By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Is Illinois football simply what it is?
Or can it be something more?
On Wednesday, with the sorry state of the Illini as our topic of online discussion, one of my Twitter pals asked me, “At some point, after decades and decades, aren’t you kind of what you are?”
I argued otherwise. After all, during the decade from 2001-2010, Illinois reached two BCS games — the Sugar Bowl following the 2001 season and Rose Bowl following the 2007 season. Among all Big Ten teams, only Ohio State (seven) and Michigan (three) played in more. With that in mind, the Illini football program quite simply should be much better than the disaster that it’s now devolved into with only one win over its past 24 conference games.
In sports, fortunes change all the time – even after a long time. These days, for example, after decades of being what they were, the Kansas City Royals no longer are. Neither are the Baltimore Orioles or even the Pittsburgh Pirates. (The Chicago Cubs, of course, would be the exception).
Meanwhile, in college football circles, the Wisconsin Badgers – who Illinois face on Saturday in Madison – most definitely aren’t what they once were for decades. Rather, Wisconsin has long since become something else entirely. And it’s the Badgers who remain the (orange and) blueprint for what the Illini should aspire to become on the gridiron.
Earlier this month, the London-based publication Times Higher Education released its 2014-2015 World University Rankings, which included Illinois and Wisconsin tied for the 29th-best college on the planet. Out on the football field, however, the two schools remain worlds apart.
Tracing back, when the 1990s dawned, the roles were actually reversed, as Wisconsin football was the program in complete disarray, while Illinois was flying high. When the two schools headed into the 1990 season, the Badgers hadn’t posted a winning record since 1984 and had won just seven Big Ten games over the previous five years.
Beyond that, Wisconsin hadn’t won more than seven games in a single season since reaching the 1963 Rose Bowl with an 8-2 record – and there had been only five seven-win campaigns during the 27 seasons since.
For decades, the Badgers weren’t just bad on the football field. They were downright brutal. But then Barry Alvarez showed up in town as coach and changed everything.
By his fourth season in 1993, the former defensive coordinator at Notre Dame had the Badgers at 10-1-1 and in the Rose Bowl for the first time in more than 30 years. He would eventually go on to win or share two more conference titles and reach another pair of Rose Bowls before retiring in 2005, having firmly established Wisconsin as a Big Ten power.
Since Alvarez – now the Wisconsin athletic director – arrived on campus in 1990, the Badgers have gone 198-94-4 record (.678) during the tenure of him and successors Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen. The Wisconsin program has enjoyed 19 winning seasons out of its last 21.
By comparison, Illinois posted a strong 63-48-4 record (.565) during the 1980s and went on to share the 1990 Big Ten championship with a 6-2 conference mark. John Mackovic’s Illini thumped Alvarez’s first Wisconsin team 21-3 during that season.
Since that banner year, however, Illinois has posted an overall mark of just 110-165-2 (.401) over 23-plus seasons – very much a world apart from what Wisconsin has accomplished.
While an enormous disparity undeniably exists, the fact is that there’s no truly good reason why Illinois should trail so far behind its academic peer on the football field. With facilities that are competitive in the conference and a population that’s the largest of all the states in the Big Ten, Illinois simply shouldn’t be an annual also-ran while Wisconsin is a perennial power.
Yet it is.
I suppose the best explanation for that is because the Illini still haven’t found their own Barry Alvarez to transform their program’s persona and elevate its level of success. Athletic director Mike Thomas had a shot three years ago, but rather than hire a transformative coach, he ended up with Tim Beckman instead.
Whether Thomas takes another crack at things soon remains to be seen, but there’s no reason why Illinois football should settle for simply being what it consistently has been since the early 1990s. It can be more.
Wisconsin shows us that every season.