By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) From 1994-98, I was a student at the University of Illinois, and during those four years I saw a grand total of 14 football victories.
Seven of them came during my freshman year. Five more happened in my sophomore year. I saw two when I was a junior. And during my last year on campus – which also happened to be Illini coach Ron Turner’s first – I was witness to zero W’s.
But, hey, don’t feel too bad for me.
The Class of ’99 only saw 10 wins total in four seasons.
Over the years, Illini Nation has suffered through far too many bleak ones on the gridiron. But as Illinois football prepares for the summer – the team’s annual Spring Game was held in Champaign last night – before the start of Tim Beckman’s second season, I don’t think I can ever recall a bleaker outlook for the program. Or remember the fandom’s level of hope being at a lower ebb.
Writing for the Decatur Herald-Review last weekend, columnist Mark Tupper described Illini football as “living in the shadows.”
“There is a warm and fuzzy feeling as people happily cajole about basketball,” Tupper observed. “(John) Groce completed a very successful first season as head coach by doing the one thing fans longed for: He has given them a real sense of hope
“While at spring football practice on Friday, I asked several people to point me in the direction of a positive story. I might as well have asked for a map to Tibet.”
If many Illinois fans had their way, that’s probably where they would have sent Beckman – without a map –after his disastrous 2-10 debut season, during which Illinois went winless in the Big Ten.
Since my freshman year in 1994, Illinois has had six seasons in which it has won two games or less: 1996 (2-9), 1997 (0-11), 2003 (1-11), 2005 (2-9), 2006 (2-10) and 2012 (2-10). In the years immediately following those train wreck campaigns, the Illini’s win totals were zero (1997), three (1998), three (2004), two (2006), nine (2007) and TBD (2013).
Now, unless Beckman has an Arrelious Benn and a Rashard Mendenhall hidden somewhere on his depth chart, I’d say it’s unlikely this year’s team rattles off a nine-win record and a run to the Rose Bowl, a la 2007. Much more likely, Illinois will follow-up 2012’s two-win season with a 2013 showing that’s sadly quite similar.
When compared to past poor seasons, however, things feel different now. And not in a good way. Because, despite disastrous first years for both Turner and Ron Zook, Illini fans still felt enough of a sense of optimism about their program that they were willing to weather another rough go-around in year No. 2.
With Turner, there was the prospect of a better offense that was in the works. Zook, meanwhile, offered the prospect of better talent in the pipeline. Fans’ patience ultimately paid off with BCS bowls from both coaches.
But with Beckman … well, you tell me what there is to be optimistic about right now.
One would hope Illinois will be able to finally snap its nine-game losing streak in the season opener on Aug. 31 when the Illini hosts Southern Illinois University, an FCS foe that went 6-5 in 2012.
But, really, who knows. And beyond the Salukis, there aren’t a whole lot of apparent wins on the 2013 Illini schedule. In fact, there’s only one other “clear-cut” opportunity, which arrives on Sept. 28 when Miami (Ohio) visits Champaign. The Redhawks were 4-8 in 2012.
Otherwise, Illinois faces major-conference foes Cincinnati (in Champaign) and Washington (at Soldier Field) before they stare down a daunting Big Ten schedule that opens with games at Nebraska, vs. Wisconsin and vs. Michigan State. After that, Illinois travels to Penn State and Indiana, hosts Ohio State, road trips to Purdue and hosts Northwestern.
It’s barely spring, but in Champaign it’s already looking like a long fall. On the bright side, however, Illinois does have open weeks on both Sept. 21 and Oct. 12.
Is it too late to schedule Tibet?
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.