The shadow of failure is darkening around Lovie Smith’s football program.
Demonstrating they can succumb in multiple ways, the Illini scored two touchdowns by linebackers at Minnesota on Saturday — a pick six and a fumble return — and were otherwise trampled by P.J. Fleck’s 5-0 Gophers, 40-17.
It was the 25th loss in 29 Big Ten games of the Lovie era, and it marked the 15th time in those 29 games that a conference rival has scored 40 or more points. Busted secondary coverage has often been the culprit, but Saturday it was an overwhelmed ground defense that allowed the Gophers duo of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks to rush for 211 and 111 yards, respectively. Against that onslaught, the visitors amassed 91 yards on the ground.
Smith mentioned “too many missed tackles,” before adding, “it was more than that.”
You might call that an understatement. Passes were dropped and poorly thrown. The front four was pummeled. It was, above all, a sharp and disappointing contrast to last year when the Illini routed virtually this same Gopher club, 55-31.
With the UI arrow pointing down, and with uncertainties at quarterback — Brandon Peters hobbled off the field in the first quarter — the Illini will now host Michigan and Wisconsin teams that haven’t lost to Illinois since 2009.
A five-game losing spin appears inevitable, a circumstance that would end bowl hopes and increase debilitating scuttlebutt about Smith’s future.
Just the beginning
Relax already. Athletic circles are too much in turmoil over the newly approved California law allowing — as of 2023 — college athletes to make money via endorsements and other uses of their name or image.
This is a violation of NCAA rules. But not for long.
The NCAA can’t win this one. Legislatures in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, South Carolina, Minnesota and New York are among 15 states poised to copycat the California decision, so a compromise will soon be in the works. And within a few years, athletes with drawing power will be allowed to take advantage of their worth in the open market.
Oh, yes, there’ll be unintended consequences. But there may actually be fewer recruiting violations in money-making sports where, as the FBI has shown, it is already awash with under-table payoffs. And schools like Ohio State, which features 300 corporate headquarters in a community of 2-plus million, will have even greater advantages than it already does.
So we’re entering a new era where old-style amateurism is passe. Changes didn’t ruin the Olympics, nor will Olympic-style deals ruin college sports. Athletes deserve to capitalize on their value, with certain realistic limitations (marijuana endorsements, for example).
This boulder started running downhill when TV turned university sports into a multi-billion dollar business. Stipends, improved meal arrangements and lavish facilities simply aren’t enough.
Next step, after months of wrangling, is for intelligent minds to sit around a table and work out the details. And if they don’t, it’ll wind up in court or in Congress (what a dreadful thought).
Honoring a legend
Billy Ridley, who passed away at age 85, was the Taylorville Flash.
Generously listed at 5-foot-9, he remains today as the best sub-6-foot Illini basketball player since his time, with a legitimate challenge from Peoria playmaker Tony Wysinger (5-10) in 1987.
For the record, UI backcourt stars from Jim Dawson through Rennie Clemons to Dee Brown were listed at 6-0. There were a few other “shorties” like 2015 guard Ahmad Starks, also 5-9, who did not quite stack up.
Ridley, operating alongside Paul Judson with his scatback style, was Brown-level popular during his Huff Gym heyday. In Big Ten play, the Illini finished 10-4 in 1955 and 11-3 in 1956, but went 0-3 against two-time champion Iowa, which was packed with Illinois products (Freeport’s Carl Cain, Rock Island’s Sharm Scheuerman, etc.).
The Illini reached No. 3 in the nation early in 1955 but fell back. Then, having topped 100 points five times, they entered the final week of the 1956 season at No. 2 ... before losing at Iowa and Northwestern.
Exciting teams! Ridley’s senior year capped an eight-year stretch in which the Illini won 87 of 112 Big Ten games, reached three Final Fours and narrowly missed others when only one conference member was allowed in the tournament.
Illini basketball took a dramatic downturn in January of 1957 when the late center, George BonSalle, was declared ineligible, and the Illini (then ranked No. 5) tumbled to 39-45 in a six-year stretch of Big Ten action.