By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Right now among Illini Nation, losses are on the mind.
From those of the football blowout variety against Nebraska to the basketball program’s near-misses involving star point guard recruits Jalen Brunson and Jawun Evans, the University of Illinois seems to be scarfing down setbacks these days.
But the reason why all of that aches so much in the bellies of Illini supporters is because there are few, if any, college fan bases in America that are hungrier for success.
Skeptical? Well, then consider this. Last week, SI.com unveiled a bracket-style poll in which it seeded 16 college basketball teams from throughout history and asked fans to vote on which is “The Greatest Team to Never Win a Title.”
The 2005 Fighting Illini, who fell 75-70 to North Carolina in the national championship game, were only a No. 8 seed in SI.com’s bracket, but thanks to the rabid online nature of Illini fans, that hardly mattered. In the Sweet 16, Illinois hypothetically dumped a 1997 Kanas team that went 34-2, then was easily voted past No. 1 overall seed 1991 UNLV in the Elite Eight and the Fab Five-fueled 1993 Michigan squad in the semifinals.
On Monday, in the title round against Houston’s 1983 “Phi Slamma Jamma” squad, Illinois fans went on to vote their beloved to the crown with a 79 percent to 21 percent rout. At one point in the process, Illinois had garnered as much as 90 percent of the vote.
Now that the dust has settled, we can ask if the 2005 Illini really were the best basketball team to never win an NCAA championship. The answer is probably not. While the Dee Brown-and-Deron Williams-led squad was indeed great, I’m not convinced that bunch was even the best Illinois team to not win it all.
In a head-to-head matchup between the two, I’d likely pick 1989 Illinois as a victor. And had SI.com included the Flyin’ Illini in the bracket (as they should have been), I can almost guarantee that the title game would have featured the ’05 vs. ’89 Illini, probably with the former winning since Internet voters tend to be younger and our memories tend to be short.
After the SI.com voting was complete, Sports Illustrated writer Luke Winn used Twitter to call the lopsided competition the, “Which team has the most starving & driven Internet fanbase – and just a hint, it’s not UNLV, Houston, UNC or Duke bracket.”
And Winn is right. Illini fans are indeed championship-starved in basketball, more so than any other school. But in football, they’re also ravenous for any legitimate wins at all as the pigskin program continues to flounder with a 1-16 Big Ten record during the Tim Beckman era that’s even worse than the lackluster tenures of Ron Zook (18-38 Big Ten), Ron Turner (20-44) and Lou Tepper (17-21-2) before him.
With small attendance figures at Memorial Stadium that only continue to get smaller, one could argue that Illini football fans aren’t really that passionate about the sport, but I don’t believe that to be true. The university simply hasn’t given them anything to get consistently excited about in the gridiron since John Mackovic left campus more than two decades ago.
Across the country, a lot of schools would love to have a fan base so hungry that they take over Internet polls just to finally see the school’s name finish at the top. Illinois has that actual fan base — and along with it, a responsibility to feed it.
In basketball, coach John Groce appears to have his program headed in a positive direction, despite repeatedly coming up just short with five-star recruits. However, Illinois also needs to hold Groce to high standards of success on the court.
Meanwhile, in football, the Illini standards of success are difficult to determine as the school continues to trudge along at a level well below mediocrity. But at Kansas – a “basketball school,” if ever there was one – we see the Jayhawks firing their football coach, Charlie Weis, four games into his third season after they fired previous coach Turner Gill after just two seasons because neither was winning enough. At Michigan, where the Wolverines have lost eight of their last 11 football games, the university is reportedly already gauging the interest of outside athletic director candidates.
Those schools are setting standards. With a starving fan base that’s anything but standard, Illinois needs to be sure that it does the same – and not lose track of its responsibility.