Everybody starts from a different place," Whitman emphasized, explaining that Illinois must "knock down hurdles just to get in a place to run the race. The message from me is, 'Don't waiver. Don't falter in your belief.'

"Good things are happening. The pieces are falling into place."

It's not my wish to debate superior intellect, but most indicators point to an arduous uphill climb. Like Ron Guenther, who invested hundreds of millions in reshaping the stadium and the south campus, Whitman is adding to the super-structure around the team with no assurance that it will bring on-field results.

It is, apparently, a lot easier to locate a friendly hundred million than to beat Wisconsin, Ohio State or even Northwestern. The Wildcats have now won 11 of the last 15 in the series.

Must hit recruiting trail hard

The burning question: Can a college football team excel with one exceptional class? Assuming this UI freshman crop will overachieve (no certainty there) as we move forward, what will they have surrounding them?

— Next year's senior class will have somewhat more punch than Saturday's honored nine. Of the original group of 18 freshmen who arrived in 2015, the trio of Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Jimmy Fitzgerald and Desmond Cain are long gone.

Defensive tackle Jamal Milan is a likely starter and several others like Cam Watkins, Julian Jones and Pat Nelson have started previously. But the senior numbers won't be impressive, even as fifth-year seniors like Nick Allegretti, Tre Watson and Tito Odenigbo are added.

— Next year's junior class is not imposing. At various points prior to February 2016, 34 players verbally committed. Eight decommitted. Of the 26 who signed, five more — from Tre Nation to Darta Lee to Zarrian Holcombe — are gone. Late-season starters Tymir Oliver and Kenyon Jackson will help in the defensive front, as will defensive hitters Stanley Green, Jake Hansen and Dele Harding. This class will have little impact on offense where eight or nine upcoming sophomores figure to start.

— With signing day a month away, the incomplete class of 2018 features two touted Texans — QB M.J. Rivers and D-tackle Calvin Avery — and 13 others. The soon-to-disappear Scout recruiting service (being merged into CBS's 247Sports) lists Illinois No. 65 nationally.

Counting Notre Dame, that is the same number of schools, 65, in the Power-5 conferences.

Lack of in-state commits is concerning

How, it must be continually asked, can the UI attain elite status without a solid foundation of in-state recruiting?

The Illini have too often felt obliged to look far and wide, peaking with California transfers in the '80s, hitting the D.C. area hard under Ron Zook and now hammering away in Florida and Texas.

True, Illinois isn't the productive state it once was. But it's disturbing when the state school has fallen so low in the pecking order.

Consider: Rivals' Doug Buschon produced a list of 25 top in-state preps in 2016, and the UI didn't land a single one. This is from a class of upcoming juniors who should be nearing their peak as college players.

Consider further: Going back a year to the 2015 freshman class, Milan heads a group of six remaining from the state, two of whom (Mike Dudek and Dre Brown) have been beset by multi-year injuries.

Of the 15 currently committed recruits, four hail from Illinois. And it isn't just the number, it's the fact that the state's genuine blue-chippers are shunning the Illini. At this point, Smith hasn't attracted any of Edgy Tim's top 25, or any of The News-Gazette's All-State 33.

Brighter future?

So the long-range forecast for 2018 appears better but still lacking.

The Illini should start 2-0 against Kent State and Western Illinois. After likely losses to South Florida and Penn State, five of the later foes could be described as vulnerable, even "troubled" — Rutgers, Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota and Nebraska. All but Purdue fell short of postseason play, and the 6-6 Boilermakers must replace seven senior starters on defense.

If Illinois goes through another season without handling some of those lower-rung foes, the climb toward Whitman's aspirations becomes increasingly difficult. Already, after just two seasons, USA Today has produced an opinions piece listing Whitman's six-year, $21 million deal with Lovie Smith as one of the five worst contracts in college football.


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

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Bwp 5P wrote on November 25, 2017 at 11:11 pm

After viewing the N-G All-State list today.....mentioned the same thing! Too bad many of the Studs from Illinois High Schools are not interested in Playing for The Illini! Sad ...really SAD!

JamBam wrote on November 26, 2017 at 3:11 am

Josh Whitman spent 6yrs 21 mils on a coach that has no clue on how to build a college football program.  Playing all these freshmen that should have been redshirted.  Boring behind the times offense.  A defense that has been taught to punch the ball out instead of actually tackle.   

Cloudy?  This is a Cat 5 hurricane and by the time it passes there will be nothing left.  You saw the attendance listed - 30,000.  Expect attendance next season to be even worse now that people know the War Chant has been retired and another horrible season has passed which will naturally cut more fans off.

I don't want to depress you Loren, but there's a high liklihood that by the time Illinois even wins 5 games in the Big 10 (which they haven't in 10 years), you'll probably be 6 feet under the ground if that ever happens again.

The highlight of today's game was one of our player's picking up a flag and throwing it back into the official's face. I'm speechless. 

What else you want to say?  The administration wanted to make a political hire on racial lines.  Now they are reaping the "benefits" of that, because like with many affirmative action hires - you get unqualified people who are not the best candidates given positions that they aren't cut out for.   Lovie Smith had no business being given this job or this salary given his lack of college football program experience.  He got the job in part because of his race and the University's desire to score political points at the expense of actual points that matter - those on the scoreboard.  

U of Illinois deserves a bad program.  You put inexperienced people in positions that require leadership, and you'll likely get bad results.  I'd include Josh Whitman too.  Given his lack of experience, there's no reason for him to be the AD either.  You don't take a D3 AD with limited experience, connections, etc..and tell him to build up a Big 10 program.  I don't care if he's an alum or not. He did not deserve his job either.

I hope Lovie and Whitman are fired within the next 2 years.  But given that the school does not care about sports, they'll probably keep their jobs and keep their fat undeserved salaries.

BruckJr wrote on November 26, 2017 at 11:11 am

Well stated, JamBam.  Whitman and his buddy Jones waited until after season tickets had been sold to let the fan base know of their intent to dump the War Chant.  Some of those season ticket holders then refused to attend the games but they were still counted in the attendance stats.  Next year those folks will not buy tickets and will not be counted in the stats.

You are also correct about the administration's affirmative action hire.  That hire is clearly playing out as they intended.  The recruiting class for next year is entirely black.  15 commits and each is African American.  If you don't recruit the state and you won't recruit any white players then you are left with a pretty limited pool of recruitable players.  That leaves you with the worst recruiting class in the conference.  Once Lovie walks away with his pot full of gold, which high school coach in the state will be willing to work with the university going forward?

Green Shirt wrote on November 26, 2017 at 7:11 am

Patience.  Josh Whitman and Lovie are doing exactly what needs to be done at this point - play the kids who are going to be around for a few years.  I agree that all this might not work out, but there is no viable, realistic alternative. If it does not after all the facility upgrades and the hiring of a high-powered coaching staff (i.e. going "all in"), it is hard to imagine what would work.  Stay the course!  (OBTW, Loren,  I would be very reluctant to use USA Today as a reference.)

MasterOfTheObvious wrote on November 26, 2017 at 8:11 am

Time for some truth, and Tate is actually close to something of note.

For Illinois to rise up in the Big Ten, other programs will have to fall off.

Purdue, in year one with their new coach, is 6-6 and likely headed to a bowl game.  Jeff Brohm is an offensive guru, and has a showcase Alumnus in Drew Brees to push in recruiting.  Purdue is set for a nice future.

Wisconsin is undefeated and headed to the Big Ten Title Game.

Nebraska is about to make a great hire. We've beaten them once, on a fluke.

Minnesota's new coach took them to 5-7 and he plays a fun offense.  Kids like his energy.  He wins.

Northwestern is going back to another bowl and just kicked our tails.

Iowa is also going to a bowl and beat the tails off Ohio State.

That's the Big Ten West.  We are not moving past anyone.

How about the Big Ten East?

I'll save you the time.  Only Rutgers, Indiana, and Maryland are even close to Illinois in terms of being bad, and we lost to Rutgers and Indiana this year.  These programs all doubled us in wins.

As for the playing young guys, sure, that's a reason to be losing.  But these kids were at the bottom of the recruiting pile to begin with so simply getting older is not going to make them better, they need talent too.  While these 2-3 stars are getting older, the other schools are bringing in 3-4 stars who have more talent.  Guess what, talent wins.

There is NOTHING, nada, zero, in the past of Lovie Smith that says his college experiment is going to work.  He was unemployed before Whitman punched his 21 million dollar ticket. Now we are adding in another 80 million in football construction for what? no improved seating for fans, and a building that is not recruiting competitive with others in the Big Ten, much less the SEC? How about that meeting room that overlooks the practice field - not even practical as the light coming in from the windows will make it hard to watch film in the room, which is what team meeting rooms are for.  You'd think a former football player as an AD would pick up on this design flaw.  Alas, not.

Smith's offensive style is not exciting, so kids are not going to flock to it.  Smith's personality is low key, which is not something that attracts students.  Smith's staff picks up some kids that other coaches pass on, and low and behold, 3 get locked up for armed robbery. Facts hurt.  Not as much as watching this team, but facts hurt.

Illinois got their wonderboy Alum AD who was going to work magic, but in the end, the new boss is the same as the old boss, is the same as the old boss, etc... 

5-19 for Lovie, which means over the last two years we have spent $8 million on assistant coaches and another $7 million on Lovie alone - a total of $15 million dollars for 5 wins = $3,000,000 a win.

Add in another $1.35 million to buy out the contracts of former head coach Bill Cubit ($985,000 left on $1.2 million salary, negotiated in November 2015) and his son, offensive coordinator Ryan Cubit ($361,000 for remainder of his contract)

$1.36 million for two independent investigations into Illini athletics conducted by Chicago law firms — $651,671 for Pugh, Jones & Johnson for a probe into accusations of abuse by women's basketball players; and $633,703 for Franczek Radelet's months-long investigation into allegations of medical mistreatment by football coaches.

$2.5 million buyout of former athletic director Mike Thomas, who was fired in mid-November after the final report came out, though he was cleared of wrongdoing.

and now the $80,000,000 football performance center.

Over $100,000,000 on football coaching salaries, contract buyouts (some not even 3 months old), plans for new buildings that are obsolete before they are even built, law suit settlements, and for what????


Moonpie wrote on November 26, 2017 at 8:11 am

Bravo, MasteroftheObvious. Well said. If only Ancient Tate could drop his pom pons and take off his blinders more often and be as reality-based as you are on this topic. But Tate was head cheerleader for Charlatan Lovie Dovie from day one. Lovie Dovie Debacle Man gets his payout at the end of next season and then the Desperate Rookie AD climbs aboard his private jet to go hire another debacle. Tate praises New Debacle Man until time to toss him under the bus.

Illini Tradition.

Moonpie wrote on November 26, 2017 at 8:11 am

I said on day one that Lovie Dovie Debacle Man was a lousy choice by a desperate Rookie AD. Now even Head Cheerleader Tate is tossing him under the bus.

Lovie Dovie Debacle Man is the Trump of coachng-- a lot of hot air seeping from an empty suit.

znelson2 wrote on November 26, 2017 at 8:11 pm

Can I ask you something, Moonpie. I know Lovie Smith is much more focused on defense than offense, and that we have committed many inexcusable penalties, and that he lacked college coaching experience, but it is clear that you have hated his professional coaching as well. What about his super bowl appearence do you not like?

jjohnson wrote on November 26, 2017 at 4:11 pm

Not predicting, but just saying for the doom-sayers: When I was a sophomore Illinois had its first ever winless season, the following year (the first with a game on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, though I am not sure why), after ending their losing streak (on the road at Purdue) at 15, Illinois won its final game 7-6 against Michigan State with 16,000 loyal fans sitting amidst snow in the stadium. The next year they won the Rose Bowl ('63 team, '64 Rose Bowl). Zook's first and second year's were disasters, especially on offense, but by the end of the season, the defense had matured and Illinois lost by a few points at Penn State. The next year was '07.

Yes, Zook had some great recruits, but did not have to play freshmen other than at the skill positions, et for those knocking the freshmen as others' rejects, have you actually SEEN Dorsey? of Bennet Willams? or Ricky Smalling? Mike Epstein? I'll throw in Cam Thomas and Nate Hobbs as well. It is hard to say how much Lowe and Boyd have progressed, though no one disputes that normally they would hae red-shirted. But will they be better as sophomores than they would have been as red-shirt Freshmen next year? That is the more important question.

McGee's play-calling has bewildered everyone (except opposing defenses); either the special team's coach does not know how to teach the rules to punt-returners or their football IQ drops when they get back there, but none of this means that Illinois won't be better next year than this. Will they be able to recruit with this record is, I think, the most important concern right now.

And did you complainers attend or just watch from the basement?

Bwp 5P wrote on November 26, 2017 at 5:11 pm

Agree..........there's some really talented players, as you mentioned! We'll be renewing our Season tickets.............as the Loyal Illini Fans that we are!

Lefty55 wrote on November 27, 2017 at 11:11 am

I will take my chances with Josh Whitman and Lovie.  We were once fighting everyone over Kevin Sumlin.  He is available now.  Guess he wasn't the genius everyone made him out to be.  

Lovie is a man if integrity.  Give the man a chance.  He is at least someone that we can all respect (except for Mooncrud).  If he starts getting some in state players then the tide will turn.  

I think that the schools biggest problem is political correctness.  Can they please make a WWI doughboy the mascot.  The whole stadium is dedicated to them anyway.  

townsend1306 wrote on November 27, 2017 at 12:11 pm

loren tate as always failed to mention how bad and how much talent was on the Illini team if you start 22 freshmen then the upper classmen must really have been not very good , I remember jim Valek and those teams my jr. high PE teacher Randy Rogers played on those teams ! But, remember everybody wanted Ron Zook fired even though we were wininng and had NFL players coming out of the program !!! It take time, WE gave Beckman how many years ? WE  GAVE Bruce Weber How many years ? we gave John Groce how many years its a 5 year rebuild stay the road and " WE WILL WIN " !!!