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.
Let's say you have a friend who comes to you with a problem. He has constant headaches. You noticed he likes to hit himself repeatedly in the head with bricks. Before you had a chance to state the obvious, Ron Guenther comes in and blurts out "Maybe if you keep hitting yourself in the head with that brick, it will all work out."
This is exactly what Ron Guenther did with the Illini football program while he was the athletic director. He kept smashing the teams head with a brick; only his brick was the insane non-conference schedule he made, and the head was the future of the football program.
From 2007-2011, the Illini did not schedule a non-conference opponent with a losing record. No other team in the country did this, not one. Ohio State didn't. Alabama didn't. LSU didn't. Oregon didn't. But Illinois did. It's insane.
Northwestern is currently on the rampage with recruiting, getting many of the top recruits in Illinois and getting them to commit to Northwestern, a school which has the worst stadium, the lowest attendance and the worst athletic facilities in the Big Ten.
Why are they recruiting well? They win, that's why. During the same time period that Illinois didn't play a non-conference opponent with a winning record, Northwestern didn't play one with a winning record.
From 2007-2011 the combined record of Illinois non-conference opponents was 123-57 (.683). Northwestern scheduled like they were Northwestern, a team that needed wins to build a program. The record of their opponents was 47-133 (.261).
In 2008 the Illini finished 5-7. If instead of playing Western Michigan in Detroit, or Missouri in St. Louis, say they played Illinois St. Illinois goes to a bowl game, their second in a row after the Rose Bowl a year before. The program is slowly building momentum. Recruits see Illinois as a better option, et cetera, et cetera.
The Illini didn't, and scheduling is largely to blame. Guenther kept hitting the team over the head with that brick.
Though, Ron Guenther retired, the Illini are still being punished for his insanity. The non-conference opponents this year are Southern Illinois, Cincinnati, Washington, and Miami of Ohio. Miami and Southern Illinois are the type of schools the Illini should look to be playing. Cincinnati and Washington are not.
Cincinnati went 10-3 last season. That game is almost a sure loss, and a game where we could possibly get embarrassed at home. How's that going to look to recruits?
Washington went 7-5 last season in the Pac-12. The teams they lost to were LSU, Washington St, California, Arizona and Oregon. Illinois lost to Minnesota and Indiana by two touchdowns each at home. This game is another likely loss.
I'll be sure to send my thank you card to Ron.
Now this problem may start to finally be taken care of. Mike Thomas has scheduled opponents like he is trying to build a football team. Next season, the Illini will still suffer a little from Guenther's masochist scheduling as we travel to play Washington, but the other games are at home against Youngstown St, Western Kentucky, and Texas St.
Logic is beautiful.
To build a program you have to win some games. The Big Ten is already challenging enough to compete in for a team that is building up a program. There's no need to make it harder on yourself. Northwestern didn't and they are now on the verge of becoming a stable, winning program, if not already there.
There is no reason the Illini should have the toughest non-conference schedule in the entire country since 2000. Stop hitting yourself with bricks Illinois. Stop the insanity. Schedule like we are Illini football.
Schedule like we are trying to build a program.
Schedule teams we can beat, because wins lead to more wins, and winning is how you build a program.
Sidenote: The Big Ten has added a new rule that schools can no longer schedule FCS opponents. All must be FBS schools. Even with this change, Illinois still could schedule opponents that are around their same level of competition rather than a 10-win Cincinatti or a seven-win Washington.