CHAMPAIGN — Hey, Illinois fans, how are you feeling these days about your favorite school? You should be in a happy place.
Sure, it would have been nice if the football team had held on at Michigan and men’s basketball finished off Virginia. But those games are just part of the story.
On Turkey Day Eve, you have plenty of reasons to be thankful. Such as ...
Competent coachingBret Bielema (football), Brad Underwood (men’s basketball) and Shauna Green (women’s basketball) know what they are doing and give their teams a chance to compete at a high level.
Bielema seems to be a long-term answer for a program that has gone through way too many coaches.
Underwood has returned Illinois to national prominence. The only missing piece is a long run in the NCAA tournament, and I’m guessing that comes in 2023.
Green is the best women’s basketball hire at Illinois since then-athletic director Ron Guenther convinced Hall of Famer Theresa Grentz to give the school a try in the mid-1990s. Green has plenty of work ahead, but my prediction is she has the team in the NCAA tournament in three seasons. Or less.
And don’t forget the folks Illinois has in charge in all of its other sports.
Mike Small (men’s golf) ranks with the best in the nation. Chris Tamas already has a Final Four appearance in volleyball. Tyra Perry quickly led softball to the NCAA tournament. Dan Hartleb is about to become the all-time wins leader in baseball.
And on and on and on.
Chase BrownThe Canadian, by way of Western Michigan, is closing in on Mikel Leshoure’s single-season rushing record and ranks second all-time in career yards with 3,145.
Enjoy the nation’s leading rusher while you can because his career is down to two games (three if Illinois makes it to the Big Ten championship).
Not only has Brown been a stellar player, but along with twin brother Sydney, has apparently been a joy to coach and have as a teammate. The coaches rave about his personality and work ethic.
Underwood’s recruitingWhat’s the best way to have a Top 25 program? Bring in top players.
The Illinois coach and his excellent staff continue to add talent. And wisely, they are finding the right mix of high school standouts and players from the loaded transfer portal.
Once Underwood established Illinois as a place to be, the players lined up. Of course, the coaches still have to work at it, but that won’t be a problem with this group.
Ayo DosunmuThe change for Illinois basketball really started with the signing of the former Chicago Morgan Park star, who helped Underwood return the program to past glory.
Now, Dosunmu has taken on another challenge in his second year with the Chicago Bulls. He earned all-rookie honors and could be one of the faces of his hometown team for years to come.
Also, nice that he is just two hours away if Illinois fans want to go see him play in person.
Dosunmu could soon be joined in the NBA by current standout Terrence Shannon Jr., who ESPN announcers talked about as a certain future pro this past weekend based on Shannon’s play in Las Vegas.
NIL cloutTo compete in big-time football and basketball, it helps to have boosters willing to pitch in. And that is definitely the case at Illinois, where an organized group (Illini Guardians) is doing what it can within the rules.
Fortunately for Illinois athletics, there is a large alumni base that includes a share of wealthy folks. Movers and shakers who are eager to give back to place where they got started.
Some of the names we know. Others are in the background. Doesn’t matter. The important part is that the program has what it needs to compete with similar schools, both in the Big Ten and beyond.
Going bowlingThey don’t know where quite yet. That will be decided in the next 10 days. But Bielema’s Illini are spending the holidays somewhere outside of Champaign-Urbana. Might be Nashville, Tenn. Or Orlando, Fla.
It has been a few years since Illinois made the postseason and that was a 6-6 team that lost its 13th game during the 2019 season.
The current squad is guaranteed a winning season. Bielema will take advantage of the extra practices, which should help his team in 2023 and beyond.
Just a hunch that bowls become annual for Bielema’s team.
California dreamingIn fewer than two years, Southern California and UCLA join the Big Ten. Don’t believe all the talk about California officials not allowing the Bruins to go. That will be worked out.
Illinois has a large group of alums in California. So, when football or men’s basketball or golf or tennis go West, the teams will be greeted by plenty of fans.
Illinois had a crowd advantage at the recent basketball tournament in Las Vegas. You might see the same when teams go to California.
Oh yeah, there are oodles of California athletes in all sports who now will more seriously consider signing with Illinois.
Kerby JosephThe rookie defensive back is having a banner first season with Detroit. You can check out Joseph on Thursday (11:30 a.m., CBS) when he plays Buffalo in the Lions’ traditional Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit.
Joseph leads the team with three interceptions, including two in one game, and is fifth with 41 tackles.
He looks to be on his way to a long, productive career. Not bad for a guy who was known mostly for special teams before a breakout 2021 season.
Good headlinesA former chancellor at Illinois once said when the other shoe dropped, it was usually in athletics. Not now.
During recent years, there have been no major scandals in Illini sports. That’s not to say the program is perfect. There are financial concerns coming off of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new Big Ten media rights deals with help.
It is vital for the school to insist its coaches follow the ever-changing rules. Doing the right thing is always the way to go.
The treasure that is Loren TateThe ageless News-Gazette columnist just turned 91 and is still going strong.
Tate knows more about the Illini past and present than anyone. Wonder what he will be writing in 2031 when he turns 100?
He is a national media figure living in our community. A great reason to be thankful.