Tate | Lovie, you're on the clock

Tate | Lovie, you're on the clock

Time for Illini football to start winning, now

Introduction: The term of Mike Thomas as Illinois athletic director ended in November 2015 with a $2.5 million buyout following a "damning report" on UI football.

Filling in as interim director was Paul Kowalczyk, who best explained the insecurities of the job when he was fired at Colorado State in 2015 after his football coach Steve Fairchild lost 17 of 33 games: "You provide all the support you can," Kowalczyk said. "But it's the coach's program. In most instances, you get one mulligan. Steve was my only failure."

Perfect fit

A former Illini football star, Josh Whitman has ideal qualifications to serve as Illini AD.

He is a natural leader, at home in the board room or on the sideline. He is inspiring and articulate, a master of public speaking. And as fund-raising records show, he's not afraid to ask for your money.

And, by all means, Whitman appears strong enough and popular enough to survive a continuing football backfire. But that would be bucking a national trend because, regardless of sports administrators' skills and 24-7 commitment, their longevity has come to depend primarily on the performance of someone else ... the football coach.

Sheahon Zenger was fired after seven years as Kansas athletic director this past Monday.

The chancellor made it clear that this was about football, and unrelated to snooping by the FBI.

Zenger is owed $1.4 million, a fraction of the $5.625 million granted football coach Charlie Weis when Zenger fired him in 2014. The Weis successor, David Beatty, went 3-33 in three seasons. His seat ever hotter, Beatty will find his status the primary target of Zenger's replacement.

It isn't as though Zenger was inept. The Jayhawks have a thriving basketball operation. And he was leading a five-year, $350 million fundraising drive, powered by a $50 million pledge from David Booth, to improve football facilities.

But Kansas was 1-26 in Big 12 play under Beatty, and football brought in just $3.4 million in ticket sales while nearby Kansas State showed $11.8 million in revenue. The program has sunk to such depths that — this is my speculation — there are concerns that future conference realignments might leave Kansas holding the bag. There was talk of that nature when Texas threatened a Big 12 breakup by weighing a move to the Pac-12 some years ago.

Look at the ledger

Now here's the stinger.

Based on evaluations of the 64 teams during last season, the only football program clearly weaker than Illinois was Kansas.

We can argue that point. Purdue and Iowa State have been in deep skids, but both won bowl games last year. Illinois hasn't won a bowl game since 2011, and is 3-10 in the unlucky last 13 dates with Purdue. The seven-year chart shows Illinois losing 46 of 56 conference games, and carrying a 10-game losing streak into 2018.

Overall, Illinois has won 20 games in a five-year span — 12 of them against lesser opponents — and only five teams among the 64 have won fewer: Kansas (9), Purdue (16), Virginia (19), Oregon State (19) and Iowa State (19). Baylor was 1-11 in 2017 but finished 11-2 in 2013 and 2014.

The UI is often compared to Indiana and Kentucky, and both of them show 26 wins since 2013.

Can they turn it around?

That's why Whitman moved so quickly in a quest to stop the bleeding, investing in a nationally recognized name, Lovie Smith.

That's why Whitman postponed overdue work in the east stands in favor of an ultra-attractive, $79 million indoor complex (Northwestern just invested $270 million in a dazzling lakeside facility) that will hopefully attract more and better players.

There is no priority in his ever-expanding sports operation that compares to winning Big Ten football games. Success in golf, tennis and volleyball, while widely lauded, doesn't compare.

Football dominates the college sports world. It is fiercely competitive. Kansas is desperate to rise from the dead, realizing that the longer the losing continues, the harder it is to attract quality prospects.

Illinois made that commitment ahead of the 2016 season with the simultaneous arrival of Whitman and Smith. They're already on the clock, entering a critical stage in 2018 with a preferred schedule (more on that later) and a need to show teetering prospects that success is possible here.

These 17-year-olds in high school don't have much memory of the Rose Bowl team in 2007.

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