Phase III

Mar 29, 2017

So I was thinking today, I was thinking "everything is new". From Mother's Day in 2015 when Simon Cvijanovic grabbed his phone until last week when Brad Underwood was hired, everything about every part about what I write about has changed.

First there was the investigation leading to Tim Beckman being fired after preliminary findings showed cause for a dismissal. Then, when the full report dropped, Mike Thomas was gone. There was a brief flirtation with Rick George, followed by the Not Ideal two year extension for Bill Cubit. You know all of this - I'm just recapping: Whitman hired, Cubit immediately fired, Lovie hired, Groce gets a year-long audition in front of his boss, flubs the audition, gets fired, Oklahoma State's AD doesn't question why Underwood skipped the meeting and suddenly there's a plane bound for Champaign with our new basketball coach.

I often mark time by talking about how long I've been blogging. And in that timeframe (February 2009 until now), there have basically been three phases to the Big Two sports.

Phase I

We'll tweak some things and that will fix it.

Weber will hire a recruiting assistant (Jerrance Howard), he'll bring in the players, Bruce will coach them up, and basketball will be fixed. Here comes Richardson and Paul, welcome Leonard and Richmond - we are on our way back. Recruiting dipped for a while there but now it's back so we're back.

On the football side, we'll do just the opposite. Zook will hire two coordinators to take over the offense and the defense. Zook can just recruit while Paul Petrino runs the offense and Vic Koenning runs the defense. We have the talent, let's import the schemes.

Phase II

Let's reboot the whole thing.

Ron Guenther retires, so for the first time in two decades, there's a new AD and a new direction. Zook loses his final six games and gets fired (and that was a team that had been ranked as high as #16 at one point). Weber loses 12 of his final 14 games and gets fired (and that was a team that had been ranked as high as #19 at one point). New AD, new football coach, new basketball coach.

So Mike Thomas, with a pretty good track record of hiring coaches that went back to Brian Kelly, Butch Jones, and Mick Cronin, turned to the MAC to find Tim Beckman and John Groce. In one year it changed from Guenther-Zook-Weber to Thomas-Beckman-Groce. Everything was new. Everything failed.

Phase III

Let's reboot again... and spend some cash.

This has basically been a repeat of Phase II with one major difference. We seem to have a lot more money at our disposal. We went from Tim Beckman's five year, $9 million deal to Lovie Smith's six year, $21 million contract. And on the basketball side, we flipped from John Groce's five year, $8.5 million deal to Brad Underwood's six years and $18 million. Nearly $40 million wrapped up in coaches over the next six years.

And, it should be noted, that purchased two hires which were both universally praised in the media. And two hiring processes completed completely in the dark. For football, Lovie was already set up by the time Cubit was fired. And for basketball, one week of no one knowing anything and then a Saturday hire of Underwood. This was quite different from the searches in 2011/12.

Phase III is about getting out of the hole. A hole that is now deeper after Phase II. And it continues to be amazing to me how both programs have fallen into nearly the exact same hole. Coaches always talk about culture? Our hole should be named "culture".

Pop quiz. Which program am I describing?

  • 2013/14 was a rebuilding year. So many underclassmen had to play. Fans were still patient, knowing that this was a rebuild.
  • 2014/15 was so frustrating. That loss to Purdue! How could we look like that with everything on the line! The consolation prize after the season wasn't enough for the fanbase.
  • 2015/16 - what a disaster. Injuries, turmoil off the field/court and on, the whole season should just be tossed in the trash.
  • 2016/17 - OK, now we're talking. Seniors all over the field/court. If college athletics are about seniors taking the team as far as they can go, now we have it. Wait, what happened?

Answers: #2 and #3 were football, #1 and #4 were basketball. OK I just made that up - all four described both programs. Over the last four seasons, they seem to have fallen into the same rhythm.

Which reminds me of some dude I met at some bar this one time (that sounded awkward). My wife knew his wife, they're talking life, we're talking "so what do you do". He launches into some long thing on Circadian rhythms and how when two people get married they match each other's circadian rhythm and start to behave the same (or something like that - I wasn't smart enough to follow along but I wanted him to feel good about this risk he was taking so I made myself seem fascinated because people must be pleased). I haven't thought of that conversation since then, but maybe I need to look that guy up and have him write a guest post on how our two athletic programs have fallen into the same Circadian rhythm.

I mean, look at next year. Football... eight seniors on the entire team (and it's possible only three of them start). Basketball... zero seniors on the entire team. Football might be the youngest Power Five conference team. Basketball probably has a little more to work with, but the overhauled systems might make for a rough go of it. If I can describe next year in one phrase, it will likely be "freshmen being freshmen". For both sports.

I will say, though, that this time it feels different. I was optimistic in 2012 (I'm always optimistic), but there was still a lot of hesitation from the fanbase. We were in a "show me, and then I might return" position. (Is that what "Show Me State" means for Missouri? I've never known. Maybe "show me... a contract for my father and I'll play basketball there"?)

Anyway, this time it feels different. This time it feels... clean? Like that first spring rain. For months I've walked across the parking lot at work and the asphalt is dusty from all the salt put down in the winter, but that first big spring rain comes and washes all of the salt away and by the time I'm walking across the lot 30 minutes after the rainstorm the sun is already back out and every paved surface seems so clean. This feels like that. Fresh. New.

I'm still cautious. I think it's probably accurate to say that for Phase II, I was optimistic while most of my friends were more cautious, which means that this time I'm more cautious while they're mostly optimistic. But my fears aside, it feels like we've reached the point where we can say "fresh start". Simon.. firings... not ideal... Groce Januarys... Whitman overhaul....... fresh start.

I said to a friend after the Underwood press conference: what if that's the last one of those for a decade? What if these are the two coaches in March of 2027? What if we're consistently making bowl games and NCAA Tournaments by then? What will that even be like?

I can't wait to find out.


ontoolong on March 29 @ 04:20 AM CDT

"...hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Andy Dufresne

ATOillini on March 29 @ 05:19 AM CDT

I think this was one of your best posts ever. The spring rain analogy was perfect....especially since just a few days ago my shoes were crunching on large pieces of salt in a grocery store parking lot (thankfully now gone).

Groundhogday on March 29 @ 06:17 AM CDT

I still don't understand how Thomas could hire Kelly, Jones and Cronin at Cincy, yet completely whiff at Illinois. I guess he just had a very simplistic hiring model that happened to work three times at Cincy (hire the mid-major coach with the best resume), but failed miserably at Illinois.

Robert on March 29 @ 07:30 AM CDT

Every AD whiffs from time to time. Jeremy Foley hired Ron Zook and then Urban Meyer. Will Muschamp and then Jim McElwain. The key is to move quickly (and give yourself wiggle room) to fix a mistake immediately.

I think Thomas chased the right names (Sumlin & Jones, Shaka & Stevens) and then went back to the well for Plan B. Neither worked out, and the football hire failed so spectacularly that he was gone before he could try to fix his mistake.

Groundhogday on March 29 @ 07:35 AM CDT

So perhaps the mistake is in trying to think you can actually fix THE mistake, as opposed to admitting a mistake and moving on. Particularly with inside knowledge, Thomas should have known Beckman was a mistake and moved more quickly to make a new hire. Ditto for Guenther and Zook.

Groce was a tougher call, as he looked and sounded like a good coach, even when the play on the court disappointed.

McAdoo on March 29 @ 08:10 AM CDT

I realize this scenario had no chance of actually happening, but I still am going to put it out there just for kicks and giggles... I think it was patently obvious after one year that Beckman wasn't going to work out as head coach at Illinois. If Mike Thomas had pulled the trigger and fired Beckman after just that first season, where are the Illinois sports programs right now?

Of course, it is impossible to predict a hypothetical scenario... However, I think Thomas still has his job as he would have avoided the Beckman-Football scandal.

Bear8287 on March 29 @ 08:25 AM CDT

I've written before that Beckman always seemed a bit bizarre to me. I deferred to others here though because unlike basketball (where I pretend to know something) I've often told Robert that he's likely already forgotten more about football than I'll ever know.

I think I once wrote that if someone was going to make a sitcom of Craig T. Nelson's sitcom "Coach" that Tim Beckman would've starred in the leading role...

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Boneyard Surfer on March 31 @ 12:22 PM CDT

Or maybe Beckman would play the Jerry VanDyke role...

I mean, would Beckman ever be able to score a hottie like Shelley Fabares?

Efrem on March 30 @ 04:46 AM CDT

It's important to note that "Foley's Whiff" still won about 8 games/year at FL - which would have made him a god if he'd been able to do that here.

Bear8287 on March 29 @ 08:17 AM CDT

Well, we'll get to see if he has any better luck at Cleveland State.

New Cleveland State men’s basketball coach Dennis Felton promises ‘aggressive approach’

The hiring of Felton was handled by Mike Thomas, the new CSU athletic director. Thomas engaged the services of Collegiate Sports Associates, a North Carolina-based firm to assist in the hiring processes.

Thomas said it was a five-year deal. According to Crain’s Cleveland Business, it is worth $325,000 annually with $25,000 for media obligations and $100,000 in deferred compensation.

Illinimac68 on April 01 @ 09:36 AM CDT

Kelly turned out to be not everybody's favorite at ND.

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