To clear up any doubt and exonerate my fellow Champaign Room contributors, this was me:
A charismatic go-getter came to Champaign at roughly 40 years old with a cool-bald-guy look and whipped illini fans into a frenzy with exciting early moves and great quotes/slogans! But a few years later it got old as we kept waiting for wins.— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) October 16, 2018
Who am I talking about?
This was not received well, and I’ll admit that it was perhaps a bit too on-the-nose. I probably shouldn’t have included “They’re the same” in the poll options.
However, I made that comparison to illustrate a point. If you were a Fighting Illini basketball fan in the summer of 2013, you were stoked on John Groce. He took a team that had lost 12 of its last 14 games and only lost a lottery pick at the center position and took them to within a call-missed-so-badly-they-made-a-new-rule-to-prevent-it-from-ever-happening-again of the Sweet 16 while landing a solid recruiting class that was seen as practically a starting five by itself, while delivering inspiring catchphrases along the way.
Illinois Basketball was surely on the right track thanks to this charismatic motivator.
A few years later, as the struggles mounted, Groce’s demeanor never changed and what once endeared him to Illinois fans now became tired, grating and put-on because the team wasn’t winning. That initial burst of passion he ignited in the fanbase was enough to keep many believing through failure after failure, right up until they lost to Rutgers last March, but many who had already soured on him only saw every motivational thing he said as another reason to roll their eyes.
Josh Whitman came in, reset the football program and declared that #WeWillWin. This had the same effect on the fan base, and even many of those skeptical of his short resume were swayed in short order by his rhetoric.
Now, however, here we are 2.5 years later and the winning hasn’t happened yet. A Homecoming game against a rebuilding Purdue team with a vulnerable defense turned into an absolute debacle that reinforced the notion that our defense has regressed substantially. Four Lovie Smith recruits have left the program since the beginning of the season, and advanced stats don’t give us a very good chance to win a fourth game this year. Meanwhile, the basketball coaches Whitman hired combined for four conference wins in their first year.
As a result, people have been frustrated by Whitman’s social media presence for the same reason they were frustrated by Groce’s upbeat mantras: there’s no results to back this stuff up yet.
However, it’s important to note that a huge part of Whitman’s job is selling the program to prospective investors and engaging with this community. He surely was at least briefed on why Mike Thomas had so many problems soliciting donations and is trying to correct for Thomas’ cold, impersonal nature. Fundraising has been more substantial than previous administrations and a long-overdue football practice facilities upgrade will help the program keep pace with its peers. He’s gotten the board to actually spend the kind of money you’d need to hire a big-name football coach, so even if he’s forced to hire another, his record so far suggests that he’ll have a deep checkbook to work with. There’s plenty of reason for optimism in the future.
But we’ve been waiting for the future to come for quite some time. Basketball hasn’t started yet, but that Homecoming game suggests that at the very least football isn’t yet in the process of turning the corner. It’s quite possible that the men’s team makes a surprising run in the Big Ten this year; it’s possible that the women’s team scores some kind of upset and locks down a great recruiting class, generating buzz around women’s basketball for the first time...maybe ever. It’s possible that the volleyball team makes it back to the national finals; it’s even possible that the football team catches Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern napping.
Until SOMETHING happens, however, it is perfectly fair for fans to be frustrated with the progress to date.
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