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Every Illinois Football coaching tenure seems to be the same

Illini coaches can’t seem to ever capitalize on success.

Penn State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

A while back I made a formula to calculate how good each Illini football season was based on wins/bowls/rivalry wins, etc., and looking back, I noticed a strong trend.

Almost every single head coach follows a similar trajectory in terms of wins in their career that I would like to call the “Pyramid Effect.” After putting the wins per season of every coach throughout their career into a graph, a very similar shape occurred in almost every instance. A climb up to a somewhat to very successful season, and a harsh and sharp downfall once again to the basement, a pyramid.

A concerning trend

Mike White is where we’ll start, because he is both the earliest and best example of the pyramid. He took a miserable team to three wins, turned it around, and even hit the illustrious 10-win mark for one of only three instances in Illini history. From that 10-win season, the steady decline starts. Seven wins, six wins, four wins, three wins. It makes nearly a perfect pyramid. It’s disappointing he couldn’t sustain the success and keep Illinois at the top of the Big Ten, but that’s just the way some careers in football go. Next example.

Taking the reins of a program that starts at a zero win season, and producing a 10-win season just four years later is incredibly impressive, and seemingly an obvious candidate for a successful tenure at a program that desperately needs it. Would you believe it if you were to be told that within the next three years there would be a one-win season, a three-win season, and a fired head coach? You know what football program you root for, so you would probably believe it. But that being said, it would still probably be pretty jarring.

Big seasons are meant to propel programs into relevancy. A great example is of Baylor, who from 1996 until 2009, didn't make a single bowl game or even hit the six-win mark. In 2010 they hit seven wins, were able to capitalize off of that winning season, and hit a stride of 10, 8, 11, 11, 7 wins in consecutive years. Without that capitalization, those 10- and eight-win seasons are insignificant in the long run.

The coaches above aren’t just two examples.

  • John Mackovic: 6 -> 10 -> 8 -> 6
  • Lou Tepper: 6 -> 5 -> 7 -> 5 -> 2
  • Ron Zook: 2 -> 2 -> 9 -> 5 -> 3 -> 7 -> 6
  • Lovie Smith: 3 -> 2 -> 4 -> 6 -> 2 (COVID)

Every single one of these head coaches follow the up and down trend, with some finishing worse than the year that they started. It’s not an example of, “They’re getting old, it's bound to happen” either. The longest tenure on this list is eight years; Nick Saban has been doing it at Alabama for 17 years. Obviously an extreme example, but one that proves that the head coaching job is one that can have sustainability.

Also, the drop-off is often dramatic. Zook went from nine wins to five; Lovie went from six wins to two (notable that this was the 2020 COVID season, but not sure that team would’ve won any more games in conference); Turner from 10 wins to five. These things don’t usually — and shouldn’t — happen this quickly.

The only multi-year head coach I didn’t add past the ‘80s was Tim Beckman, who actually had improvement every year, 2 -> 4 -> 6 wins, but his abrupt departure didn't allow his tenure to run its inevitable course.

Who’s to blame?

Is it the coaches themselves? The athletic department? The fans even?

I don't think this is a matter of finding the right guy at head coach. There have been eight multi-year head coaches since 1980, and each one of them, at some point in their tenure, had that moment where it felt like they would be the one to turn it around. And yet each one had the same conclusion, falling right back down the pyramid. Eight coaches is a lot, and I think it is enough to conclude that the coaching is not the entire problem. Obviously a truly great head coach could solve the problem, but those are very hard to come by.

There have been four different ADs since that same 1980 mark, each investing different levels into the football program, yet yielding the same exact result. I do not think the blame can be put onto these departments. Josh Whitman has put a great number of resources into the program. The creation of the $79.2 million Smith Football Center, the recent renovations of all of the locker rooms and facilities, yet none of these investments have resulted in sustained success.

While the other two cannot be ruled out as the catalyst of the lack of sustained success, the fans can be. This year the attendance has been great compared to the last few.

The team won eight games last year, the fans showed up this year, and... the product on the field looks even worse than when Bielema took over. It’s not a fan problem. The fans show up when they need to, but involvement and support have not led to wins on the field.

Speaking of Bielema, I have not lost faith... yet. While his path of 5 -> 8 -> 4-5 may look like a pyramid, none of the other head coaches reached their peak and decline this soon. The hope is that the five or six wins projected for this year is more of a strong hiccup than the dreaded decline of the pyramid, but it is definitely not out of the question.

Who do you think is the cause for the inability to sustain wins?