People hate excuses. Bosses hate excuses from their employees, parents hate excuses from their kids - no one wants to hear the reason something didn't get done. In sports, though, there are often all kinds of valid excuses. And most people hate them.
We want our team to win. We want the mistakes to stop. Most fans will give some rope when a new coach takes over, and then every fan has a threshold where they cross into "no more excuses - win now".
Take Brad Underwood for example. His team lost an exhibition last night at Eastern Illinois. Had John Groce been retained and then lost this game (with the same set of players), there would have been a crowd with pitchforks outside the arena (well, it was Charleston, so there probably were people carrying pitchforks but that's just a daily occurance). Instead, Underwood lost and most people turned to some very valid excuses.
- This was his first game.
- The players looked confused by the new offensive system.
- There's very little experience returning this season.
- John Groce talked about TNT but he never coached it so now Underwood will need to develop toughness.
And on and on. There is leeway given to a new coach. At some point, maybe even during his first season this year, some fans will turn to "no more excuses - Underwood just isn't the guy". It happens with every new coach at every school. Unless you win big your first year, you're going to be not-the-guy'd.
So really, this comes down to excuse tolerance. There are fans who will not-the-guy within weeks. There are other fans who will never not-the-guy - it's the injuries, he was snake-bitten by this schedule, it's just more bad luck, if the officials had made the right call... we all know that guy too.
And no one - NO ONE - wants to be that guy. And I mean no one. No one I know wants to be the last person saying "hold on everyone, I still think coach can do this". When the fans start to turn, they turn quickly. It's like a run on a bank. Excuses get old very fast.
Me? Sometimes I feel like the excuse king. I have a very specific way I believe Illini football can finally be rebuilt (long, slow, and methodical is the only way to go), and I believe we're finally doing that, and so pretty much everything I say about it comes off like an excuse. It causes people to send emails, to scream "UNFOLLOWING YOU" on Twitter, to accuse me of trading positivity for a press pass - all kinds of things.
But each time I sit down after a game to write about what I saw, I still think the "excuses" tell the story. We ARE struggling in these games because of the youth movement. We DO now have a ton of injuries now, and, having the smallest number of scholarship players and the youngest roster in the country, we just can't replace some of these players. We HAVE seen that the 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes just haven't produced very much, which is why the coaches are turning to the 2017 class immediately. And yes, true freshmen AREN'T ready for major conference college football.
So when I'm watching a game, I'm barely watching the "game". I'm watching for the future. How are the offensive linemen progressing? Who is the quarterback of the future? Have we found a linebacker rotation? Are we getting turnovers? Sometimes, when someone tweets me "why did we do X instead of Y??", I have trouble remembering X and Y because I was watching something else. When I watch at home I rewind the DVR so very often to watch something again. And then when I fast forward and watch only the plays, I miss things (which is why I tweeted "did Cam Thomas get injured?" today because I realized later that I must have missed something).
Overall, what have I seen this season? Nearly exactly what I expected given all of these "excuses". I had this game as 31-10 Purdue and the final was 29-10. I'm now 8-1 against the spread this season with our touchdown at Minnesota with 30 seconds left preventing me from 9-0. I feel like I know everything about this team - its strengths, its weaknesses, its shortcomings - and I'm seeing exactly what I expected. I said 3-9 and still think we can find that third win.
Which means I still believe everything to be on track. I didn't expect the offense to be this bad but I also didn't expect the offense to go this young. I was working out a preliminary depth chart for next year and, once these injured players return, I think we'll have NINE sophomores starting on offense. This is a complete tear-down and rebuild from the ground up, starting with the very first recruit in the first recruiting class.
Which means that for the rest of this season, and then throughout the offseason, a lot of what I write will sound like these excuses. Because they are. The coaches had to go young, and it's rare for young players to be ready (although please note the job that Michigan State is doing with their mostly-sophomore team), and the fact that there's only 76 scholarship players isn't their fault, and the fact that the 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes haven't produced really isn't their fault (although it would be nice to see some developmental surprises next year), and the fact that skill position injuries have further decimated the offense isn't helping.
If they finish with the worst recruiting class in the Big Ten? We need to talk about it - they're getting paid a lot of money to land recruits. If there are off-the-field issues like Lee/Holcombe/Watkins arrests, we need to talk about it. If there are bad timeouts taken in these last three games, we need to talk about it.
But beyond that, I remain at the same place as I was in September and October: things are still on track. These freshmen are wildly talented, just young and inexperienced. Turning to them immediately is the right move. We'll take our lumps, but it should pay off in the long run.
And then, in the near future, we will win.