A couple different outlets have recently described the University of Illinois and the Illini fan base as being apathetic toward football. And I know that I myself don’t encapsulate the entire fan base, but tell me why I live 1,000 miles from campus, graduated 12 years ago and spend every Saturday in the fall looking forward to Illini football? Or why I spend countless hours monitoring message boards for premium updates or recruiting rumors, just looking (and wishing) for a better project with a sunny future? Or why I spend an hour or so a week trying to pull my thoughts together for a column or two?
And then take a stroll through Twitter in the fall, monitor the outrage at Nike.com for not merchandising enough Illini gear, check the hits on Illinois Football message board threads — and tell me we’re looking at apathy here. Even the most inflamed Illinois fans can’t be labeled ”apathetic”. When we stop seeing the passionate anger — the cries for something better — that’s when we know the worm has turned and people don’t care, that’s when we know apathy has set in. Until then, there is still a chance for the demands of the fans to be answered by Josh Whitman and leadership.
The pulse of Illini Nation has been taken and it’s beating strongly, it’s just frustrated and angry.
Angry people demand to see results, especially given Whitman’s incredible monetary investment into the Lovie regime as well as the barnstorming fundraising that has continued to bring in dollars to the Football Performance Center project. I didn’t give a gift of $1 million to see better football, but man, imagine how those boosters feel right now after watching the last three weeks?
At this point in the rebuild, even with the mild expectations that a rational Illinois fan should have, we’re seeing bad signs. Illinois isn’t getting better as young teams are expected to do. Instead, they’re getting further and further beaten down, explaining away very good players leaving then rolling out nice-looking uniforms for an even worse beat down. It’s nice seeing touchdowns this year, that’s pretty cool, but watching reasonably winnable games get away from you in the second quarter is all too familiar and doesn’t give those passionate fans something they can enjoy.
Whether you consider this year two or three of the rebuild, there are undeniable truths that have emerged as more than just trends:
- The defense is an embarrassment. An impossible-to-understate-the-feebleness-of-this-defense embarrassment. And yes, they’re still young, and yes, there might be a slight talent gap, but both of those things are so far from being excuse enough for what we’re seeing, it’s ridiculous. Oh, and as of 15 minutes ago, there is no longer a defensive coordinator.
- The offense looks the way I’d expect a young and growing offense to look. They have something to hang their hat on — the run game — and they’ve got areas to work on (the pass game) but they have grown here and I can see hope for the future.
- Lovie’s program has caused division inside the locker room, and off-the-field issues have retarded player growth and resulted in arguably the two most talented players on the team, both sophomores, to leave Illinois.
One of those truths is incredibly positive and driven by an identity-building offensive line, but the other two truths are bad and getting worse. Lovie Smith was brought to Illinois to bring a defensive identity and to be a stoic father-figure coach who could bring stability to a program teetering on the edge of clown show. And many have asked, ”If he can’t coach defense, and he can’t out-recruit Indiana or Purdue, and he can’t lead a locker room of young men, well then…What’s Illinois doing with its $5 million a year?”
The big State-of-the-Program question is always, “Will the enormous investment in Lovie Smith pay dividends?” Depending on whether you’re staunchly loyal or red with fury, you’ve probably got a different answer, but either way Illini fans care. And I expect leadership to match that caring by doing what’s necessary to one day have a winning football team. If allowing 63 at Maryland can’t change people’s passion, I have to imagine that it’ll someday, someway, pay off. And if you do in fact still care, then a piece of you has to believe that.