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When was the best era in Illinois history?

Finding out when was the best time to be an Illini (with math).

2005-06 NCAA Basketball: Illinois Fighting Illini vs Missouri Tigers Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

As a relatively young Illinois sports fan, I did not have the pleasure of experiencing “The Glory Days” of Illini athletics. Because of this, I decided to make a formula to find the best season, decade, and coach of the three biggest collegiate sports, which are football, and men’s and women’s basketball.

In this formula I took into account record, conference record, postseason success, and rivalry record, and using the power of Excel, made one number to sum up the year.

The formulas for how we got the score for each sport are at the bottom of the article.

Here is how it went.


University of Illinois David Williams Set Number: X29199 TK1

Best Years (Year - Score)

  1. 1951 - 175
  2. 1946 - 155
  3. 1983 - 150
  4. 1963 - 150
  5. 1989 - 135

Decade Averages

  1. 1950’s - 73.5
  2. 1980’s - 73
  3. 1990’s - 53
  4. 1960’s - 51.11
  5. 1940’s - 50.56
  6. 2020’s - 46.67
  7. 2000’s - 39
  8. 1970’s - 35.5
  9. 2010’s - 31.5

These rankings start in the 1940s, since everything before that wouldn’t work in the formula. Both the 1950s and 1980s rule above the leaderboards pretty heavily. Both decades do contain some dud-years, with 1954 having a score of 20, and ‘86 and ‘87 both command scores of 25, but the years on top of these decades define some of the best years of Illini football. From a 10-2 season in ‘83 under Mike White, winning the Big Ten and making a Rose Bowl appearance with a score of 150, to 1951 where Ray Elliot took the Illini to a 9-0-1 season, while being ranked top 5 in the nation and winning the Big Ten, there are certainly some seasons that really put these two eras of football above the rest.

If there is one thing this has really shown me is how bad the team has been since 2001. Since 2001, there have been 5 years with scores of 5, 0, or -5. From 1927 to 2001, there had been 8. This is 21 years vs. 74 years, with very similar numbers of terrible seasons. Things aren’t all bad, however, as last year, the second season under Bret Bielema, had a score of 80. This is the best year since 2007, and a top 5 score since 1990. Of course that may seem like it doesn't mean much after describing how lackluster this era has been, but improvement is improvement when it comes to attempting to revive a program.

The decades I hadn't mentioned were... fine. They didn't live up to the 80s or 50s but they also didn’t have continuously low numbers like the 2010s. The ‘60s had a fantastic year in 1963, going 8-1-1 and winning the Rose Bowl, but outside of that there is nothing to speak out about. The 1990s had the best start to any decade, with a score of 115 in 1990 when the Illini went 8-4 under John Mackovic, and another decent year in 1994 with a Liberty Bowl win, but again, nothing notable score-wise outside of this.

Men's Basketball

2005-06 NCAA Basketball: Illinois Fighting Illini vs Missouri Tigers Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Best Years (Year - Score)

  1. 2004-04 - 195
  2. 1950-51 - 175
  3. 1951-51 - 167
  4. 1988-1989 - 152
  5. 1983-84 - 145

Decade Averages

  1. 2000’s - 94.3
  2. 1950’s - 87.7
  3. 2020’s - 86
  4. 1980’s - 84.1
  5. 1990’s - 47.1
  6. 1960’s - 44.1
  7. 2010’s - 24.9
  8. 1970’s - 13.44

The thing that stood out most to me here is the massive drop between the top and bottom half of the decade rankings. The top four decades are great, and make up the framework for one of the top basketball programs of all time, and yet the bottom 4 really makes It hard to be in that conversation.

The early 2000s were primetime for Illinois basketball. The famed 2004-05 team that won 37 games and went to the NCAA championship landed as the best Illini team in the history of the program by 20 points, and the years surrounding it under Self and Weber were also extremely successful. This includes a score of 140 in 2000-01, 127 in 2001-02, 115 in 2003-04, and an 87 in 2002-03 and 2005-06. One thing that surprised me as I made this was how good the early 1950s were. I was very confident that the number one team on the list would be ‘04-05 and second place would be 1988-89 and that Flying Illini team, but that team comes in 4th behind two top five finishing seasons, where in 1950-51 the Illini only lost one Big Ten game, and in 1951-52, they only lost two.

The bottom four decades of the list are less than great as mentioned before. The 1970s were an abysmal era for Illinois basketball, with the highest season in ‘79-80 being a 30. That would be the second lowest score in the 2000s. The 1990s had some pretty good seasons in the Kruger era, with 79 in 1996-97 and 82 in 1997-97, but the tail end of Henson’s coaching career finished with 6 seasons with a score under 50.

The Underwood era has produced some really bad seasons, with a score of 1 in ‘18-19 and a -9 in ‘17-18, but it has also produced the ninth-best season of all time with the one seed and a 130 in ‘20-21. The past two seasons have been decent, but nothing special. Last year had a score of 41 and the year before was an 87. Consistency and stand out years are the hope and goal for the next few years if Illinois wants to return to the dominance it had in the 2000s

Women’s Basketball

Illinois v Maryland Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Best Years (Year - Score)

  1. 1996-97 - 96
  2. 1997-98 - 94
  3. 1999-00 - 84
  4. 1985-86 - 73
  5. 1986-87 - 68

Decade Averages

  1. 1990’s - 48.6
  2. 1980’s - 42.11
  3. 2000’s - 41.6
  4. 2020’s - 30.33
  5. 2010’s - 23.78

It has been a rough go for the Illinois women’s basketball team throughout the years. The major highlight is the eras coached mainly by Theresa Grentz before she decided to step down from head coach. The two decades where she held the reins on the program, the 1990s and 2000s, were the best two ranked decades by this number. Her teams also hold the three best years in Illinois history according to this statistic, winning the only share of a Big Ten title in program history in the 1997-98 season.

The worst stretch in program history just ended this last year. From the ‘15-16 season, to the ‘21-22 season, there were four seasons with a score of 14, and three with a score of 20. 14 is the worst score in program history and before this, it had only been “accomplished” one time, in the 2010-11 season.

Things are of course looking up, however. The score of 63 Shauna Green accomplished this last year was the best by a first-year coach in the history of the program, and the seventh-best score overall. With a top-25 ranking, a First Four berth, and a better than usual record against conference rivals, this could be the start of a new best era in the sport for Illinois.

Overall takeaways

The best decade in Illinois sports was...

The 1950s and 1980s

1950s - Even though there is not an official women’s basketball team for this decade, men’s basketball and football more than make up for it. This decade included two of the three best seasons of Illinois basketball according to their scores, as well as enough consistent success to give it the best average score, and puts it well into the conversation for best decade. Ray Eliot and Harry Combes ruled their decade they had with the team, and made it maybe the best decade to be an Illini.

1980s - Just having a women's basketball team makes this a tie with the ‘50s, and it was a decent of for Illinois, ranking second among decades. The ‘80s for football was not very consistent, but brought two of the best seasons in Illini history in 1983 and 1989. As for men's basketball, the legendary Lou Henson ushered in one of the best eras for Illini basketball, with the 80’s having consistent success, with a 7-year stretch of scores 70 or above.

There we have it. Because I wasn't around to experience all Illinois had to experience in its storied history, I can now have at least a small glimpse of what these decades prior were like. It doesn't tell the whole story, or maybe even half of it, but it provides substance to years I wasn't able to experience. When do you think was the best era to be an Illini?


Men’s/Women’s Basketball

MEN’S Winning Percentage (if .900s = 40, if .800s = 35, if .700s, 25, if .600s = 17, if .500s = 14, if .400s = 8, if lower, 5) WOMEN’s ((if .700+ = 40, if .600s = 35, if .500s, 25, if .400s = 17, if .300s = 14 if lower, 8)

+MEN’S Conference winning Percentage (if .900s = 30, if .800s = 25, if .700s = 20, if .600 = 15, if .500s = 12, if .400s = 8, if lower, 5) WOMEN’S (if .900s = 30, if .800s = 25, if .700s = 20, if .600 = 17, if .500s = 14, if .400s = 8, if lower, 5)

+Highest season rank (if top 5 = 20, if top 10 = 15, if top 20 = 10, if top 25 = 5)

+End of season rank (Same as above)

+Tournament Success MEN’S (If Title runner up = 30, if Final 4 = 27, if Elite 8 = 20, if Sweet 16 = 15, if Round of 32 = 10, if First Round Exit = 5) WOMEN’S (if Sweet 16 = 20, if Second Round = 15, if Round of 32 = 10, if Play in = 5)

+Conference Rival Record MEN’S (NW, UM, IU, PU, IOWA) WOMEN’S (NW, IU, PU) (If win, +5, if lose, -5)

+If win Big Ten before tournament was introduced, +15, if after +10

+If win Big Ten tourney +10


Winning Percentage (If .900 or above = 50, if .800s = 40, if .700s = 35, if .600s = 30, if .500s = 25, if .400s = 20, if .300s = 15, if .200s = 10, if .100s = 5)

+Conference Winning Percentage (Same as above)

+Highest Season Ranking = (if top 5 = 20, if top 10 = 15, if top 20 = 10, if top 25 = 5)

+End Season Ranking = (Same as above)

+Bowl (If win bowl game, +20, if make bowl but lose, +10)

+Rivalry Record (NW, IOWA, PU) (If win, +5, if lose, -5)

+If Big Ten Champs (+10)