Lincoln Logs is an 11-part series from The Champaign Room's Brandon Birkhead explaining how the University of Illinois can go about building a winning football program.
In 2007 the Illini had their best season in the last 20 years. They ended up with nine wins, with an upset over No. 1 Ohio St. in Columbus. Nine wins was a tremendous year for Illinois, but something bad happened; they went to the Rose Bowl.
Because Ohio St. played in the National Championship, the Illini since they were ranked in the top 14 at the time, were given an automatic berth to the Rose Bowl. I think this moment may have hurt the program, much more than it helped.
The team had a lot of talent, and were recruiting well. This game should have propelled Illinois football back into relevance, and today we should have a solid program. But we don't.
The team became complacent. The Illini players thought they had made it. Sure, they went to the Rose Bowl, but they didn't win the Big Ten and they were smashed by USC in that game. If anything, it should have made the team hungrier, but instead, the team found itself satisfied and finished 2008 with seven losses and no bowl game.
Sure there were other reasons for the Illini's decline in 2008, losing Rashard Mendenhall and J Leman really hurt, but the team didn't lose enough to justify missing a bowl game. In fact, the 2008 team only lost 13 seniors and Rashard Mendenhall.
The Illini lost their hunger in 2008, and it was a large factor in the decline of the team.
That can't happen again. When the Illini finally make another bowl game and win it, and they will, the team can't be satisfied. Each player has to want to get better, so the team can get better.
This is how top programs stay on top. They win, and this motivates them to win even more.
The team can never be satisfied. The team can always do more. Each player can always do more. The team has to be intrinsically motivated to win.
Each and every single player must want to do more.
The Illini need to stay hungry.