Did you have a fun year? I sure did.
In case you missed it, I was honored to have been named the new Site Manager for The Champaign Room on August 1, 2017, following in the footsteps of Jim Vainisi, Tom Fornelli, and all those that have made this site my — and your — favorite place on the web for Illinois Fighting Illini content.
In that past year, we’ve published nearly 1,000 articles. That’s a lot of stuff. And I’m damn proud of all of that. Those 1,000 articles were about a 2-10 football team, 4-14 (in Big Ten) men’s basketball team, 0-18 women’s basketball team, Bren Spillane, men’s tennis, men’s golf, etc.
Just read this recap in case for some sick reason you want to read about everything that happened in Illini sports last year.
Whether you’ve liked it or not, we’ve made some pretty ambitious changes to the site in an effort to produce better content for you, and to bring you closer to the teams you love than ever before. We added credentials, different types of stories and video, all while trying to maintain our voice and tone that you have fallen in love with over the year.
As we enter another year of Illini Athletics, let’s take a look back at some of the ‘must-read’ read and favorite articles from our staff over the past 365 days.
Stephen Cohn: Colton Courage
The story of Colton Rahn and his father, Jason, has become one of my favorites to ever have the chance to cover, and it just so happened that Colton’s story became even more perfect.
When the final buzzer sounded on a 25-21 tally 45 seconds later, Colton threw his arms up and ran toward his teammates on the bench. Illinois players came up from behind him and picked him up on top of their shoulders, carrying him again around the court.
“We live in a small town in Tuscola,” Gensler said. “To see everyone come out and rally around this, it’s probably the most exciting thing to happen in a while.”
Erich Fisher: A Pitcher and His Tic
Erich covered Illinois Football and Men’s Basketball last year, but the most memorable story came from the diamond with pitcher Zack Jones, who battled hitters — and Tourette’s.
“I just think it was easier in college than it was in high school because in high school, baseball is not as big of a part of your life than it is in college where I’m with these guys eight hours every single day no matter what,” Zack Jones said. “Being super close to them has really helped and obviously they don’t care (about me having Tourette’s).”
Austin Jabs: 2017-18 Coach Review: Brad Underwood
Underwood’s first year was memorable to say the least, and Austin broke it down in this analysis piece.
One practice in particular resonated with fans. During an early preseason practice, Underwood stated “We have a big, big complex with losing…Who am I going to get to lead this team? None of you guys want conflict. Part of being a leader is you have to be combative and you have to have conflict.” That was the kind of coach Illinois was getting. A coach that looks for little coaching moments no matter what is going on around him.
Brad Repplinger: Father’s Day: Marching for Deal Old Illini
One of the best aspects of Illinois Athletics is the Marching Illini, and the way that you’re marching the same spots of those from the past. In Brad’s case, he got to march with his dad, making for the perfect Father’s Day tale.
I will spare you the details of where the teams went while I was there, or any of the details of my time in Marching Illini (that’s for another blog post at another time), but those are years I will always cherish. The “piece de resistance” though would come in my senior season on Homecoming, when I would high-five my dad at the 50-yard line during a show. With my family in attendance, I got to experience the thing I had been striving to achieve before I even picked up an instrument.
Brandon Birkhead: Josh Whitman is taking a massive gamble
Josh Whitman is essentially risking his job with all of the changes he’s trying to make for the Illini, and the hope is that it works. If it doesn’t, Brandon — and most of us — think he’ll be gone.
It may work, but boy, it better. Because if it doesn’t the debt will pile up, and revenues won’t be able to keep up. Whitman losing his job would be the least of Illini fans’ worries if this goes belly up.
Ian Gold: An Ode to Ayo
Before #AyoDay, we had an #Ayode. Ian took care of that, as we hoped that Ayo would choose the Illini. Now he’s one of the team’s best players as a freshman.
Those of us old enough to remember 2004-2005 know exactly how beautiful basketball in the State Farm Center can be with multiple guards that can pass, dribble, shoot and RUN!
Illini fans have had enough recruiting heartbreak — it’s time to have some fun. Get your bubbly on ice, Champaign: It’s Ayo weekend!
Jacob Rajlich: Transformation Tuesday: Bruce Weber
Bruce Weber made another NCAA Tourney run this year, as the Illini sat at home. It’s not anyone’s fault, but it is worthy of looking at how Bruce has done since being canned, and Jacob looked at that.
Though most of his teams haven’t exceeded expectations and he has his critics there, it does seem like Kansas State should continue to be consistently successful, as Weber has brought in strong classes, including players such as JUCO transfer Austin Trice, who Illinois had also been pursuing. I doubt that they’ll set as many brackets on fire next year, but they should be a solid team once again, and I would expect to see them make the NCAA tournament for the third straight year, and for the fifth time in seven years. While I’ll spend most of my energy on supporting the Illini, I’ll be cheering for Bruce and the Wildcats in the background.
Kyle Huisinga: The Trinity Catholic to Champaign Train is Full-Speed Ahead
Cory Patterson is doing his job, and he’s doing it well. It’ll help if Shammond comes, but Kyle was impressed early on with the Patterson returns.
Within a couple of months on the job — he wasn’t even allowed to recruit on the road until this last week due to NCAA regulations — Patterson has brought in two of his brightest stars in five-star quarterback/athlete Isaiah Williams and now Childress.
These are the kind of players Illinois hasn’t received commitments from since the early Ron Zook years, when the Illini were in the discussion with some supremely gifted players like Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson.
Matt Rejc: Where Are They Now: The Final Zook Staff
It’s been a while since 2011, so why not look at where that staff ended up? We tasked Matt with that.
The 2011 Illinois football season will always be remembered as one of the most heartbreaking seasons in recent memory. In early October of that year, the Illini had gone undefeated for the first six game to lock up a bowl game and had been ranked as high as #15. But by late November, the Illini had dropped six straight games and Zook along with most of his assistants were looking for new jobs. So, where have these guys been and where are they now?
Matt O’Neall: Leron Black is the Big Ten’s Most Underrated Player
In one of our most analytical pieces of the year, Matt broke down the numbers around Leron Black in an effort to prove he was one of the top players in the Big Ten, even if the media wouldn’t award it to him.
Leron Black came to Champaign as a tenacious, undersized rebounding power forward with a bit of a temper. He immediately earned the nickname “Savage”. I don’t know about you, but when I think of someone with the nickname “Savage”, I don’t think of a smooth low-post operator who also knocks down 50% of his three-point attempts.
Michael Berns: Why Illinois is Getting Interest from Top Recruits
When the Illini’s 2019 class got off to a hot start, Michael took a look at why Illinois was even in the conversation in the first place. #Littyville
Illinois is a blank canvas. It’s a place where it isn’t impossible to make and create a legacy. If you go to Ohio State or Alabama, you could just end up another player. Look at what Juice Williams did when he bucked the trend and went to Illinois. At Illinois, a fanbase yearning for a new icon to uplift a generation, the opportunity and market is wide wide open and there for the taking.
#Littyville and #ILLGang19 are taking notice.
If John Beilein can do it, then Brad Underwood can, too. That was Mark’s logic during Michigan’s Final Four run.
Beilein has done pretty well for himself and the Michigan Wolverines after they missed several straight tournament appearances. Illinois has missed five in a row. And now Beilien is leading Michigan to another Final Four.
Who’s to say Illinois won’t be right where Michigan is, given some time?
Raul Rodriguez: How can the Illini win back Chicago?
Raul isn’t an Illinois alum, but he’s a Chicagoan who has seen the Illini’s downfall firsthand. What does he think the Illini can do to win back the Windy City?
Illinois grads, on the other hand, rarely brag about their alma mater’s academic excellence, which is odd. One theory for this humble, lowkey attitude is that they leave UIUC without an anecdote or a quick elevator pitch about Illini academic excellence. UIUC’s administration needs to create a narrative about how Illinois excels academically. Then, program this into the student body from day one.
What else is there to say about IMar.
You owe it to yourself to see Isaiah Martinez write the final chapter in the story of the greatest wrestler — and arguably, greatest athlete — in Fighting Illini history.
Tristen Kissack: Former Illini Mary Pat Connolly recognized as “Trailblazer” at Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame’
One of the all-time great women’s basketball players at Illinois was recognized in the Hall this year. Tristen spoke with her.
Connolly being recognized as a “trailblazer” with the rest of the WBL members couldn’t be any more fitting of a title for a wonderful basketball career. From starting her high school team, to being one of the first scholarship female athletes at the University of Illinois, to playing in one of the first professional women’s leagues, and capping it off by starting from scratch with her own program at Marist, Connolly has done it all.
We’ve got another amazing year coming for all of you, and it starts Monday with our preseason coverage, leading up to Illinois’ Week 1 battle with Kent State.
We’ll have Tristen in the press box, Will Gerard with a camera on the field, and Orri Benatar, Brandon Birkhead, Thump and more tackling the return of the TCR Podcast Channel with two brand new shows!
And, who knows, maybe a few more wins on the court, field and diamond, too? Let’s go.