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An Outsiders’ View of Illini Football

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What would happen if Nick Saban or Urban Meyer took over Illini Football?

SEC Football Championship - Florida v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Bye weeks allow fans to ponder life’s deeper questions like “what do people outside my fanbase think of my football program?” So, I commissioned myself, an admitted outsider to Illini Football, as well as my law school classmate and good friend, Tim — a Colorado Buffaloes’ fan and avid CFB fan in general — to answer random questions about Illini football.

What does it take to become a CFB Power and does Illinois have what it takes to become one?

Tim: The first part of that question requires a long, detailed answer. But in short, it’s the confluence of great recruiting, great coaching, and a couple of big seasons, and then maintaining that over time. After that, you have a “tradition” of being a power. At the moment, Illinois does not have what it takes. But, as a believer in upward mobility in college football, Illinois could certainly put it together. There is no reason they can’t. I was disappointed that they fell off after the 2008 Rose Bowl.

Barry Alvarez

Raul: Being a CFB Power is massive feedback loop that’s derived from having a winning past and being in a geographically desirable area that can draw recruits. That’s why the powers are either in warm weather states or in northern states with a strong emphasis on high school football like Ohio and Pennsylvania. From there, you need some form of political power in your home state to get what you want and to make sure state resources— whether monetary, law making, or just general oppression of the other football programs in the state — are utilized to help your football program. The icing on the cake is having a tactically brilliant and charismatic coach with sociopathic tendencies who will take no prisoners in his efforts to build the program.

The history of the last 50 years is the biggest obstacle working against the Illini. I truly believe the geography (equidistant between Chicago and St. Louis) is there to at least have a higher floor. There’s no reason Illinois can’t be a Wisconsin — there’s nothing inherently better about the Wisconsin that Barry Alvarez took over in the late ‘80s and what the Illini are now. I think being Wisconsin is the best the Illini can ask for at this point, but being Wisconsin is easier said than done. You don’t turn on a switch and say “Ok, let’s go be Wisconsin.” You need someone with the vision of Barry Alvarez who will be involved as long as Barry Alvarez has been at Wisconsin, who can articulate a theory of football the entire state of Illinois can get behind, and who can vertically integrate the football program from the youth levels up subsequently creating a top notch walk on program. This level of coordination is no easy task, but it’s not impossible.

Illini fans need to remember the following: the more recent winners of the Big Ten West (Iowa and Wisconsin) have no inherent advantage over Illinois. I do, however, think Nebraska has some inherent advantages over Illinois, mainly their history combined with the manner in which they have everyone’s attention in the state, but Nebraska has not capitalized on its advantages and has been terribly overcome by its geographic disadvantages. I expect that to eventually change with Scott Frost.

What would be the ceiling of Illini Football if Nick Saban or Urban Meyer took over tomorrow?

All State Sugar Bowl - Alabama v Ohio State Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Tim: A Saban or Meyer would provide instant buzz, credibility, and top-10 recruiting classes to U of I. The sky would be the limit. Within 3 years they’d be competing for conference titles on an annual basis, and Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin would fear them. The midwestern recruits would be supplemented by big-time, flashy signees from around the country. The ceiling would be a national championship.

Raul. We’ve seen what Saban can do at Michigan State and I think that’s more or less what you would get from him if he took over Illinois Football. Since his stint at MSU, Saban has succeeded in two good ole’ boy southern states, Louisiana and Alabama, where the politicians are heavily involved in the program in one way or another. This leads to a total commitment to football beyond the university administration. He didn’t get that in Michigan with Michigan State, and I don’t think Illinois is the kind of state that would bow down to Saban. For those reasons, I am somewhat bearish on what Saban could do at Illinois. I think Saban would make Illinois a consistent bowl team, but I do not think he would elevate Illinois above Wisconsin, Iowa, or what could become a powerful Nebraska on yearly basis.

Urban, on the other hand, is a different animal. He is more dynamic than Saban in my opinion. Look at what he did at Bowling Green (and Utah)!! He doesn’t require the things Saban requires, which are things that Illinois, as a state and a school, can’t provide. I think Urban would elevate Illinois above Wisconsin and Iowa and probably make the Illini the best program in the Big Ten West, depending on the heights the Huskers reach with Scott Frost. As I said earlier, I think the ceiling is modern day Wisconsin. However, the longer someone like Urban stays in Champaign, the higher the ceiling, the more administrative support Illini football would get, and the more that all important positive feedback loop would start spinning in favor of the Illini. If Urban sticks around for five plus years, then Illinois could become a national force (not just a Big Ten West Force) that could compete with Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State year in and year out.

It’s fun to imagine.

Does Illinois’ lack of consistent success on the gridiron baffle you? If so, why?

Tim: It does baffle me. Illinois has all the parts to build a football tradition and success. It’s a Big State U. It’s in the Big Ten. It has a ton of high school football talent to pull from in the region. It has a great academic reputation. It’s also known as a top-shelf party school. It had a great basketball program, so success in sports was not alien to Illinois. It had the first college football superstar ever in Red Grange. Why does Illinois struggle in football so much?

Raul: Yes and no. Before I covered the Illini, I was always baffled by the Illini’s lack of consistency. I thought to myself “how could a Big Ten school equidistant between Chicago and St. Louis with such a massive and highly successful alumni base struggle so frequently”? Then, the more I studied the history of Illini Football, the more their lack of success made sense. The crippling NCAA Sanctions in 60s and 80s has a lot to do with it, but also the fact that the program seems to bottom out (massive winless streaks in Big Ten play, 1- to 2-win seasons, etc) twice a decade. The Illini’s floor is lower than it should be. The lack of consistency keeps all those successful alumni paying attention to the handful of professional teams in St. Louis and Chicago, and it keeps them from investing their time and money into the program. It’s a terrible feedback loop that’s hard to break.

What is your perception of Illinois’ fanbase and how does that compare to your perception of other Big Ten fanbases?

Rose Bowl - Illinois v USC Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Tim: My perception is that Illinois’ fanbase doesn’t care about football. Now, that could be because they’ve been so bad for so long, but then again, if the fanbase cared they’d pressurize the administration like caring fanbases do, and force serious moves to improve. Having said that, Illinois fans are generally pleasant and easy to deal with, unlike other Big Ten fanbases. Illinois fans don’t go out of their way to tell you how great a school Illinois is, or how they got in and somebody else must not have. And, as of this writing, Illinois has been free of the type of scandals that have plagued Penn State, MSU, and tOSU, and their fans haven’t taken to the streets in support of, or given standing ovations to the facilitators or enablers of awful crimes.

(Editor’s Note: There’s Tim Beckman, but if that’s out of the mind of the casual college football fan, great!)

Raul: It’s mostly positive. They’re very self-aware and that makes them less annoying even when they’re good. Being around Illinois alums, you can sense that the University itself does not instill the sense of triumphalism that a school like Michigan instills in its alums. This is good, but it’s also has negative side effects in terms of drumming up passion when times are as bad as they are now. Illini fans are humble when they’re good, but silent when they’re bad.

What are your earliest Memories of Illinois Football?

Tim: It was the home-and-home series with Colorado in 1989-90. In ‘89, the Buffs walloped Jeff George and the No. 10 Illini in Boulder, 38-7, en route to an undefeated regular season that ended with a crushing loss to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. Prior to the game, George called CU “an average team.” He was sacked four times and threw two picks. The next year, Colorado had high hopes for another great year and shot at the title. Those hopes were diminished when No. 9 CU lost 23-22 on a late Howard Griffith touchdown at No. 21 Illinois (led by QB Jason Verduzco), which ended up being Colorado’s only loss of the 1990 AP Championship season (the UPI poll to Georgia Tech was a joke). So, my earliest memories of Illinois football were of U of I being ranked in the top 20 and able to beat a really good team. That turned out to be an anomaly.

Raul: It was the Jason Verduzco era. Specifically, my earliest memory was Nov. 16, 1991. I remember watching the 1991 Miami-FSU game (famously known as “Wide Right I”). It was the noon game on ABC; Illinois-Michigan was the 3:30 game on ABC that afternoon. I remember thinking how interesting Memorial Stadium looked with it’s pristine red brick architecture in the corners. I was intrigued by the cold weather aspect of Illinois Football with everyone in the stands in hoodies and sweaters. The uniforms were cool too. The Illini’s helmet logo reminded of the New York Giants old helmet logo--the one they wore during the Bill Parcells/Phil Simms/Lawrence Taylor era . From there on, I paid a little more attention to the Illini. I remember their Sun Bowl against Tommy Maddox and UCLA six weeks later, as well as their tie at Michigan the following season. Going forward and beyond 1992, the Illini were usually on my radar. The Johhny Johnson/Simeon Rice/Kevin Hardy teams — that followed the Jason Verduzco era — were a dangerous underdog that were fun to watch.

Who is your favorite Illinois Football player from your lifetime?

University of Illinois Illinois Fighting v University of Missouri Tigers Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Tim: Probably Juice Williams. He was a Chicago public school kid who led the Illini to a victory at Ohio State and to the 2008 Rose Bowl. He started as a freshman and had a cool-sounding name.

Penn State v Illinois Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Raul: Kurt Kittner. There was something alluring about the 1999 and 2001 Illinois teams. In ‘99, it was gratifying to see them beat Michigan on the road, crush Ohio State in Columbus, and then smash UVA in the MicronPC Bowl. The 2001 team was also a feel good story — its first Big ten victory over Penn State was a big deal as were the victories over Wisconsin and Ohio State. The Big Ten in the ‘90s was all about Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. So, watching the Illini take the Big Ten by storm in 2001 was a welcome change. Kirt Kittner was at the center of the 1999 and 2001 teams.

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