New season, new coach, new team — questions abound with the football season opener just days away.
Sports fans try to be optimistic as a new season approaches. After all, their teams are undefeated, and there’s no benefit to embracing gloom before it’s inescapable.
So it is with the kickoff of the 2021 football season on Saturday — Illinois vs. Nebraska at Memorial Stadium.
There’s excitement building around the season opener. But, as with second marriages, wary fans are embracing hope over experience. They’re eager to see this year’s version of the team under new head coach Bret Bielema but, with good reason, are decidedly skeptical.
They want to see a team worth watching before they fill up Memorial Stadium. UI basketball fans felt the same way, and they responded by turning out in droves when Brad Underwood’s team showed solid improvement.
Bielema is now where Underwood was, a new coach trying to turn around a losing program.
The UI went 17-39 over five years under former head coach Lovie Smith, playing in and losing its only bowl game. Because teams are what their record says they are, there’s a lot of work to be done.
Bielema knows that, and he has been careful about raising expectations, so circumspect in his comments about training camp and the season ahead that real news has been hard to come by.
But Bielema has indicated that laying the foundation for success is the challenge.
“Really, it’s not about where we are but where we are going,” he said.
If that’s a subtle request for fan patience, it’s a perfectly reasonable one.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the same pronouncement applies to first-rate athletic teams.
Veteran coaches like Bielema know competitive football programs are built on coaching, solid recruiting year after year, program stability and fan support.
Over the past 50 years, Illinois has had some, but not enough, of any of those important ingredients. As a consequence, UI teams have enjoyed only intermittent success — succeeding greatly one year and falling back to mediocrity or less the next.
If that’s been frustrating for fans — and it has — it’s been even more difficult for the players, coaches and administrators who have worked so hard to get to and stay at or near the top of the Big Ten.
Facts show, however, that becoming a consistently competitive team in the Big Ten can be done.
Iowa has become a perennial upper-division team, as has Wisconsin. Northwestern and Michigan State have had great success. Indiana fans are hoping last year’s success is a harbinger of things to come.
Then, of course, there are the conference’s big dogs — Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State. Those universities have enjoyed, at least from the point of view of laggards, almost unimaginable success on the gridiron for years.
But what of the 2021 season?
No one, obviously, can say. Let’s hope Bielema can duplicate the success he had at Wisconsin and that entertaining, competitive games await UI fans.
That doesn’t seem too much to ask, especially on the brink of a new season when hope springs eternal.