By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Busy (supposedly) jet-setting across the country on his search to replace the dearly departed Ron Zook, I don’t know where University of Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas will be Saturday night.
But I’ll be in Indianapolis watching Wisconsin and Michigan State knock heads in the inaugural Big Ten championship game. And if Thomas is wise – which I think he is – then he should be paying attention to someone else in attendance at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Even if Thomas can’t be there in person.
Now, I’m not talking about Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst (a rumored Illini candidate). Nor do I mean Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi (ditto). They might both make great head coaches, I really don’t know. But whomever Thomas hires to assume the football reins at Illinois, it would be wise if the man carried some (or many) of the same qualities as another prominent Big Ten figure: Wisconsin athletic director – and former Badgers football coach – Barry Alvarez.
On Tuesday, during his nationally syndicated sports talk show, Dan Patrick referred to the Illinois football job as “generic,” which I really don’t disagree with. The Illini program’s only identity is wild inconsistency. But just because the job is generic hardly means it’s bad.
In fact, I happen to think the Illinois football job offers as much potential as any in the country. Much like, you know, the University of Wisconsin job offered Alvarez two decades ago when he took it over and transformed the Badgers into a snarling, bare-knuckled national power.
Back in 1990, Alvarez left his gig as defensive coordinator for Lou Holtz’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish and moved to Madison, where he inherited a football program that wasn’t just generic. It was downright awful.
At that time, the Badgers hadn’t had a winning season since 1984 and had won only seven Big Ten games since then. Going to football games at Wisconsin in the late ’80s was about tailgating. It wasn’t about football. But Alvarez set out to change that – and did.
In his first season, Wisconsin went just 1-10 and Alvarez compiled back-to-back 5-6 seasons in the two years after that. But come 1993, the Badgers – fueled by the first senior class recruited by Alvarez – steamrolled the Big Ten, compiling a 10-1-1 record and made the school’s first Rose Bowl appearance since 1963. In Pasadena, Wisconsin’s 21-16 win over UCLA was only the second bowl victory in the school’s history.
After that, Alvarez went on to win or share two more Big Ten titles and win another pair of Rose Bowls, racking up a career record of 118-73-4 over 16 seasons and turning Wisconsin into a new pillar of the Big Ten along the way.
Since Alvarez retired and moved into the AD role in 2006, his protégé Bret Bielema has only carried on this new Badgers tradition with a 59-18 career mark, including four seasons with at least 10 wins. Today, Wisconsin Football is a brand name. There’s nothing generic about it. It stands for toughness and it stands for success.
But Illinois shouldn’t stand for being so far behind it. Wisconsin is a great school with fine football facilities, but let’s also be honest: There is absolutely no logical reason – none – why the Badgers are perennial national power and the University of Illinois is an annual also-ran.
Illinois is equally as strong in academics and with the renovations to Memorial Stadium, it has football facilities on par with any school in the country. Illinois is also located in a state that’s the most populous in the Big Ten and the fifth largest in the country. And, while any Big Ten school needs to recruit nationally to be a power, there undoubtedly is more high school talent within the state borders of Illinois than there is across the Cheddar Curtain in Wisconsin.
So, the question really isn’t why can Illinois be a national power. The question is, why isn’t it already?
The best answer, I suppose, is this: Because lllinois has yet to find its own Alvarez. The hope here is that this month Mike Thomas can identify a program-builder like the one who constructed Wisconsin’s and can finally give Illini football a true identity as well as consistent success.
As for who that coach is, I can’t say for sure. But this I am certain about: It wasn’t former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, who was hired on Wednesday by Washington State.
Mind you, Leach is a very talented coach – as his 84-43 career record indicates – but he’s also an extremely eccentric and often off-putting individual. And, fact is, Leach’s controversial personality and curious quirks are more suited for isolated outposts such as Lubbock, Tex. and Pullman, Wash. than they are for a school located a two-hour’s drive from the scrutiny of the nation’s third-largest media market.
Mike Leach is a great fit for Wazzu, where he’ll have success. He wasn’t a great fit for Champaign.
On Wednesday, Mike Thomas wrote an open letter to Illinois fans in his blog, letting them know he’s searching for that fit.
“As our search for a new head football coach moves forward, I have a strong sense of the type of coach we need to realize the potential of Illini football,” Thomas wrote.
“I intend to contact a trusted group of friends who are well respected in collegiate and professional football circles. A successful football coach at Illinois or any top-tier college program must have talents beyond the knowledge of the game, particularly for a program intent on establishing itself consistently among the Top 25 BCS programs in the country and at the top of the Big Ten. We will find this person for Illinois!”
My advice: When looking for that person, compare his qualities to those of Barry Alvarez.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.