I imagine what I say here will have a fair number of people jumping down my throat. With that in mind, I'd like to get a couple of overarching thoughts out of the way:
Everyone involved in the athletic program and referenced in this commentary likely will and should keep their jobs until a minimum of the 2018-2019 season.
I am in fact an Illini fan. I want to see everyone involved in the program, from top to bottom, succeed. I'd give anything to feel like an idiot looking back on this piece in two years.
The previous item does not mean am I not allowed to be critical of events that have occurred over the last two years. My thoughts stem from frustration. Not out of any malice towards anyone in the Athletic Department, The Champaign Room, and other referenced blogs, forums etc.
I do not need to remind everyone that the Illinois Fighting Illini just completed the worst collective seasons in decades. With a football team winning just two games while going winless in Big Ten play. Brad Underwood 's Inaugural Season as head basketball coach concluded yesterday with one of the worst records in twenty years of Illinois basketball. Women's basketball meanwhile failed to get a single conference win. It is a level of unprecedented awfulness rarely seen in college sports, much less a self avowed power five program.
I've lived in Champaign my whole life. I went elsewhere in the state for college, moved back here for work. My following of U of I has ebbed and flowed over the years. A casual fan in high school, stopped almost entirely following in college due to time, and, for a lack of anything better to do, coming back to it after returning to work, delving more into the true fanbase of Illinois, online and elsewhere. Including brushing elbows with some influential people connected with the program and it's various donors. Beyond that I don't have much of a pedigree for sports writing and I'm far from an authority. Just a vessel for years of rumors, rumblings and hot takes.
Generally speaking, I can tolerate a lot. Athletic director Josh Whitman inherited a pretty crumby situation that would take time to fix by any metric. But there are two quotes that I have read as a fan of Illinois that have turned my typically depressed outlook on Illinois' performance of recent, into downright furor.
The first, one I probably share with many of you:
"It's not ideal but for now, I don't think it'll put a dagger in the heart of the program."
Interim AD Paul Kowalczyk
And the second, more controversial one came this morning
"We are writing one of the great stories in the history of college sports, and the ending is even better than you can imagine."
It was at this point, I began to wonder if Whitman was seeing the same things I and many others in the fanbase have seen over the past two years. These two statements have a lot in common. They are completely tone deaf, exhibit a lack of self awareness, and approach delusion. But there is word I sense after reading Whitman's comments today.
A bright veneer on the outside, but nothing on the inside. Fitting for a program descending further and further into decay and failure. In light of a number of major missteps over the last two years, capping off with his comments today, I am starting to believe that Josh Whitman is out of his depth. And without drastic change of course over the summer and beyond, Illinois Athletics could be damaged to a point beyond repair.
Kowalczyk's comments were shocking on the surface, but in the end not surprising. The University of Illinois did not, and arguably still does not care about the outcomes the athletic programs. Not out of malice, but largely out of apathy or the simple fact that they have larger fish to fry. Whether by lining their own bank accounts with over sized pensions and mishandling the latest academic scandal, or on the other end of the spectrum, trying desperately to work around decaying facilities, a lack of funds to repair classrooms and retain the top professors the school once boasted. Frankly, the problems with U of I and by extension the State of Illinois over the last few years justify a book itself. (For a shining example of this, I'm particularly fond of Phyllis Wise's departure letter, basically saying I better get my golden parachute or I will burn down the entire board of trustees. She was granted a generous severance package the next day) But, this blog is not the place for that.
So I fully expected the next AD to be a lame pencil pushing flunkie who we never hear from while Illinois remains woefully mediocre and forgettable in all aspects of it's athletics programs, until a compliance error brings him or her a shiny new pink slip. Rinse and repeat. So I was surprised by Whitman's hire on March 5, 2016. "Not a lot of experience, but at least he cares" was my initial thought.
Then the world was shocked when Bill Cubit and his placeholder deal were rightly given the boot and in comes Lovie Smith.
I bought in completely. "We are actually trying!" I thought. It was refreshing to see something universally praised, save for some grumbles from old Bears fans. An AD who loves the school and is willing to get the job done by any means necessary. This could work.
But without getting too much into my personal life, and looking back on those past days, I'm reminded of one of the most difficult lessons life can teach you, one that I still wrestle with nearly daily. You can have the best intentions, work incredibly hard, and do everything right on paper. Yet you can still fail. Whether by unseen faults of your own, things you can't control, or just rotten luck. All you can do is adapt, for better or for worse.
For the rest of this piece, I'm going to separate by topic. First the revenue sport, overarching issues and finishing up with what I think can be done going forward. A lot of the sports stuff are things the Champaign Room has probably been rehashed time and time again. But I'll include it to frame my thoughts and present everything side by side. The last two years have been kind of a blur, it's helpful to show a full body of work, in all its charm.
Lovie Smith inherited perhaps one of the worst rosters among all of division one football. Recovering from the poor recruiting of Beckman, the lost year of the super-interim coach Bill Cubit combined with all of the traditional difficulties that come with bringing good athletes to Champaign, left the roster depleted. But it seemed like a top staff was being assembled with a number of NFL names such as Hardy Nickerson, Mike Phair, Bob Ligashesky. We were excited by Garrick McGee when we could watch his charge, Lamar Jackson emerge as one of the top QB's in the nation. Why wouldn't recruits flock to so many years of talents, expertise and bonafide chance to play and show what they can do against the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, and other blue bloods of college football? "This should work. It has to work" I thought.
I don't need to tell you that this hasn't happened. Such recruitment misses have occurred such as Ayodele Adeoye commiting to Texas in a video that including burning other recruitment letters. You can visibly see an Illinois letter going up in flames. Despite the legacy of Howard Griffith, Houston Griffith didn't even include Illinois among his final eight. Lest we forget, Illinois earned infamy for offering ten year old Bunchie Young a scholarship, drawing the ire of concerned commentators, and a number of instate recruits.
The results speak for themselves as Lovie Smith's recruiting classes remain no better than Tim Beckman's, and only marginally better than Cubit's placeholder year.
"I disagree that if any of these allegations are proven true that that necessarily requires that John no longer be our men’s basketball coach."
"I’ve got great confidence that John is the right person to lead us."
That confidence evaporated after a 18-14 season, an early Big ten Tournament exit and missing the national tournament for a fourth consecutive year.
"I've been evaluating the basketball program since I walked in the door a year ago," athletic director Josh Whitman said at a news conference. "This wasn't the culmination of one game. It wasn't a single moment where, 'This is it, this can't continue.' It was an assessment that has been ongoing for a long time. I made the decision today."
"Under his leadership, regrettably, we were not able to sustain the level of competitive excellence that we expect at the University of Illinois,"
As an aside, This is the first time I've compared these quotes side by side. The contrast is stark. It makes the decision to not fire Groce after 2016 even weirder. I remain convinced Groce was only retained to try and keep Tilmon committed and pray for the off chance that we snuck into the tournament, but that's my personal tin foil hat theory. Fair game to mock me on that.
Whitman shocked the world yet again when he hired former SFA, then Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood. Underwood brought with him his giant killing pedigree from SFA and the prestige of turning a languid Oklahoma State into the most efficient offense in the country despite his one year there.
Underwoods recruiting took a sharp turn south losing Tilmon to rival Mizzou ("We won't beg anyone to come here" Said Underwood in a quote that aged poorly), effectively guaranteeing the 2017-2018 season would be with a terribly flawed team with forwards Black and Finke being forced to guard the post, the latter of which is not suited for it in the slightest. He was able to retain Trent Frazier and Da'Monte Williams and managed to seal the deal on Mark Smith, beating out Michigan State. Things seemed to be on the up, if a slightly rocky start.
If you ask me, things fall apart for Underwood during the recruitment of Talen Horton-Tucker. After landing five star recruit Ayo Donsomu. Rumors circulated that Ayo's camp did not want to share a spot on the team with THT for reasons never verified. Whatever happened, within the span of a day, THT went from an Illinois lock at another position of critical need to committing to Iowa State.
This is the very issue I take the most issue with Underwood and when I began to sell on him. Depite our troubles, Illinois is a power five basketball program. It is nothing but disgraceful that a high school kid's feelings and the feelings of his handlers manipulate an entire basketball program. It's shameful. There is no other way to slice it. Mac Irvin Fire holds the keys to Illinois recruiting and Underwood gave it to them. If Ayo gets so much as drinking ticket I'm going to go ballistic. I'm still not convinced he will even come to Illinois if a blue blood wants him bad enough and he's all he's cracked up to be. Tin foil hat again though.
But whatever. Recruiting is ugly, it's all about the product on the cour- How did we lose to Eastern Illinois?
Even with an weak non conference schedule (261st on Kenpom) Illinois struggled. Losses to Wake Forest and UNLV and New Mexico State indicated a rocky road ahead. But Illinois managed to win four games in the Big Ten. Even for a program that had lost it's best player, this is simply cut and dry and no other way to describe it, yet again, disgraceful.
Brad Underwoods systems and vaunted offensive efficiency fell to 139th in the country. 113th in Points per Game. 292nd in total rebounds (predictably) and 156th in assists per game. Illinois was 5th in turnovers per opponent possession. But defense still struggled. As you can see pinned on the Champaign Room twitter 306th in field goal percentage defense. 209th in opponent points per game. And 179th in defensive efficiency.
Crazy Stat? Illinois averaged 22.5 personal fouls per game. Just three spots shy of being the most fouling team in the nation. (Portland St. 23.0).
And that is just the stats! Illinois cost itself multiple games on failing to inbound passes, making free throws, basic fundamental basketball. You can only blame lack of talent so much. The system installed does not work with the current batch of players and there's no reason to think any new additions will magically get it next season.
And because it has nowhere else to go, Illinois hired a DIII Women's basketball coach and lost every conference game. I don't know enough about Women's basketball to really give a fair shake, but I can with confidence: That's bad. Becuase of Whitman's prior relationship with Nancy Fahey, it's enough to wonder if he went for the easy hire as opposed to doing proper due diligence.
I'm anxious to see what recruiting classes Underwood ends up with before making a final judgment call on him. (It's not looking good with our top big target being a JUCO prospect with no star rating) [In the middle of writing this, Alan Griffin Jr. committed. In terms of talent, I don't' see what he offers that Tim Finke did not. In addition this either an indicator of incoming mass transfers or simply a connection building recruit, both troubling] But with his recruiting antics and misses, inability to implement a system and general hardman yelling coach shtick that has failed to impress, I think we could ultimately be referring to Underwood in the same light we refer to Tim Beckman. There is enough of a talent deficiency to give him a pass for this year, but that will not last long. He's burnt multiple bridges with the Ayo recruitment alone and we can effectively consider the Simeon pipeline gone forever. What other AAU programs have been alienated by the obvious show of favoritism? We will find out.
But there is no skimping around the fact that this season was unacceptably bad. Where I give Lovie the benefit of a doubt, my support for Underwood is evaporated to just enough to tolerate him. But I'll be honest, if we wake up one morning and we find out he is embroiled in scandal at his time at South Carolina or Oklahoma St, I wouldn't shed a tear.
Which brings it back to Whitman. First blunder, Why wasn't Groce fired after 2015? There's never really been a straight answer on that. The 2016-2017 season was effectively a lame duck year that dug another deeper hole for Illinois to crawl out of. Looking back at those quotes, I'm not sure what changed Whitman's mind that wasn't already readily apparent the year before.
As for the Underwood hire, did nobody think it was weird he wanted to jump ship from Oklahoma St after one year solely for a bigger payday? Besides, If Illinois was really Underwood's dream job (doubt it), why wasn't he included in a shortlist after 2015? For as low as I am on Underwood right now, an alternate universe where he is paid a fraction of what he is now and had a season working with Malcolm Hill is much more appealing.
It's only been a year and I am not Schmolik wanting him run off after game 1, but you have to admit there is enough uncertainty surrounding Underwood to be very concerned about this backfiring massively and it makes me wonder if Illinois truly did it's due diligence during it's coaching search. There were a number of outstanding candidates last offseason. Monty Williams (Not really on Whitman but it could of happened). Chris Holtmann, Archie Miller, Kevin Keatts. And who knows what went on with that mysterious Cuonzo Martin offer. If there was any logic to retaining Groce, it was to wait for a favorable market. There was one, and we might have not only missed the top candidate, we could have hired one that ultimately craters the program.
Bad sports teams happen. Illinois is a mediocre program more often than not. Sometimes we'll make a bowl game. We sneak into the tournament and might make it to the second round. The only bar held by Illinois fans in recent years is to not be embarrassingly bad. A bar both programs are not reaching. But Josh Whitman has an interesting problem. What happens when the local bread and circus operation is not up to snuff.
So far his answer is to build a new bread a circus operation. Which is of course hockey.
I like Hockey. It's fun. I've had a good time at every hockey game I've been to. I'd love to see the club team be elevated to division one. Someday. I'll return to this point and talk about the upcoming facilities renovation.
Despite Mike Thomas' efforts at an "Illinois Renaissance" the facilities at both Memorial Stadium remain lacking. It has been all but documented that recruits are going elsewhere in part of this deficiency (see Luke Ford). In 2016 it seemed like this was going to be address with a 132 million dollar renovation plan which included a full renovation of the increasingly dilapidated horseshoe along with a host of facility upgrades.
A reminder of the full scope and the accompanying press release can be found here.
And then less than a year later, the scope of the project was reduced dramatically.
Effectively half the original budget and putting the horseshoe renovations on hiatus. No substantial reason was given on the project currently breaking ground as we speak. But in early last year it was revealed that the DIA ran at a loss for the first time in five years.
Even more troubling still, a problem for whoever would be at the helm of the program, is the looming 260 million dollar debt the program is in. Fourth highest in all of college sports.
And yet despite all this, less than a week after the cuts to the renovation plan were revealed, the University announced it was entering a feasibility study about the potential of a division one hockey program and a new downtown ice arena.
Good news, I've completed the feasibility study for everyone! Thanks but not thanks. The only two sports that turn are profit at the Illinois are embarrassingly bad, other facilities need more immediate attention, the DIA isn't doing so hot money wise and we are in a town that hates the idea of funding it's own high schools, much less downtown stadiums that can support a program that can compete in the perennially strong Big Ten conference hockey so tax payer money is out the window. It just won't work. Here's our card. Call us in fifteen to twenty years.
There is only so much the average fan can see what goes on behind the scenes and in the books for the program. But the fiscal road map for the athletic program seems disjointed and with no sense of direction except trying to get every shining thing possible with no regard to the reality on the ground. Putting out sport teams that are unwatchable and will not get people to go to games exacerbates this problem.
Finally, I want to bring up a topic that has beaten to death and even one that can't to entirely attributed to Whitman. But in perhaps a fitting sign of things to come. Days before the kickoff of the 2017 football season, a decision came down to stop playing the "War Chant" number at all Illinois sporting events. I'm not going to delve into whether it is right or wrong. I want to focus on the leadership, or lack thereof of the school on this issue and in the ensuing fallout.
Firstly, it was not a press release that ended the war chant song. The public was not notified even ahead of time. The news came down during an Illinois Soccer match. This rekindled the same sordid debate that has been going on over ten years. Add in the nation's current state of discourse on anything controversial, and it is proving even uglier than when the decision first came down.
I want to look a Whitman's comment on the situation. The full text of the letter is here: http://www.news-gazette.com/sports/illini-sports/baseball/2017-08-28/whitman-explains-war-chant-decision-open-letter.html Reminder to view the NG in incognito mode to bypass the article restriction and don't read the comments if you want to keep your sanity.
He beings by fondly remembering the song, calling it "the soundtrack to his career" but ultimately calls for unity and new traditions and that , yet again, Illinois is destined for great things. In short, "I'm sad to see it go, but we must stay unified. Go Illini" The words did not carry when the homecoming parade was marred by altercation between a chief display and protesters, the words did not carry at the last game of the basketball season or "Paint the hall chief" night which led to petty squabbles across the entire night. Looking back on his open letter, none of his statements have had any impact whatsoever on this debate that remains an embarrassment and blight on the fanbase.
As far as I can find, there has been no comment on the issue from Whitman on any of these "dustups". I bring it up this because it so perfectly encapsulates my main grievance with him. He is fantastic at bring up the pride of Illinois and it should be while offering no tangible explanation of how it can get there or even resolving the issues at hand. His statements this year for all the power and promise have impacted the school and the athletic program no more than the cheer squad impacts the outcome of the plays.
Final thoughts – what can be done.
Let's read Whitman's quote from Thursday again.
"We are writing one of the great stories in the history of college sports, and the ending is even better than you can imagine."
With all due respect Mr. Whitman. Your book sucks so far. The characters are unlikable, the plot is convoluted and there's probably going to have to be a Deus Ex Machina to save everyone. Unless this is a tragedy. Wait, do you really know what the ending is? Because unlike the tales of old, not everything in life has to end in a happy ending.
And yet, despite everything I've written so far, I do not want Whitman fired. I want changes to his direction, his leadership style, and just a more grounded outlook, but I do not want him fired. Mostly because I know we will not find someone who wants the program to succeed more than he does. And I know that there is another Paul Kowalczyk waiting on the horizon if this all goes to hell.
I take solace in the fact that Whitman is trying. It hasn't shown the outcomes needed, but the first step is there. For two years, that's enough for now, but the clock is ticking. Changes need to happen immediately.
For Whitman, I share the biggest change desired with former Illiniboard writer Steve as outlined here. I highly encourage you to read it. https://medium.com/@BigTwen/you-break-it-you-buy-it-68d777f96563 Stop with the fluff. Stop praising the "moral victories", stop pretending that everything is fine and on track when it clearly and demonstrably isn't. Build the foundation then the hype. I'd rather see press release saying that we are not getting the results you want fans desire but we are doing X,Y and Z to fix it every six months than more empty tweets that do nothing to mask this awful season. Show us the business plan. Not the dream.
The money isn't there? Get the money and not just checks in the mail stamped by an assistant. Half of the job for an Athletic Director is to build relations with boosters, fundraise, do whatever you can publicly to show that people buy in to your mission. With all due respect to Mr. Whitman, I don't really care if he says we are climbing the mountain, I want to hear the Shad Khan's, the Jimmy John's, and other of Illinois' massive donor base to make those statements. It was fantastic start having Deron Williams on campus – keep expanding on it. Get the Colangeno's in the suites at game. Hell, get Bill Murray back on the sideline. Have the camera pan around and see the who's who of Illinois supporters at every game. Network. Network. Network. You want people to buy in? Show that it is actually happening.
Let the world, and by extension the coaches, know that powerful people are watching and holding those accountable. It's small but after Nebraska football season under Mike Riley, Larry the Cable Guy went on a twitter rant about it. For as goofy as it sounds, that is how a fan base develops expectations. Instead of empty promises by Nebraska in response, they go and land Scott Frost as a coach.
Make the world know that #Wewillwin is a demand. Not just a dream.
This extends to the regular fans like you and me. Stop tolerating mediocrity. Don't let anyone involved in the athletics program think that have an infinite blank check of time to get this right. Michigan rioted when there AD did the "Free Tickets with a Coke" promotion, demanded change. They go from mediocrity to Jim Harbuagh and remain at the top of the college football world. Tennessee rioted when Schiano was announced as coach and managed to get rid of both him and their sub par AD. Demand excellence from the program. Giving up and resigning yourself to the "Oh well typical Illinois" mindset which suggests that seasons this bad are in any way acceptable is how we continue to get the Tim Beckman's and John Groce's of the world at the helm.
For the media, paid or otherwise: Please, stop writing articles like this:
You are the voice of the fans, and are the biggest conduit for change out of anything. Echoing the idea that "Things will get better. Because they have to get better" solves nothing and is only making apologies for failure. Don't be afraid to criticize where the teams and the school are falling short. It does not make you bad fans to say that something is wrong. Don't assume everything is on track and every decision made by the coaching staff in infallible and if it doesn't work on the field, it's either bad luck in experience. This is not limited to just staff, hold players accountable too.
But somebody potentially reading this today could do something that could change my entire outlook on Josh Whitman, the school, the coaches, everything.
In Lovie Smith's first season, a report asked if he was being "lax" with the football team in regard to discipline. Lovie Smith snapped back in memorable fashion.
I'd be willing to donate a sizable contribution to the outlet or a charity of said reporter's choosing if someone asks Josh Whitman a similar question. I'd maybe ask something like this.
" After the worst performance across both revenue sports in a single season, you stated at the end of both seasons that you are confident that progress is being made in restoring Illinois Athletics to it's glory days. I'd like for you to elaborate on your statements and explain what you are seeing as opposed to what the rest of the world is seeing, The same dysfunctional Illinois Athletic program that has been the norm for most of our lifetimes."
And I'd want Josh Whitman to get pissed off at me, or whoever asked that question. Just short of throwing them out of the conference. He'd ask what kind of a question is that, how could I be missing the cultural turnaround happening, shed light on the many steps taken to improving the program, and painting a better more inspiring picture than the soundbites we have heard before. I want to see an answer to the question that says "Yes, I'm irritated as all hell of the results we have right now. But this will work. But because I need to spell it out to you, this is why"
I'm usually not one for spoiling the ending of a book or a movie, but when that ending means whether or not that Champaign-Urbana, a decaying city that desperately needs a beacon of hope and something to rally around, I'd like to know if that is Illinois Athletics. Josh Whitman, You certainly make it sound like it is. Now prove it.