Unrest City

Unrest City

I'm in a mood, y'all.

I'm going to start typing here with no idea if these words will be for you or me. I do that from time to time - write something out and then never publish it. Sometimes I'll save the words as a Google Doc that I can go back and read later. Sometimes I delete them. Sometimes I publish.

My mood has been created by several things. Texts I've received. Tweets I've seen. Threads on Slack. I'm picking up the general sense of unrest in Illini Land. And it's made me quite grumpy.

Unrest I know. I've been to Unrest City many times. Unrest is... taking seven days of vacation to spend a week and a half at Camp Rantoul in 2013 to write dozens of articles about a team that just went 2-10 and is headed for a 4-8 season (one single Big Ten win those two seasons, and it required Steve Hull going in at punter and then running around in the Purdue end zone trying to run out the clock). Unrest is... driving from St. Louis to Champaign for a 9:00 pm Wednesday basketball game (yes, 9:00 central) against Nebraska in 2015 in hopes that we could beat Nebraska, win at Purdue, win a game in the Big Ten Tournament, and slide into a play-in game as a 12-seed.

The manufactured unrest today? Drives me nuts. A bunch of people standing in their fire tower lookout, peering way off on the horizon, seeing what they think might be smoke and trying to be the first to scream "fire!"

Why the rush to be the first to yell it? Because it prevents more pain. Illini basketball was bad for a dozen years. Illini football has fired every coach hired since John Mackovic left for Texas in December, 1991. Just spin the dial and set the default to "this isn't going to work." And then filter every single thing through that.

So this is me encouraging you to spin your dial back to "neutral." I want to talk about the 2020's. There are three coaches in the photo above, so let's discuss each coach.

Brad Underwood

I know that the portal can be maddening. I've tried for three consecutive years now to urge you to ignore all things portal and check back in around early June (for your sanity, and my own), but I don't think anyone has listened. From my observation, there's a 7-day expiration date on "I feel OK about this" before people pick up the program, shake it, and scream "why isn't this stupid thing working?"

I urged this three years ago when Kofi was saying he was "100% in the draft", he returned, and we won a Big Ten title. I screamed "check back in June" last year when everyone was freaking out about the rest of the Big Ten having a better portal haul than us and we ended up going to the Elite Eight. And I'm screaming it again this year, pointing to what I see as a two-year plan being developed to make a run at Indianapolis in 2026 and patiently waiting for the rest of that plan to unfold.

Why do I have such blind faith in the process? That's easy. Big Ten wins for the Illini since 2007:

16 - 2021
15 - 2022
14 - 2024
13 - 2020
12 - none
11 - 2023, 2009
10 - 2010
9 - 2015, 2011, 2007
8 - 2017, 2013
7 - 2019, 2014
6 - 2012
5 - 2016, 2008
4 - 2018

I will simply trust this staff until I have several years of data telling me something different. See you in June.

Shauna Green

Yes, I saw all of the "so Shauna Green was just a one-year wonder, huh?" talk this winter. The suggestions that it was luck that she made the NCAA Tournament in 2023 (since she wasn't going to make it in 2024). Yes, rough start to the season, but then she had them rolling by the end, knocking off several good teams to win the women's version of the NIT (the WBIT). Yes, I know that there's a "Women's NIT." But commit this to memory:

The NCAA sets up the NCAA Tournament and the NIT for the men, seeding both (and paying for travel for all teams). Then the CBI is the "other" tournament where teams pay to play. On the women's side, the "Women's NIT" is the CBI. Many teams turn it down because it costs a lot of money if you advance to play more games. Since that name was taken, the "WBIT" is now the women's version of the NIT. It's paid for by the NCAA and seeded by an NCAA Committee. That's the one Shauna won. The real one.

So if you need a "20's belong to the Illini" stat for Shauna, I'll just give you total WBB wins each season for the last 15 years. Shauna Green seasons in bold:

2010: 19
2011: 9
2012: 11
2013: 19
2014: 9
2015: 15
2016: 9
2017: 9
2018: 9
2019: 10
2020: 11
2021: 5
2022: 7
2023: 22
2024: 19

"Robert, no one is questioning Shauna."

Yes they were. In January, when we were 8-10 (2-6), they were. That's my whole point here. There's absolutely no patience for rough patches. "Maintain excellence without fail or you're gonna hear it from me" is poison for a fanbase. And I'm sick of seeing it slipped into Illini fans' drinks.

Bret Bielema

This one is the toughest rebuild. Yes, even tougher than women's basketball. The last seven Illini head coaches have failed. We've been a bottom-five program in power conference college football for three full decades. We are... Boston College basketball trying to build something from nothing.

And the early returns have been promising. The first three years for Zook were 13-23, the first three years for Beckman were 12-25, the first three years for Lovie were 9-27, and the first three years for Bielema have been 18-19. So far, so good. Actually no - so far, very good. That's the equivalent of going 32-6 three years after taking over Notre Dame.

Yet I'm flipping through Twitter last night and I see this tweet from the Message Board Geniuses account that I follow (which I love because it directly goes after the "maintain excellence without fail or you're gonna hear it from me" culture by mocking certain message board posts):

All because 2024 early-enrollee AJ Dennis already decided to transfer out. We don't deserve nice coaches.

Is AJ Dennis deciding to transfer out disappointing? Yes. It's gonna hurt future OL depth. Does it move the needle on this rebuild even a little bit? Absolutely not. There's still a long climb ahead, and we need to conserve our oxygen.

Will 2024 be a disappointing season? I don't know - probably? We only have seven seniors, a direct result of the Covid recruiting weirdness just as Lovie was reaching his failure/firing point. Bielema's first recruiting class (2022) reaches their true junior and redshirt sophomore seasons this fall, and they're gonna need to be ready.

Should Josh Whitman have pulled the plug on Lovie in 2018 to prevent the 2020 and 2021 recruiting failures? Maybe, but as we've seen from recent NFL drafts, Lovie was assembling talent in 2017, 2018, and 2019 and Whitman was willing to play the long game. Lovie failed to continue that recruiting surge in 2020 (only punter Hugh Robertson remains from that entire class), and only five of Lovie's 2021 recruits remain (the class that signed 3 days before Bielema got the job), so the 2024 roster has a big gap in the senior/redshirt junior class.

Which means that I'm still in the same holding pattern while others appear to be delivering the message that the program is "cooked". Yes, I desperately wanted that sixth win last November just to continue some program/recruiting momentum as we enter these "gap" years. I was hoping we could do in 2023 what we failed to do in 2000, 2002, and 2008. But we failed to connect on the two point conversion. I'm still not over it.

When pulling back, however, all I see is this:

Conference wins from 2011 through 2020 (10 seasons): 18
Conference wins under Bielema (3 seasons): 12

I mean, I can make this point without using averages and only using totals. Big Ten wins:

Turner: 20 (eight seasons)
Zook: 18 (seven seasons)
Bielema: 12 (three seasons)
Lovie: 10 (five seasons)
Beckman/Cubit: 6 (four seasons)

Fine, I'll do averages:

Bielema: 4.0 conference wins per year
Zook: 2.57
Turner: 2.5
Lovie: 2.0
Beckman/Cubit: 1.5

And yet there's unrest. Everyone is just pretending that this isn't a massive old ocean liner that Bielema is trying to turn around and that 12 conference wins in years 1-3 isn't wildly impressive. They simply point to Kansas 2024 as if Kansas won't go 3-9 in 2025 after their 15 senior starters graduate.

Am I saying this is guaranteed to work? Of course not! The chances of any Illini football coach turning the program into a consistent Big Ten contender are around 15%. Suggesting "all it takes is the right coach" is like saying "all it takes for DePaul Basketball to turn things around is the right coach." No. It will take much more than that. Over a very long period of time.

Which is why I've consistently delivered this same "the coach who turns things around in Champaign will play the longest of long games" message for 15 years. It's why I ignore all "ease up on the fan policing and you'll gain more subscribers" advice. Fan investment is part of this, and I'm going to continue to encourage the fanbase to invest. Especially now.

If this rusty old ship is going to get turned around, everyone needs to plug a hole until Bielema can get this thing back to dry dock. And since so many people are telling you to quit plugging your hole and wait for management to provide a shiny new ship, I'm going to franticly run from deck to deck and encourage you to stay at your post. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person on earth who understands that fanbase investment is critical during a rebuild attempt.

This is the best 180 attempt I've observed in the last 33 years. It feels like the current captain has turned this thing nearly 90 degrees at this point. But there's a storm brewing in the western sky (a storm of four new teams from the west) so the second half of this 180 is going to be extremely difficult. Not to mention the rough seas on the way back to dry dock.

Halfway through a turn is when you're most susceptible to overturning. Gotta get the bow pointed back into the waves. It's not going to be easy. But if we can just get this thing back to dry dock for the first time since the late 80's, we can finally make long-term repairs and have a stable program (er, ship) to send back out to sea.

I'm 51 now. 51 is how old Jim Backus was when he started playing Thurston Howell on Gilligan's Island. I don't have time for seven more attempts to turn the SS Illini Football around. It has to happen now.

Which means I don't have patience for those working against the cause. I have no patience for your lack of patience, in other words. We're 18th out of 18 Big Ten teams in fan vibes. And it hurts the program every day.

So I'll just keep writing articles like this. And you'll keep unsubscribing. And then, hopefully, we'll win and you'll subscribe again because you want to read about our winning program.

You didn't ask for it, but I'm gonna try to help you get us back to dry dock, Bret. In Hope Harbor, not Unrest City.