By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Stanford does it.
So does Michigan. Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Vanderbilt do it, too.
Heck, even Northwestern has figured it out.
Those schools – each ranked higher than Illinois in the 2013 National University Rankings by U.S. News & World Report – all managed to overcome rigorous admissions standards to enjoy significant football success last season, and are poised to do so again this fall.
So why can’t Illinois?
Among the Illini’s other academic peers, Texas, Penn State and Washington – the three other colleges tied with Illinois at No. 46 in the latest U.S. News rankings – all have football national championships on their resumes. The Illini, meanwhile, have a 61-95 record since 2000.
So, really, what’s the problem in Champaign?
On Monday, veteran Illini scribe Loren Tate of the Champaign News-Gazette wrote a column in which he provided his explanation for why Illinois football can’t gain enough traction to enjoy sustained gridiron success. Chief among Tate’s arguments is that the U. of I.’s stringent academic standards are severely hampering the football’s ability to thrive.
“Over time, Illinois was viewed as a Top 10 public university that required its students to not only attend but also study,” Tate wrote, delving back into the school’s past. “And more recently, campus admissions offices for the various colleges gained the reputation of being tough on marginal transcripts.”
As an Illinois alum proud of my degree, I’m actually pleased with that. But as an Illinois football season ticket holder frustrated with the state of the program, I’d also like to see a lot more wins. And while Tate made some interesting points about academics in his column, I don’t blame the Illini’s perpetual pigskin woes on picky admissions officers.
Rather, I blame it on poor coaching.
In his piece, Tate wrote, “Remember, if the UI brings in about 7,000 new undergrads, these aren’t necessarily the smartest 7,000 available. You’ll recall former Chancellor Nancy Cantor emphasizing diversity … racially, geographically, whatever. If the music school can attract a brilliant vocalist, does it matter if he/she didn’t write a 28 on the ACT? If a budding Paul Newman is available for the drama school, do we care about his GPA?”
The “diversity” angle in relation to football isn’t one that I’ve heard before, and it’s an intriguing argument. It’s also probably not without some validity – although I’d love to know who these supposed pigskin “Paul Newmans” are that were just dying to come to Illinois but weren’t allowed into school.
In his column, Tate acknowledges that Illinois does admit some athletes who are below university standards, but adds that “there is still a large pool of talent that Michigan State can accept and Illinois can’t. Would another five or 10 damage the university standing?”
Probably not, but I also am not privy to just who Illinois denies and who Illinois admits. And I’m not sure that Michigan State (ranked No. 72 by U.S. News) should really be the school’s measuring stick. Again, I can’t imagine that Illinois’ admissions standards for football players are that much, if any, more stringent than Michigan and Wisconsin, the Illini’s true public school peers in the conference.
And while entrance requirements shouldn’t be discounted completely in examining Illinois’ persistent underachievement in football, I tend to find admissions arguments to be more of an excuse than an explanation. That’s because with the right coach – something Illinois hasn’t had since John Mackovic – I think recruiting would take care of itself.
And wins would too.
What I actually find most telling about Illini football is that during Mackovic’s four seasons in Champaign (1988-91), Illinois went 30-16-1. But since he left for Texas following the ’91 regular season and Lou Tepper assumed the reins for the John Hancock Bowl, the Illini have gone 97-149-2 over the past 21 seasons. That’s a .652 winning percentage with Mackovic, compared to .394 since him.
So, starting with Tepper, did the school’s admissions requirements for football players suddenly become twice as hard as they were under Mackovic? Or, more likely, did the coaches just become half as good?
I’ll vote for the latter.
Because, fact is, Illinois hasn’t had a true head coach since Mackovic. They’ve instead had a defensive coordinator in Tepper, an offensive coordinator in Ron Turner, a recruiting coordinator in Ron Zook and, so far, an uncoordinator in current coach Tim Beckman.
At Wisconsin, Barry Alvarez turned a bad football program into a perennial power. Mack Brown rejuvenated a sleeping giant at Texas. Pat Fitzgerald has breathed life into a corpse in Evanston. Each of them, as well as other coaches, have found ways to win at elite academic schools.
Perhaps Illinois could loosen admissions standards for a few more athletes in order to help invigorate the flagging football program. But even more significantly, the university could use a head coach that’s as smart as its student body.
And perhaps instead of talking about student admission standards, the better question might be: Could Zook and Beckman get into Illinois as students?
If the answer is no, that might be an even more important standard worth considering with any future football hires.
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.