Hoge On College Football: Illini Fans Might Deserve Better, But Shouldn’t Expect It
By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) Here we are again.
With the Illini football program somehow regressing from where it was under Ron Zook, critics are rightly questioning whether or not Tim Beckman is the right man at Illinois.
My colleague Dave Wischnowsky wrote a column Tuesday saying that not only do fans deserve better — they should expect it.
Whenever it comes to hiring coaches at Illinois, there seems to be two different conversations. The first one is about how good a coach Illinois should go after and the second is about how good a coach the program should realistically expect to land.
I’ll never criticize fans for demanding the very best. They put their hard-earned money into the program and it should go after the very best. But Illini fans also shouldn’t be surprised when the result is Tim Beckman.
Wisch firmly believes Illinois can be a national power and he points to the rise of the Wisconsin Badgers in the 1990s as evidence that it can happen. That’s where he goes wrong.
Because I hold a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin, there’s really no way for me to write this without sounding like a homer, but the truth is, this is much more an indictment of Illinois football than it is a defense of Wisconsin football. I could and would make the same points had Wisch chosen to compare Illinois to any other school.
But I certainly understand why he chose to make the comparison he did. What Barry Alvarez did with Wisconsin in the 1990s is truly remarkable and its stands today as the prime example of what other struggling football programs want to achieve. It’s what Illinois wants to achieve.
What people don’t realize is that what happened at Wisconsin in the early 90s was a perfect storm that was waiting to happen. And it’s a storm that won’t be hitting Champaign any time soon.
Below are direct passages from Wisch’s column in bold with my response:
There is absolutely no logical reason – none at all – why the Badgers are a perennial national power packing a rowdy 80,000-seat stadium, while the University of Illinois is an annual also-ran where a crowd of 50,000 is considered a big one these days.
Well, I can think of one logical reason: Wisconsin has a rowdy 80,000-seat stadium while Illinois is annual also ran where a crowd of 50,000 is considered a big one these days.
Illinois is on par with Wisconsin academically, and with the recent renovations to Memorial Stadium, it has football facilities on even footing with the top schools in the country.
I won’t get into semantics over academic rankings because in the business of college football, high academic standards only prevent schools from having dominant football programs (i.e. Northwestern). But Illinois is not “on par” with Wisconsin academically, as UW-Madison actually has a three-shot lead in U.S. News’ Top Public Schools rankings — Wisconsin is No. 10 and Illinois is No. 13, tied with the likes of Penn State and Texas. Again though, both schools are highly ranked institutions and if anything, that only hurts both football programs from admitting elite recruits that might struggle in the classroom.
As for the football facilities, I’m giving Wisch some homework. Go take a trip to Ohio State. Go take a trip to USC. Go take a trip to Alabama. When you come back, look at me with a straight face and tell me Illinois’ football facilities are on even footing with the top schools in the country. They aren’t even close.
Illinois is located in a state that’s the most populous in the Big Ten and the fifth largest in the country (Wisconsin is 20th). 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.
Numbers are numbers and Illinois obviously has more citizens than Wisconsin. But does that really matter? Not at all. Illinois has a greater population because of Chicago, which, by the way, is only 10 miles closer to Champaign than it is to Madison, Wis.
When talking about state borders, we are really talking about a football program’s culture within its own state. And in that regard, Illinois has an enormous disadvantage to Wisconsin. In the state of Wisconsin, nearly every family raises their children to be Badger fans and that bond with the Wisconsin football program is now more important than ever as children born in the heart of Barry Alvarez’s most successful mid-90s seasons are now deciding where they are going to go to college. For any football recruit in Wisconsin — elite or not — the Badgers are on their list, guaranteed.
In Chicagoland, where the great majority of the Illinois population lives, the Illini are fortunate to be on a top recruit’s list. Chicago is the Big Ten melting pot where parents are raising their kids to root for their alma mater, which is just as likely to be Michigan as it it Illinois. Northwestern might claim to be Chicago’s Big Ten team and Illinois might claim to be Illinois’ team, but it’s Notre Dame that is Chicago’s college football team — and even that isn’t very obvious.
This problem is one of Illinois’ greatest obstacles (in basketball too). The majority of high school talent is in the Chicagoland area, where Illinois will never have the biggest piece of the recruiting pie, no matter how much success the program has. The state of Illinois might have more talent than the state of Wisconsin, but the Badgers hold on to their elite in-state talent, while the Illini might never even have a finger on it. It’s something that’s not going to change in Chicago, no matter how much Illini fans want it to.
So, the question really isn’t “Why can’t Illinois be a national power?” The question is, “Why isn’t it already?”
In a tweet Tuesday, Wisch told me that Wisconsin fans’ expectations would have been called “unrealistic” too before Barry Alvarez arrived in Madison. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean Illinois is in the same situation. History has shown that the Badgers were a sleeping giant in a football-first state. Wisconsin football only plays second-fiddle of the Packers, while the Illini will never leapfrog the Cubs, White Sox, Bulls or even the St. Louis Cardinals in Illinois.
Wisconsin already had the historic, mammoth stadium in one of the best college towns in the country when Alvarez got there. Even after the renovations, Illinois still has an average college football stadium in a town that won’t ever be anything more than the home of the University of Illinois. Alvarez was able to build a program with home-grown offensive linemen that don’t exist in Illinois (especially Chicago) and keep the borders shut on any elite recruits within the state. Illinois will never be able to accomplish that in the Chicagoland area.
And that gets at the root of the problem. Wisch believes that Illini fans should demand an elite head coach. I’ll never tell them not to demand the best, but no, they shouldn’t expect to land one. Not with those facilities. Not with those recruiting limitations. Not at that basketball school.
The school of Red Grange and Dick Butkus deserves better.
Red Grange and Dick Butkus racked up a combined record of 37-20-2. That’s a winning percentage of .627. In today’s 12-game regular season schedule, that comes out to 7.5 wins per season.
7.5 wins? Now that sounds like a realistic expectation for Illini fans. But just so you know, that’s also what Indiana Hoosiers fans are demanding.
And that’s the sad truth. In the ranks of college football programs, Illinois is closer to Indiana than it is to Wisconsin.
- It’s finally time to accept Notre Dame as legitimate, but that’s still a scary thing to do against a bi-polar Stanford team. You don’t know what you are going get from the Cardinal offense or defense. We do, however, know what we are going to get from Manti Te’o and the Notre Dame defense, which hasn’t allowed a touchdown in over a month. I have a feeling this will be a low scoring game, but I’ll take the Irish at home.
- Northwestern’s loss at Penn State ended a lot of optimism and cost them a decent chance to get College GameDay to come to Evanston for next week’s clash against Nebraska. Now the ‘Cats have to regroup for a tricky road game at Minnesota. The Gophers got off to a 4-0 start before being embarrassed at Iowa. But Jerry Kill had two weeks to prepare for this game and the Gophers are going to be tough at home this year. This is a huge game for Northwestern. Win this one and you still have a chance to put together a magical season. Lose this one and things could get out of hand quickly.
- It may be the biggest game of the season in the Leaders Division and hardly anyone realizes it. Wisconsin goes to Purdue Saturday and it could end up being the Leaders Division Championship Game. The fact that ESPN passed on this one tells you a lot about the state of the Big Ten and specifically, the Leaders side. The Badgers haven’t lost in West Lafayette since 1997, winning four straight there, but this is a bad matchup for an inconsistent offensive line. Purdue’s defensive line might be the best in the conference. The defense looked bad against Denard Robinson, but they’ll be much better against a pocket quarterback, especially a redshirt freshman in Joel Stave. Boiler up.
- It was pretty obvious West Virginia would be good this year, but you had to wonder how the Mountaineers would adjust to the Big 12. In your first year in a new conference, you essentially play 12 non-conference games in the sense that you aren’t familiar with any of your opponents. They are off to a great start, but this weekend’s game at Texas Tech could be a trap game sandwiched between last week’s win over Texas and next week’s home game against Kansas State.
- With two weeks to prepare, I’ll take Minnesota over Northwestern and yes, Iowa over Michigan State in a shocker in East Lansing. Purdue will end its six game losing streak to Wisconsin, while Michigan and Ohio State roll over Illinois and Indiana, respectively.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.