I'm pretty fired up right now.
I'm fired up because something really stupid has happened, and it involves Illinois football and Illinois fans.
Just over one week ago today, an offensive lineman from Medina, Ohio by the name of Zeke Martin committed to the Illinois football program. He was recruited and scouted by the coaches of the Illinois football program, who then offered him a scholarship because they believed that he would be an excellent addition to the Illinois football program. If you are reading this, I'm pretty sure you understand how recruiting works by now.
Here's the problem-Illinois fans didn't hold up their end of the bargain after Zeke committed. Just one day after his commitment, Zeke felt so unappreciated by the depressed Illinois fan base that he felt the need to issue a statement to the fans (via WritingIllini, emphasis mine):
"I've seen some comments about me, like people think that I'm not going to be good enough you could say, that I'm under-rated right now, and I AM under-rated and I'll tell them right now that they have no clue what I can do...I'm going to bring everything and I'm coming in first day with a chip on my shoulder to let them know that I'm going to be playing as hard as I can for the Illini."
That's right, pessimistic Illinois fans on various message boards. You made a rising senior in high school feel bad about choosing where he will go to college. No incoming college student should ever have to justify his decision to anyone, let alone a bunch of random jerks on the internet who don't know anything about him other than "two stars according to Rivals".
Ridiculous doesn't even begin to describe this. When a recruit commits to Illinois, fans have precisely one emotional option: happiness. Fans may have different degrees of excitement if they like a player more or less, but any player becoming an Illini should be met with applause across the board. Anything less and you are not only potentially hurting the feelings of the recruit, but you are increasing the chance that other recruits will be scared to commit to Illinois.
Now, I'm fully aware that's an exaggeration. If players want to join the Illini, they will do so regardless of what a bunch of fans with sticks stuck up their rear ends think. But remember: this is the internet, people. Every single one of these recruits can go online and instantly see how fans are reacting to their decision to attend the school they love. What do you think other recruits are going to think when they see hundreds of Illini fans across the internet bashing a kid for simply choosing a different college (Hey, Cliff Alexander)? Would you want that fan base supporting you?
Robert over at Illiniboard mentioned the unique negativity of the Illini fan base a while back in a piece focused on his grievances with the athletic department. He correctly realizes that now, under new leadership in Mike Thomas, fans would be wise to start trusting the process again (emphasis mine):
Maybe it's time to realize that we don't have to be so angry anymore. If these new coaches continue to lose, they'll be fired, not retained with some "loyalty is everything" speech...So why is everyone still so angry? Why not wait to see if we're supposed to be angry instead of just defaulting to anger? Why not just take a deep breath and realize that all families have issues and maybe we should just keep quiet about them through Thanksgiving.
I am absolutely not saying that fans can't criticize Beckman or Groce. Believe me, if/when Tim Beckman does something stupid this fall, I will be all over him. But there's a difference between criticizing Beckman and criticizing a kid. If fans want to take potshots at Beckman for offering a kid who only received three stars by one recruiting service (247Sports), even though nobody has any real idea how good these guys are going to be in three years, go ahead.
But what's the point of being negative right now when Zeke Martin, for example, has yet to even play his senior season of high school football? Justice will be served if Beckman doesn't live up to the standards set by Mike Thomas. It's okay to be happy about something once in a while, and a new commitment (any commitment) is well worth the excitement.
Just stay away from the recruits. Don't tweet at them, don't criticize them when they leave, and most of all, DO NOT whine just after they commit to the school that you support. It sounds absurd, but that's exactly what people are doing. If somebody wants to be at Illinois, that's always a good thing. Understand just how insane it is that Zeke Martin had to put in an extra word (or 200) to try to convince people that he is worthy of their respect. This week, a 16 or 17 year-old was more mature than several older members of this fan base.
All the guy did was accept the offer of a lifetime to come play football in Memorial Stadium. It's quite clear by his impassioned and motivated response that he is going to be a outstanding member of the team, whether he goes on to the NFL or rides the pine for five years. I'd encourage you to read the rest of his statement in that article, because it displays exactly the type of character I hope all our recruits possess.
It's not even just about Zeke Martin, though this is the latest case. This goes back to what Robert was saying about the all-encompassing negative atmosphere that surrounds Illini athletics right now. Things really aren't that bad.We have awesome new uniforms and a slick new logo or two to boot. The basketball team is quite clearly on the rise, and the football program is slowly crawling out of the cellar that was 2012. Illinois has one coach that has the program in contention for five-star out-of-state recruits for the first time in a long time, and another coach that recruited kids who then helped record the highest cumulative GPA in the 100+ year history of Illini football.
Proud to say that 2014 Spring Fighting Illini achieved the highest GPA of any team in Fighting Illini football history. 2.94!!!!!!— Tim Beckman (@coachbeckman) June 19, 2014
I encourage Illini fans to err on the side of positivity from now on instead of the pessimism that seems to have become standard around these parts. These are not the Cubs, who have failed for 100 years and seem cursed to forever struggle (Though I do have a bet that they'll win a World Series before 2020).
This is the new Illinois athletic department, under new management and new guidance. Quite simply, it's a lot more pleasant to follow sports when you maintain a positive mentality and trust, at least for a time, that the people in charge are pushing in the right direction. It feels like Thomas and especially Beckman have been rowing upstream against fan support since the day they came to the program.
A little patience could work wonders for Illinois fans. Maybe, someday in the future, we can avoid making kids feel like they need to justify their decision to attend the school that we all love.