By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) As an Illini football season ticket holder, I received an email survey from the University of Illinois Athletics Department on Monday afternoon.
My alma mater wanted to know about my expectations and overall experience at Illini games, and asked me to provide numerical ratings for a series of related questions. The final one, however, required an actual typed response when I was asked, “What is the one thing that the Illinois football organization can do to ensure you will remain a happy season ticket holder?”
My answer: “Win.”
It’s that simple. Yet, of course, for the Fighting Illini, it isn’t at all.
And the problem – one of them, at least – that second-year Illinois coach Tim Beckman is facing is that he simply hasn’t won. Not much, and not at all in the Big Ten. So, really, how can he convince his players that they can?
This past Saturday, Illinois’ Big Ten losing streak hit 17 games as the team was embarrassed in a Homecoming debacle against Michigan State that prompted Chicago Sun-Times reporter Herb Gould to tweet afterward, “Illini blow lead, lose 42-3. How many teams can say that?”
Not many. But, hey, that’s Illinois football for you.
On the radio after the loss, which dropped Illinois to 3-4 overall and 0-3 in conference, Beckman sounded to me like a beaten man – and not just from one game when he said, “We have to regather, learn from this and go forward.”
But can you regather something, when you’ve never really gathered anything in the first place? Not momentum. Not success. Not wins.
It is true that during the nonconference portion of this season Illinois looked improved over the 2012 team that suffered through a 2-10 campaign in Beckman’s first season at the helm. But three games into the 2013 Big Ten slate, that overmatched and under-inspired team appears to be rearing its ugly head once again.
On Saturday, after a would-be interception deflected off an Illinois defender’s hands and instead turned into a TD for Michigan State just before halftime, the Illini appeared to give up. After the break, the Spartans simply bowled them over time and time again in one of the worst second-half showings in school history (and that’s saying something).
“We couldn’t stop the run,” Illinois junior linebacker Houston Bates said afterward. “They just kept coming after us with the same plays in the second half, and we couldn’t stop them. From this point, we have to look forward to playing the game we love and send the seniors out with wins. I think we will.”
That’s good to think that. But the problem 19 games into Beckman’s tenure is that his players don’t know that they can win. Not really. Not when it comes to actually battling back from adversity.
So far at Illinois, Beckman’s signature win has been over Cincinnati in Week 2 of this season, a victory that looks solid seeing as how the Bearcats have bounced back to win four of their past five since. In that game, however, Illinois managed to jump out to a 21-7 halftime lead and never had to look back as Cincy didn’t really threaten and folded late. In Beckman’s other four Illini victories – against Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio) this season and Western Michigan and Charleston Southern in 2012 – Illinois also wasn’t challenged much at all.
But when they have had their backs up against the wall, or been involved in a true battle? Well, Beckman’s bunch is 0-14.
Ron Zook started his Illini career with a terrible 2-9 overall, 0-8 Big Ten debut. But even as bad as that was, Zook still had a gutsy 33-30 overtime victory over Rutgers in his first game with the Illini to draw upon for future inspiration for his players. Here in 2013, Beckman can’t say to his kids, “Remember that time, we rallied to win?” because, well, they haven’t rallied to win.
There’s no doubt that having faith in a coach can help a team in football, but asking players to have blind faith is a tough sell. Especially in the Big Ten.
At this point, Beckman has five games left this season to show improvement in order to save his job for another season But really, at this point, he needs to show more than just improvement. We need to see an actual Big Ten win, too.
Because, without that, what will the Illini have to believe in next season, either?
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.