By Dave Wischnowsky–
(CBS) In a perfect Illini world, Tim Beckman would roll to a Rose Bowl next January and John Groce would follow up with a Final Four run in March.
But as any University of Illinois fan knows all too well, we don’t live in a perfect Illini world. Instead, we live in the one created three years ago by athletic director Mike Thomas.
And right now, it’s in a world of hurt.
At Memorial Stadium, Beckman’s Big Ten football record is an unsightly 4-20 as the oft-misguided coach continues to lose games and press conferences while railing on reporters for their lack of positivity. Over at the State Farm Center, Groce’s Big Ten basketball mark stands at just 24-30, his program has missed the NCAA Tournament for two straight years (unseen at Illinois since the early 1990s) and on Tuesday night he stood helpless as his shockingly fight-less Illini were blown out 79-58 by a football school with an interim coach in the first round of the NIT (that was Alabama, for those of you who better used your time).
Elsewhere, even Illini women’s basketball coach Matt Bollant has seen his record fall from a solid 19-14 record in his first year to 9-21 and 15-16 these past two seasons. Overall, Bollant’s Big Ten ledger is 17-33, which means that he, Beckman and Groce now have a collective record of 45-83 (.351) in league games after three full seasons.
Those anemic numbers weren’t the plan back in 2011-12 when Thomas, during his first year on the job after matriculating from Cincinnati, razed former AD Ron Guenther’s department by firing Ron Zook, Bruce Weber and Jolette Law in a span of four months.
With each of those coaches struggling mightily at the time, all of Thomas’ firings were justified – even welcomed by many fans – but the deeply disconcerting issue three painful years later is that none of Thomas’ subsequent hires have proved to be any better.
At best, Illinois athletics is treading water. At worst, it’s a gulp or two away from drowning. And while the university’s dominant color may still be orange, the disgruntled fan base’s mood has long been blue – and after Tuesday night’s basketball no-show against Alabama in the NIT, black now feels more appropriate.
So, as Illini Nation heads into its summer of discontent, one has to wonder about the direction of the entire athletic department for 2015-’16.
Regarding football and men’s basketball, the two big money sports in Champaign that capture fans’ imaginations and attract donor checks, no one on campus should feel comfortable about his job status, least of all Mike Thomas, whose skills as program architect thus far have proved to be more George Costanza than Frank Lloyd Wright.
What we do know right now is that Beckman is getting another season to prove himself, while Groce surely will get the same. Thomas, meanwhile, should get only Beckman’s season to stabilize his job.
Because if the football program fails to make significant progress this fall and Beckman is fired, it’s nearly impossible to justify allowing Thomas to make another major hire as athletic director considering the sorry state of the basketball programs also being run by his hand-picked coaches.
It should be noted that this June, Illinois welcomes a new president in Timothy Killeen, who will succeed the retiring Robert Easter. And with Gov. Bruce Rauner now in office, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees also has a new chairman in Edward McMillan and is expected to soon welcome two University of Illinois alums as newly appointed members.
It’s unknown how much of an emphasis Killeen and the reconfigured BOT will place on Illinois athletics, but the hope here is that they show a desire to see the flagship university of the nation’s fifth-most populous state enjoy excellence both inside the classroom and research lab, as well as on the football field and basketball court.
Illinois alumni and fans deserve far better than what they’ve been getting. And athletics – arguably the university’s greatest public relations tool – shouldn’t be ignored by the new administration.
Rather, it should be immediately addressed.
With all that said, and despite Illinois’ sorry postseason performances in both football and basketball – the Heart of Dallas Bowl and NIT aren’t exactly the Citrus Bowl and Sweet 16, are they? – there’s some reason for hope with both programs next season, although hardly reason for overblown optimism.
Beckman’s football schedule features four winnable nonconference games, making a bowl return a possibility. But one of those games is on the road at North Carolina, and the Big Ten schedule is fierce with four road games and a neutral-site home game in Chicago against Northwestern, which leaves league heavyweights Wisconsin, Nebraska and Ohio State as the only visitors to Memorial Stadium.
In basketball, rising juniors Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn should be among the Big Ten’s top players next season, and fifth-year senior Tracy Abrams is expected to elevate the point guard position (assuming his surgically repaired knee is stable). But post play remains a huge question mark, while the two in-state members of Groce’s ballyhooed recruiting class – Plainfield East’s Aaron Jordan and Simeon’s D.J. Williams – failed to crack the Chicago Sun-Times’ 20-player all-area team.
From my vantage point, Illinois will be fortunate if the trio of Indiana prep star Jalen Coleman-Lands, Jordan and Williams turns out to ultimately be as good as Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Joseph Bertrand, a trio of recruits from the recent past who were solid but far from program-changers.
Speaking of which, unless Beckman can find a way to change his program into a better one this fall, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he’s gone by year’s end – and that Thomas would be gone with him, much like Michigan showed both AD Dave Brandon and football coach Brady Hoke the door last fall.
If that were to happen at Illinois and a new athletic department leadership was brought on board, the heat would then be clearly elevated for Groce and Bollant to produce in the winter and spring. If they didn’t, then Illini could end up with three new head coaches and a new AD just like it did four years earlier.
That’s a worst-case scenario for Illinois athletics, but sadly, it’s also far from an implausible one. Because right now in Champaign there’s only one thing that’s perfect.