In late February of 2011, UConn hit an unexpected swoon, losing four of five basketball games to Louisville, Marquette, West Virginia and Notre Dame.
That's when Jim Calhoun righted the ship, and the Huskies went on an 11-game binge, upending Kentucky in the NCAA semifinal 56-55 and manhandling Butler in the windup 53-41.
And when Calhoun stepped down at age 70 last week, it occurred that only one other basketball coach in this era, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, was more accomplished in building from scratch.
Calhoun brought alive sleepy Storrs, a rural community with fewer residents than the school enrollment (17,000-plus). Between 1971 and 1989, UConn didn't have so much as a conference championship. It was a good regional operation, but not flashy at tourney time. Calhoun single-handedly uplifted it to the national stage. They made the NCAA field 18 times, and his three national titles came with entirely different rosters.
Others have risen to the top, often riding the coattails of some powerful and persuasive master recruiter in the past. After Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, the Commonwealth faithful wouldn't stand long for a successor producing mediocrity. If they are disrupted by infractions, it is a momentary thing.
North Carolina is still riding the wave created by Dean Smith. Kansas has developed the same mystique.
These elite schools have become as attractive to 18-year-old jump shooters as Harvard and Princeton are to budding young lawyers. The top athletes keep pouring in.
Illinois, with only one NCAA victory in the last six years (UNLV in 2011), might have maintained this elite status but for frequent snags.
Actually, as athletic director Mike Thomas pointed out at Friday's sparsely attended basketball reunion, the UI still ranks high on the historic scale.
Hark back. From 1935 and 1937, when Harry Combes sparked Big Ten titles, until Combes' 1957 team was fouled by the midseason ineligibility of center George BonSalle, the Illini spent two decades as a respected Top 10 program. The Whiz Kids were terrific, and Combes quickly put three teams in the Final Four after replacing Doug Mills.
Quality teams appeared again under Lou Henson in the 1980s, and for brief periods under Bill Self and Bruce Weber.
Consider: Thomas read from a sheet that showed Illinois ranked No. 5 in Forbes' 2011 list of most valuable programs, No. 6 in ESPN/Sagarin rankings, No. 9 in weeks ranked in the AP poll (434), and No. 11 in NCAA tourney appearances (29).
In the Big Ten, Illinois ranks No. 1 in conference wins and conference tournament wins, No. 3 in conference win percentage (57.8), and No. 4 in conference titles (17).
As tradition goes, this is pretty good. But here comes another crossroads. John Groce is inheriting a second-division squad. He'll be asked to buck a conference that preseason rankings may put tops in the country. Indiana is back, and Michigan is making waves. Michigan State and Ohio State are entrenched. It is a loaded lineup with good teams like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Purdue fighting for their lives.
Having lost then-sophomore Meyers Leonard to the NBA, and starting out without a scholarship freshman, Groce picked off two transfers and appears to be lining up quality recruits for the November signing period. He gets an A for his early performance. Then come the games.
However competitive it was in a day when Illinois nibbled at the golden apple, it is much more competitive now. And Illinois finds itself restarting its engines after another in a long series of mistakes and setbacks.
(1) For decades in the past, Illini coaches elected to concentrate on in-state talent to the exclusion of outlying areas. That worked for years but is an unsound policy in the modern game. No top teams recruit exclusively in the home state, and Groce is working to change the Illini image.
(2) Just as black athletes were becoming dominant in the 1960s, some universities took steps to establish special programs to meet the academic needs of minorities. The UI was slow to respond. Cincinnati, Michigan and others took advantage when would-be Illini stars had problems with enrollment and/or classes.
(3) When Chicago's best big men — Crane's Tim Robinson, Dunbar's Bernie Mills — were rejected or found unqualified, when the UI's first black cager, Walt Moore, flunked out, the word spread back to the high schools. The UI was seen as "not taking care of our athletes." Great stars like Cazzie Russell, George Wilson and Jim Brewer found it beneficial to go elsewhere.
(4) The "slush fund" in 1966-67 damaged the program and the school image. Standouts Rich Jones, Ron Dunlap and Steve Kuberski were suspended and the program suffered. A few years later, Harv Schmidt's operation was chilled by the early departures of Billy Morris, Chris Berymon and Alvin O'Neal. And a long fuss with the NCAA over Deon Thomas crippled the Henson regime around 1990.
(5) As strong as Henson's teams were in the 1980s, the UI went through 45 years, from 1953 through 1997, with just two shared Big Ten titles.
(6) Illinois has been bad and unlucky in NCAA play, losing 12 tournament games by three points or less, and going decades without defeating a higher seed. Some of these critical games twisted at the end like a Cardinal ninth inning. The Illini do not have a good reputation for clutch play in the tournament.
(7) Schools like Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State faced no barriers in tearing down fieldhouses and building glistening new arenas, while the Illini are obliged to stay with an Assembly Hall that is untouchable. Even if $150 million is poured into renovation, the building was not constructed for ideal basketball viewing.
(8) The UI has frowned on and avoided the admittedly ridiculous salaries given top coaches elsewhere. That killed any chance of retaining the one coach — Bill Self — who had the flair and salesmanship to attract elite athletes at the national level. When you get really good these days, there's a $2 million contract waiting somewhere.
For all of us, what we are today is a result of what we were all along. Illini basketball has had a lot of stumbles.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A similar study of Illini football will follow in a few days.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.