This Sunday, America's television viewers will be forced to choose between watching Illinois basketball face off with Minnesota, or a new episode of AMC's The Walking Dead. In the process of being forced to choose, it is possible that more and more will realize that these two programs are essentially one in the same. Illinois sports these days are every bit as much "a continuing story of survival horror" as the television show based off the comic books with that tagline.
I'm not going to sit here and Photoshop John Groce's face onto Michonne's body, or figure out whether Josh Whitman is more like Rick Grimes or The Governor, because it's not like that. There aren't those specific types of parallels. The similarity comes in the very ethos of the two — the feelings you get watching them, the future outlook of both Rick's group and Fighting Illini football. And also, the pervading feeling of "Why do I follow this when it disappoints me 90% of the time?"
Now, I realize there are a lot of people out there who are into The Walking Dead, that really like it. But for those of us whose television tastes were formed on shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and the like, understand that The Walking Dead is problematic in many ways. Not that it sets out to be those shows, just, don't expect it to clean up at the Emmys.
Most of the executive decisions that decide the show's general direction are overcorrections of mistakes made by producers in previous seasons. Hey, Illini fans, does that sound familiar? If enough TWD fans tweet out how bored they're getting, the producers bring in a dues ex machina to save their thinning plot (zombie quarry, anybody?). And just when the show starts to pick up its pace, we get a flashback episode of little substance where the plot moves nowhere (effing cheesemaker). If it sways too far from the comic books, it realigns itself swiftly through unbelievable narrative leaps and bounds. Past athletic administrations have made their share of mistakes, and because of that, a lot of talk from on high lacks for originality, opting instead to swear off sins of the past, and get back to its glory days.
But let's not dump on the show (program) too hard, right? I have my qualms, but I watch it and am glad such a high-budget zombie show (athletic program) exists. When you're fully invested, you still have to ask: What hope is there to be had for the characters? What happy ending is out there that you could root for? Zombies seem to equate to the entire rest of the D-1 field vying for the same prizes in football and basketball. Seemingly endless in number, deadly, possible to outsmart in low numbers at one or two turns, but impossible to defeat when encountered as a massive herd. And just when you think you know how to handle the zombies, someone from within your own walls does something stupid to sabotage the group. Oh, Leron.
Put yourself in the shoes of those stuck in the zombie apocalypse, and the goal becomes clearer: We're just looking for a normal life. We realize that the zombies will always be out there, but we at least want to have strong walls to keep us safe, with our only enemy the lurkers beyond. Illinois has lacked stability ever since the Zooker was scoring draftable recruits and Bruce Weber was going 50-50 on NCAA tournament bids — you know, the good old days. Enter new athletic director, fire football coach, fire basketball coach, hire football coach, hire basketball coach, have bad seasons, fire football coach, hire football coach, fire athletic director, call for basketball coach's job to no avail, hire athletic director … at every turn there's the hope of stability — and of prosperity — but meanwhile, the walkers eat into our numbers, driving out hope, which is arguably more devastating than their bite.
Losing hurts. And while bringing in a new athletic director is a promising sign for the future of Illinois sports, it's hard to get excited because it means a long road ahead. But that's what you have to do when walls of your camp crumble. You have to either rebuild them or find a different place to set up camp.
As far as the Whitman hire goes, I endorse it — for many years it's felt like Illinois was trying to copy and paste other programs' success into their own circumstances. Whitman feels like a distinct turn away from that philosophy. It's a guy whose primary qualification is his connection to the University, having gone there and experienced the community, the fans, and successful sports teams. There's not a worry that he'll catch fire here and leave for another place (I feel like I should knock on wood though, just in case), or that he's going to try and do things his way because it's worked in the past. Illinois is not Cincinnati. It is not Ohio. It is not Toledo. For Whitman, this is his alma mater, and he obviously gives a crap about the Illini, not just about how he looks while working here.
Maybe he can be Rick Grimes. Or firm walls. Or a restoration of hope. I may have mixed my metaphors a little too much here. In the meantime, the rebuild starts immediately, and while we think of rebuilds in terms of star recruits, coaching changes, and other concrete changes, the first thing that needs changing is attitude. That means giving a depleted Indiana team two at-least-competitive halves on your home floor. It means something good happening to Malcolm Hill because he deserves it. It means beating the teams you're supposed to beat, like Minnesota. Before you have hope, you must establish pride. In Whitman's first week or so on the job, he's observed a school in need of competitive fire. Hopefully we'll see some sort of turnaround before this failed basketball season mercifully ends. Just give it time, o fellow survivors of the zombie apocalypse. The wins will come, and the winning seasons will too. Illinois won't be stuck on Hershel's farm forever, bereft of any plot movement. Eventually, our beloved gang of orange-and-blue try-hards will get back to doing what they need to do, what we're tuning in to watch them do in the first place: Kill zombies.