clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Bubbles

New, 4 comments

I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

I adore college football, but I think the sport I truly enjoy the most is soccer. Perhaps it’s the distance I have away from it from not needing to blog about the sport, but I digress.

I’ve been a fan of Arsenal Football Club since about 2011. I think what attracted me to Arsenal was the type of soccer they played. The optimism and joy in it. The beauty and elegance that made me fall in love with the team. They represented something that I lack in my personal life at times, and am always striving to be. There is something truly special about being a Gooner that is hard to put into words.

But regardless, despite waking up at ungodly hours early in the morning to watch one of the “Big 6” of the English game, I’ve in turn become fond of many of the smaller clubs around England and the rest of Europe. And, specifically, one of those teams that I’ve specifically grown to like is another London team: West Ham United.

West Ham was founded in 1895 as Thames Ironworks — hence the team nickname, “The Irons” — before being reformed as West Ham United in 1900. They have been a successful team. They’ve won a European trophy and three FA Cups, but have never won the top league title in England. They aren’t a giant, but they are respectable.

The reason I have an affinity for West Ham is the fantastic fan support the team gets despite not being a true elite in the city of London. Irons’ fans are some of the most passionate in their country. Their support and love of their club is truly an inspiring thing to me. They are always dreaming and always supporting their players at a high level.

There have been down times of recent, with the club being relegated twice since 2000. West Ham has been defined by ups and downs for its entire history. The club famously provided three players to the 1966 England Squad that won the World Cup, including captain Bobby Moore. They build up teams that look very promising, hiring good managers, do many things right — until one thing goes wrong and it all falls apart. They are seen as a team that has a lot more potential because of their location and fan support, but they are never quite able to live up to it — starting to sound familiar?

Recently, West Ham moved away from their long-time home Boleyn Ground to move into London Stadium, a stadium with a much higher capacity, to try and bring the club to new heights after years of mid-table obscurity. The move seemed ideal from an outside perspective. Not a move that could truly transform the Hammers into a contender for the Premier League — but hey Leicester won, freaking Leicester!! how??? — but potentially a move that could raise their lot in life above clubs like Everton, Leicester City and Southampton.

Last season — the second in London Stadium — season ended with massive fan protest of the club board due to dissatisfaction with the club’s moves away from the Boleyn Ground and the lack of success of the team on the pitch.

The move to London Stadium was full of hope, but once again for West Ham it seems to be just another failed dream. But West Ham fans despite the toxicity of surrounding everything now will not give up the dream. They will continue to support the team with full support and love, even if they can be a bit of bastards about it sometimes.

(I know what you’re asking, “What does any of this have to do with the Illini?” Patience, I’m getting there.)

The reason I’ve been thinking about West Ham — besides the obvious parallels of the up-and-down nature of both Illinois and West Ham — a lot over the last day or so after yet another embarrassing performance from my beloved Illinois Fighting Illini football team is the anthem for West Ham, “Forever Blowing Bubbles”. This song perfectly captures the spirit of West Ham supporters. The spirit to always believe and always keep dreaming, even though it may not — probably not — work out in the end.

Just listen to the lyrics:

I’m forever blowing bubbles,

Pretty bubbles in the air,

They fly so high,

Nearly reach the sky,

Then like my dreams,

They fade and die.

Fortune’s always hiding,

I’ve looked everywhere,

I’m forever blowing bubbles,

Pretty bubbles in the air.

These lyrics can seem quite nihilistic, but I think that is the incorrect interpretation and it’s definitely not in the spirit of what the song means to the Irons. The song to me is inspirational and serves as good philosophical advice. To me, it speaks to not giving up. To dream. To reach. To hope, even against terrible odds. To hope that one day this bubble will actually not fade and die, and will reach the sky, but even when it does die, to keep on blowing more. To keep hoping.

That song sums up my current feelings toward Illinois Athletics at the moment.

I became a serious Illinois fan during the 2007 season — fun time to jump on, I know. I was a casual fan because of my dad’s love of Illinois Basketball — which has sadly faded quite a bit — and I remember watching the 2005 Final Four games, but I wasn’t a real true fan until that ‘07 season with Juice Williams and J Leman.

I fully bought into Zook, and thought he was possibly going to be the Illini’s Barry Alvarez and transform the program. The 2008 and ‘09 seasons killed off that hope some, but unlike some fans I wasn’t convinced he should be fired. The bubble was still alive. That all came to an end after the team lost six games in a row in 2011 in an uninspired fashion. The same would soon happen with Bruce Weber and the basketball program.

I didn’t like the Tim Beckman hire, no one really did, but I bought in. The pretty bubble was in the air and I was ready to dream that it would reach the sky. Even after all the awful Beckman-isms, I thought the team was ready to turn the corner in 2015. Don’t lie. You were too. The Illini were coming off a bowl game, and Beckman brought in a top-50 class. Things were seeming like Illinois was ready for a jump, but then Simon Cvjanovic went on Twitter and the Tim Beckman bubble quickly faded.

Every Illinois fan loved John Groce. That first year under Groce was the last truly fun season of men’s basketball or football that we’ve had. Everyone thought Groce was the guy. This bubble seemed so, so promising. You could picture this team finally getting back to where they belong, among the elites of Big Ten Basketball and a true contender on the national stage. His bubble didn’t die quite as abruptly as Beckman’s, but recruiting failure after failure and a lack of any tactical identity made fans lose all hope in Groce. Maybe we should have known better. Things don’t go well for Illinois. They just don’t.

I’ll be honest with you, I almost completely gave up hope after the Bill Cubit fiasco. With that cowardly move, Illinois showed it didn’t care about football. These were the darkest days for all fans. We were out an Athletic Director, and because of a total leadership breakdown because of Phyllis Wise’s resignation as Chancellor of the University, they hired Bill Cubit. Bill fucking Cubit. I still almost can’t believe it happened.

But then something miraculous happened. Illinois hired Josh Whitman. This was a guy who spoke about Illinois the same way I spoke about them. He believed as I did, and still do, that Illinois can be successful. That they can win. That one day we can be proud of the teams yet again and finally just be fans again. The bubbles were in the air yet again after there were almost none left.

He quickly tried to atone for the massive Bill Cubit mistake, and hired Lovie Smith. There were huge question marks about the hire. It was risky, but hey it was March and already past the hiring cycle, and getting Lovie Smith seemed like a coup after Illinois just handed Cubit a two-year deal months prior. I bought into the idea that Lovie’s pedigree in the state of Illinois after taking the Bears to the Super Bowl and his professionalism would help Illinois turn recruiting around. I thought he could update his defensive system to the college game. In truth, even though many would say otherwise, we all believed this on some level because to be a fan is to have hope in your team.

What has become clear over the last few months is I was wrong about Lovie Smith. His defensive system does not fit the college game and he failed to adjust. Maryland had the 100th ranked offense in S&P going into Saturday’s game, and put up over 700 yards and 8 touchdowns — Maryland also had the kick return TD. Illinois beat Rutgers, but being better than Rutgers isn’t anything to be excited about. In its four conference games against real competition this season, Illinois has been blown out by an average score of 55 to 21. No one expected Illinois to even make a bowl game this year, but that’s not close to competitive.

This is year three now, and the team is worse than the one Lovie Smith inherited. Recruiting is ranked dead last in the Big Ten for the 2019 class. The team lost its most promising defensive player in Bennett Williams, kicked off the team due to breaking team rules. Players have been transferring out at a high rate. The play on the field is regressing heavily. This team is currently ranked 114th in S&P out of 130 with the only Power 5 teams below them being Oregon State and Rutgers. The team, in its current state is broken, and there is no realistic path to it being fixed before Lovie is gone.

Hope for the Lovie era is gone. Marquez Beason and Isaiah Williams are nice pieces, but not close to enough to take this under-talented, under-coached, under-developed team to any success in 2019. Lovie Smith is a lame duck.

The Lovie Smith bubble has faded and died like the Beckman bubble did before him, and the Zook before that, and the Turner before that...

I should have know this was coming, we all should have. We believed that a coach with outdated schemes in the NFL without any recruiting expereince in the modern college game could come and turn around Illinois? We were naive, but that’s what being an Illini fan or West Ham fan is. Believing that this bubble, THIS bubble, will be the one to make it.

Illinois should move on from Lovie Smith. Yes, the buyout is high, but I’d argue that $8 million — the amount Illinois would save for firing Lovie after 2019 instead of this season — is less than the amount of damage the having a lame duck coach like Lovie would do to the program.

Yes, the grass isn’t always greener and the next coach could be just as bad or worse. The next coach will probably fail as almost every single Illinois coach has — I’m actually pretty sure of it — but you have to keep blowing bubbles in hope that one day one will reach the sky.

Even if it doesn’t come until after 2019, I’ll be waiting for new hope. New bubbles.

Fortune’s always hiding,

I’ve looked everywhere,

I’m forever blowing bubbles,

Pretty bubbles in the air.