The 2017 Illinois Fighting Illini football season is just two days away and there are many emotions in the fanbase. Some are apathetic, while others are optimistic for good things in the future whose results start now. What’s clear is that this is a rebuilding year, and despite any hot takes to the contrary, we won’t know what we have in this new coach until at least next year. It’s a frustrating situation to be in, knowing that you have to look towards the future even as the games of the present are being played, hoping for the payoff of a solid football program and just trying to determine whether or not the foundation is in place. It’s perfectly understandable that there is a weary and uneasy feeling for some Illini faithful.
We’ve been here before though — and things could be worse.
The Fighting Illini entered Tim Beckman’s second year as a clear rebuilding team, with much depth lost on both sides of the ball but especially on defense. Beckman had scrapped his idea of having one offensive coordinator call first and second down and another calling third down in favor of Bill Cubit’s passing attack, and the former Western Michigan head coach had been brought in to establish a scheme on offense. With this change and a more unified locker room, fans hoped to see some improvement in Year 2 of the Beckman era as a glorified scrimmage against Southern Illinois kicked off the 2013 season.
The good news was that Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 416 yards on 28 for 36 passing, and for the first time since 2008, a kickoff was returned for a touchdown (by V’Angelo Bentley). And I suppose the fact that the Fighting Illini earned their first win in nine games was also cause for celebration.
But in an infuriating turn of events, the defense could not stop the Salukis from moving the ball (a defense that would be one of the worst in the nation that year) and Tim Beckman made an extremely Beckmanesque decision.
With a sizable chunk of time left in the game, the Salukis scored to pull within 16 and kicked off. Beckman, deciding the game was wrapped up, sent in the second-team offense. Reilly O’Toole immediately fumbled and Southern scored. The game came down to a goal-line stand with 44 seconds remaining and was quite demoralizing as victories go. However, Illinois would go on to trounce heavy favorite Cincinnati the following week as the highlight of a 4-8 campaign.
After a dismal 2005 campaign, second-year head coach Ron Zook wrapped up a top-30 recruiting class and gave Illini fans plenty to be excited about as he headed into his sophomore campaign.
Just before the season, however, he scared fans into believing he didn’t think he could beat Eastern Illinois. These fears proved unfounded, as Illinois showed a strong rushing attack with future NFL stars Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendenhall. Prize recruit Juice Williams made his debut late in the game in relief of senior quarterback Tim Brasic as the Fighting Illini rolled to a 42-17 win.
The excitement was quickly extinguished, as the Fighting Illini were shut out 33-0 by Rutgers the following week, and the next win wouldn’t be until Williams got a road start at Michigan State and engineered a victory. This would be a precursor of things to come.
Like Lovie Smith, 1998 Illinois coach Ron Turner had come from a job with the Chicago Bears. He went to Illinois straight from a 4 year tenure as the OC/QB coach. However, in 1997, Illinois had a winless season. A straight-up winless season. It remains the most recent completely winless season by a Big Ten team, ending with a loss to Michigan State in front of 30,087. Turner entered 1998 with a program on a 17-game winless streak, and kicked off the campaign with a road loss to Washington State.
An announced crowd of just over 35,000 showed up to the home opener against then-FCS Middle Tennessee State. If you think attendance suffered in the Beckman era, look at these figures from the late 90’s. There’s no way of knowing, but I’d be willing to bet that most of that crowd walked out after the Blue Raiders took a 20-7 lead in the first quarter, largely aided by Illini quarterback Mark Hoekstra going 4 for 13 with 3 interceptions in the first half.
With nothing left to lose, Turner got desperate, which for him apparently meant running the ball. Behind Rocky Harvey’s 215 yards and Steve Havard’s additional 175 on the ground, the Fighting Illini battled back and the defense clamped down and shut out MTSU for the rest of the game. The final result was 41 unanswered points to secure a 48-20 victory, after which the students that had bothered to show up tried in vain to tear down the goalposts.
The Fighting Illini would go on to win two Big Ten games against Northwestern and Indiana, but in 1999 they would knock off Michigan on the way to an 8-4 campaign.
What do these all have in common? Second-year Illini head coaches all kicked off the home slate of games with a win, and even the most humble win is still a win. Let’s go get one on Saturday!