This is the time for New Year’s resolutions. What I learned during the 2019 Illinois Fighting Illini Football season is a lesson that will allow me, and perhaps a collective “us” as Illinois fans to grow: It is okay to be wrong, and it feels even better when you admit you are wrong.
Leading up to the Redbox Bowl, I was asked by many people who I think would end up winning the game. Hailing from California, acquaintances and relatives were asking me how I thought Illinois would fare against a Pac-12 team it hadn’t faced since 2005. I come from Pac-12 country, a transplant into Big Ten country for the last decade plus — and here, on this Dec. 30, my worlds were colliding.
The mind wanders. Rather than try to give a prediction breaking down how this Illinois team would play against this California Golden Bears team — as a bunch of excellent writers who I consider teammates and friends at TCR have done — I looked back on this past 2019 season — a season that meant almost as much to me as the 2007 Rose Bowl year meant, with a ton of joy and awe at what had transpired over the last five months. This might sound asinine to some people, but I frankly did not care how well we played against Cal. I watched every second of the game, but compared to the other 12 games on the schedule, I did not care one bit about the final score. Why? There was something much more important to think about.
Let us look back on our predictions leading up to the season. Most expected five wins. Our site manager, as well as our longest tenured writer/OffTackle Empire columnist and tweeter extraordinaire, expected four wins. I was the one who predicted three wins. 63-0 was fresh on my mind when I wrote that. As was the 2018 Purdue game. As was the fact that Lovie Smith opted not to hire a true defensive coordinator in the offseason.
To me, there was no reason for optimism. Not in scheme. Not in talent compared to the rest of the Big Ten. Not in ambition of the athletics department or in the stubbornness of the head coach.
Not after getting blown out and run right over by the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Not after losing to Michigan, where the effort at the end was great — but too little too late to overcome a 28-0 deficit.
The week of Oct. 13 could be considered life-changing, in a sports context, but also in a lessons-for-life context. The TCR team put together its weekly predictions leading up to game day. It was not pretty. 59-8. 56-10. 48-14. 51-10. 37-7. 66-0. It goes on. There was no hope leading up to Homecoming for the Illini. None. No reason for it. No rationale or logic for it.
Talent is measureable. Quantified by statistics. Analyzed in film session. Data does not lie. The game still happens. There is an event and a production where everything in the past is put aside, and all that matters is the here and now. It is what makes live sports so great.
Like a few probably reading this, I was on all fours like a baby, eyes fixated on the TV as James McCourt took his four steps back and two to the side setting himself up for what would be not just the kick of the decade, but arguably the most important kick in Illinois football history.
Illinois' James McCourt has ice in his veins. pic.twitter.com/PdMNbrzUqR— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) October 19, 2019
Paralyzed with emotion. Tears? Maybe. The best way to describe how it felt was shook — elation, yes — but just pure shock at what just happened. I felt numb.
I was in the student section for upsets during the 2007 Rose Bowl season when Illinois took down ranked Penn State and Wisconsin on back-to-back weekends, but even back then — and maybe this was my 18-year old arrogance — I had a feeling we’d win those games. I was confident in the quarterback, running game and playmakers out on the edges and on special teams to know we were at least in some sense on the same level as the 2007 Badgers and Nittany Lions.
Not against Wisconsin in 2019. They were better at every position leading up to the game. They had the country’s best defense and what was at that point the best team in the Big Ten.
Shook. Paralyzed. Almost emotion-less. I could not believe it. Perhaps that is the lesson from this 2019 season and what these Illinois Fighting Illini have taught us. Just when we think there is no reason for hope, no crack at all where even the dimmest light could shine through — there it is. On a Saturday in October.
Sure at TCR we’ve gotten a lot of (in a lot harsher words than this), “I told you so, you were too negative and had no faith” sentiment-filled shame comments on Twitter and on Facebook.
I eat it. I eat a lot of it. I am so glad to be wrong. A lot of us are so glad to be wrong. We love this team and this university. It is okay to brush egos aside, know-it-all-predictions and hot takes aside because there is a unity in supporting this group of players who represent a university that for one reason or another means so much to us.
There is still doubt. There is still negativity. The fanbase seems split on this: Is the best yet to come in this Lovie Smith tenure? I do not think anyone believes Lovie should be canned after a season like the one we just had, but it is certainly reasonable to question the direction this program is heading especially after losing to Northwestern the way Illinois did a month ago and where Illinois finished in the class rankings post early-signing day a few weeks ago.
There is not a luscious patch of green grass awaiting us at the end of 2019 and looking ahead to 2020. It is bumpy in some spots. Brown and dying in others. No matter what, there always has to be some hope even when it does not seem like there is any reason for it. That’s the lesson of this past season.
Thank you Illinois Fighting Illini Football for this season and for the memories and lessons that will last a lifetime.