“You play to win the game…Hello?”
Herman Edwards after a particularly galling New York Jets loss.
Bret Bielema went 8-5 in 2022.
He did so with Lovie Smith’s players.
That’s a bitter pill to swallow.
It shines a brighter light on roster construction. It also raises questions about the future of a program that could “mediocre” its way back to obscurity in the shadow of conference realignment.
So how did we get here?
We reveled in the fool’s gold of the first eight games of last season.
It was a glorious time to be an Illini fan.
Illinois stomped Wisconsin at Camp Randall.
Illinois defeated Iowa and Minnesota.
Things were looking up.
Sure, the wheels came off a bit.
But in the end, it was a successful season. It was the most fun the Illini had been since the early Ron Zook years. To put that in perspective, that was four head coaches ago.
Yes, there was the whirlwind of 2019.
But that storm didn’t include an elite season from Devon Witherspoon, who had a legitimate case to be a Heisman Trophy finalist. It didn’t include two other defensive backs who were drafted. It didn’t include Chase Brown’s senior season.
So the opiate wasn’t as powerful four years ago.
If Illinois loses to Northwestern on Saturday, it could be the last time we see Isaiah Williams, Johnny Newton, and Keith Randolph put on an Illini uniform. All of the young men on this roster deserve better, but those three excelled during dark times and propelled the program to the precipice of a new era of success.
But the complacency of competence took over. And it is depriving the star veterans of one of their best chances to put their stamp on the program’s history.
In the shadow of palpable sadness that is the death of Dick Butkus, the Illini coaching staff has chosen to take the foot off the gas and play not to lose.
It has resulted in losses to Iowa and Wisconsin that could have been crucial victories.
They would have signaled to recruits that Illinois is here to stay.
But instead, they tell recruits “come to Illinois. We’re on the border of relevancy.”
Before I settled in to watch the Iowa game, I read some serious rumormongering online about the potential termination of Chip Kelly by UCLA.
Then, Kelly sent a brutal message to the college football world with an 18-point drubbing of Lincoln Riley intercity rival USC.
Caleb Williams threw for 384 yards in a loss.
Those are two coaches who won’t let up. They would both stand on your throats and watch you bleed out.
Winning programs leave no doubt.
Playing not to lose is an easier way to alienate fans than being incompetent. Why? Because you show the world that you’re capable of winning but not willing to bring in the Sandman and say goodnight.
Iowa deserves credit. They hung in a close game. They withstood excellent performances from Seth Coleman, Gabe Jacas, Johnny Newton, Keith Randolph, and the Illini defense.
Aaron Henry called what may wind up being his best game of the year. And it was all for naught.
It’s not that Illinois didn’t play hard. It is not that Illinois didn’t play well.
But when you leave the 16th-ranked team in the country within striking distance in their home stadium instead of putting them away, this is what can happen to you.
Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.
Despite all of the kvetching, please support the players. On senior day in Champaign, you may be enjoying some of your all-time favorites for their final walk onto the field as Illini. And that matters a great deal for obvious reasons.
Take it in. Thank them. Appreciate them. In a season where they were essentially jobbed out of multiple wins by coaching decisions and possibly deprived of a bowl game, they have certainly earned it.