By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) During his introductory press conference back in December 2011, newly hired Illinois football coach Tim Beckman curiously refused to utter the name “Northwestern” while talking about the Illini’s in-state Big Ten brethren. Instead, Beckman declared that he would only refer to the Wildcats as “that team upstate.”
Since he said that, the Illini have only beaten Northwestern once in football and basketball games combined. (A narrow 57-56 win at Welsh-Ryan Arena last January is it.)
In the football season finale in November, Beckman’s Illini were pounded by “that team upstate” for an ugly 50-14 loss in Evanston. And on Thursday night Champaign, “that team upstate” ripped 23rd-ranked Illinois 68-54 in a defeat so puzzling that it left Illini fans simultaneously scratching their heads and screaming in frustration as they streamed out the Assembly Hall doors.
Now, Beckman isn’t to blame for the basketball loss … I don’t think. But, nevertheless, his misdirected attempt to elevate the Northwestern rivalry in the eyes of Illini Nation was an early sign of how the overwhelmed coach just couldn’t get anything right.
Among Illini fans, Northwestern has historically been viewed as more of an annoyance than a rival, a designation that has been reserved for the likes of Indiana and Iowa. Beckman clearly didn’t understand that. And he didn’t see that such fighting words with the Wildcats wouldn’t resonate much with his new team’s fan base, which doesn’t aspire to beat Northwestern, but rather expects it. Especially at home.
However, with the way things are going for the Illini these days – in both football and basketball – Beckman just may get his wish about an aggrandized Northwestern rivalry. Illini fans might actually start considering themselves lucky when they beat the Wildcats.
Yes, it’s gotten that bad.
Prior to Thursday night’s defeat – a game in which Illinois never even led – the Illini had won 28 of its last 30 vs. Northwestern at Assembly Hall and led the all-time series 129-37. Since 1980, Illinois had gone 56-8 vs. the Wildcats.
But now? Illinois has lost at home to Northwestern in back-to-back years and dropped four of the last six games overall vs. “that team upstate.” For the Illini, that’s a sign of a program heading south. After all, it’s not as if Northwestern has suddenly become some powerhouse. This is still a program that’s yet to make an NCAA Tournament. Ever.
Speaking of which, new Illini basketball coach John Groce now has his work cut out for him if his team is to make the NCAA Tourney come March. During this demoralizing 1-4 start in the Big Ten, Groce is likely learning things about his roster that former Illinois coach Bruce Weber knew all too well when he was fired last year after a 2-12 tailspin to end this season.
For whatever reason, this collection of Illini players – despite what appeared to be an encouraging bounce-back against Ohio State following the Purdue loss – just seems to be missing something. Let’s call it toughness, for lack of a clearer explanation.
The encouraging thing is, I still believe in the future and direction of John Groce, who looked ready to spit nails on the sidelines last night while his team shot bricks. But, after watching this Illini team drop five of seven following a 12-0 start, I’m currently having a hard time believing in the players. After all, it’s not as if we haven’t seen this kind of thing from them before.
Hopefully, the Illini will show us something at Nebraska on Tuesday. But let’s hope what they show us isn’t someone crying on the bench.
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.