Nov 18, 2018

Above anything else, I believe that this is the crisis facing Illinois football right now. To win, and to win consistently, a head coach needs buy-in. From his players, of course, but also from everyone around the program. The fans, high school coaches, the players' parents - everyone.

It starts with the players, of course. I've probably written a dozen times about Ray Eliot's Proper State Of Mind speech. About how it's so easy to play football at 60% speed and the coach's job is to get everyone to 100%. That if you're a defensive lineman, staying focused for 65 plays, flying out of your stance every play, is near impossible. Once a team is down by a lot, just watch the body language. Go pick two random plays from the first quarter yesterday and then two random plays from the third quarter. You'll see an Illini defensive line that's tired, worn down, and giving 40% effort. And can you blame them? Who wants to be out there when you're down 49-0?

This is not pointing blame at the D-line. The whole sideline was like this yesterday. The entire performance was uninspired. From the jump, Iowa was getting after it and Illinois was... uninspired.

This is the #1 job of the head coach. To inspire. To get everyone coming out of that tunnel with laser focus. It happened against Minnesota after three weeks of awful. It... didn't happen yesterday.

That's not the only job of the head coach, obviously. A head coach has to be really good with duct tape. Underclassmen, when they see the losses piling up while they waste away on the bench, start to think that it's the coaches fault for not playing them. Parents get involved in this, as we saw on Twitter yesterday. The whole thing starts to unravel and it's the job of the head coach to tape it all together.

I cannot emphasize this point enough. The reason Iowa wins their 6-9 games every year is based on Kirk Ferentz keeping the whole thing together for the last 20 years. The same for Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern. Teams with lots of fourth and fifth-year kids (see: the entire Iowa defensive line, save for their five-star sophomore legacy) win football games. The job of the head coach is to get them from disgruntled redshirting freshman to dominating fifth-year senior.

This is why I'm never that focused on recruiting. Yes, recruiting is why Michigan eventually overwhelmed Indiana yesterday, but in doing what we're trying to do (build a program), buy-in is way more important. It's why I wrote that super-long player development post at training camp. It's really the only thing. Recruit 20 freshmen, get them to buy-in, get them to stick around, teach them your system, teach them to be patient when they're not playing, get leadership from your upperclassmen sitting down with them and saying "hey bro - I was on the bench once as well but look at me now", get them in the weight room, get their mind right, help them grow as a student and a human being, and then unleash them. What Iowa does. What Wisconsin does. What Northwestern does.

Illinois? Illinois had six seniors on the field yesterday, only four of which arrived at Illinois as freshmen. Please pause and think about that. It's not completely Lovie's fault per se - Not Ideal had a lot to do with it - but four players made it through their entire Illini career to finish on Senior Day yesterday. Yes, Dude K would have been their if not for the injury, but still, that's only five players who bought-in. Five players. Think about that. Five.

Now, that's a bit unfair to Lovie given Not Ideal. When you go through three head coaches in eight months, the third coach is going to inherit a disaster. And when that coach decides to go with a gut rebuild, playing nearly every freshman in his first recruiting class his second season, leading to many of the redshirt juniors fifth-year transfering somewhere else because their starting spot was taken, then yes, you're going to be left with four players crossing the finish line. (Again, that tack is part of why yesterday was 63-0. I agree with it, but it didn't have to happen that way.)

When will Illinois football improve? In my belief, it is when there is buy-in. There's always going to be unrest, there's always going to be unhappy players and parents (and fans). Your number one job as a Big Ten head coach - more than telling a player to do X when the opposing lineman does Y, more than calling timeouts at the correct times, more than even recruiting (yes, recruiting) - it to produce buy-in. Get everyone on one page. Get everyone to believe in you. Get everyone flying out of that tunnel in the proper state of mind.

That's my biggest concern with Lovie right now. There doesn't appear to be buy-in. Not from the players stumbling out of the tunnel, not from the staff (being down two defensive assistants isn't normal), and certainly not from the fans. Yes, some of the transfers are fourth-year players who were already passed up by Lovie's freshman class (players recruited-over are always going to leave), but some of the transfers are players who never bought in. Cam Thomas left. Reuben Unije left. These are Lovie guys, in their first and second seasons, moving on.

Yes, that happens at Iowa too. But not as frequently. Keeping a Cam Thomas in the program, maybe convincing him that wide receiver is his best spot, is part of buy-in. Usher those players from signing day to senior day, even if it means position changes. The more players you bring from A to B, the more games you win. I'll never not see college football any other way.

And right now, we're not going to get there because I don't see much buy-in. From body language to transfer lists, nothing is screaming "this team is buying in".

And if it doesn't change, Lovie will be bought out.


maz13 on November 18 @ 02:30 PM CST

You nailed it! Buy-in, where is it? Do you give Lovie one more season? Is it worth a $12 million buyout to blow this up yet again? Tough call but I would hope Whitman does his homework and finds out if there is enough buy-in from the players and recruits to justify bringing him and his staff back for one more season. The lack of effort and cohesiveness on the field is alarming. This will be a very interesting off-season to say the least.

Bear8287 on November 18 @ 03:21 PM CST

Twitter: @Schuster_Elias

Illinois falls in a historic way to Iowa with a 63-0 loss on senior night at Memorial Stadium.

The loss ties for the worst in program history with a 63-0 defeat at the hands of U-Chicago on this exact date 112 years ago.

Wow. #Illini

Huh, my wife had asked me if this was the worst loss that the Illini have ever had. Now I know.

Just not a good look on a 3rd year coach.

So looking for the silver-lining here, does this mean it's more likely that Smith stays as the OC?

illiniranger on November 18 @ 05:01 PM CST

This is a good piece of writing and I think it applies to leadership and organizational cultures writ large, not just football teams.

LosAngellini on November 18 @ 07:15 PM CST

Worried that Underwood may have the same problem. JCL, Tillmon, M. Smith (mizzou’s leading scorer), Finke, Black, TJL, Ebo, and losing recruits to Weber St. Those are symptoms of difficulty getting buy in. But too early to know if basketball suffers the same disease. We will learn much from player/coach reactions to a lot of (justifiable) losing this season.

Groundhogday on November 18 @ 08:06 PM CST

This has occurred to me as well. The culture change from Groce to Underwood was night and day, favorite uncle to drill sergeant, so I'll give him some slack. But if the mass exodus continues...

Bear8287 on November 19 @ 01:11 PM CST

It's only the start of Underwood's second season, so I'm going to remain optimistic. It's looking like he's getting "buy in" and he coaches a style of play that should be attractive to players.

It's definitely a culture change and at least Underwood appears to mean what he says as opposed to his predecessor.

IBFan on November 18 @ 07:38 PM CST

Historic young team will have historic growing pains, bad losses. Not a shocker. Team loses Mike Dudek and part of the rest of supposed upper half of receiving corps plus is down to its 4th string RB and people want what? The vast majority of postings I see are from people who have zero comprehension what it is like for an 18-19 year old to go up against a 21-22 year old...impossible on average. Throw in lack of depth, a very long season....these guys are beat up, tired, flat wore out. Cut them some slack. Your body gets to the point that even if you want to "fire" the fatigue causes another result. Of course the performance left a lot to be desired but some perspective please. Cam Thomas? Ruben? That's your go to show players haven't bought in? Tre Watson left because he couldn't do what he wanted to do any longer as part of the TEAM. Cam Thomas was third, fourth string? With Williams coming in, he left because he wasn't good enough.
We want better players, athletes and when he gets them you are going to use the exodus of the chaff as an example of not buying in? The reason there are so few seniors is exactly the result of the rebuild. You don't make grades, bad member of society, drugs, skip or blowoff playbook-practice, fight with teammates, Lovie gives you the option of attending Mizzou. He doesn't throw these players under the bus publicly, they just are no longer part of the program. Recruits are handled in the same manner. Let's just call a loss that was ugly and ugly loss and try not to make it a condemnation of the program.
You never got the rebuild the way you wanted and now that it is here and we are basically where you hoped we would be you are part of the problem instead of the voice of reason. Why take a team that has no comparable make-up and continually compare it to the entire history of the program? REBUILD.

It's the completion of the 9th round where we only threw two punches at Iowa because of the exhaustion and repeated blows to the body and head taken over the course of the season. Here's hoping in the 10th we can hit the bigger, stronger, fresher cats with a haymaker.

HiggsBoson on November 18 @ 09:51 PM CST

Hi, Mrs. Smith. How's Lovie tonight?

uilaw71 on November 19 @ 06:45 AM CST

As evidenced below, your points make no difference to the defeatist crowd. In another life, they were Tampa Bay fans.

thumpasaurus on November 19 @ 12:24 PM CST

We've replaced the offensive coordinator after two years and will now replace the DC after 2.5. Regardless of whether or not these are correct decisions (they are), it's not exactly where Robert hoped we'd be, and I certainly don't recall "worst Illini defense of all time" as part of the plan for the end of Year 3.

In fact, as I recall, late in Year 3, we were supposed to start resembling a young but competitive football team that wouldn't be pushed around or humiliated and wouldn't go down without a fight.

Bear8287 on November 19 @ 01:07 PM CST

Good point and counterpoint posts.

I suspect that Lovie is going to need to hit a homerun with his next choice of OC otherwise the clock will likely run out before the Illini get to where they need to be.

neale stoner on November 18 @ 07:53 PM CST

Robertm and Ranger nailed it

HiggsBoson on November 18 @ 09:55 PM CST

So far, Lovie Smith isn't good at getting buy in, or motivation, or preparing for games, or adjusting in games, or knowing not to hire cronies and/or GAs, or coaching, or recruiting, or looking like he cares on the sideline or in a press conference. He does seem to have a gift for flimflamming our AD into a sweet contract, though.

HiggsBoson on November 18 @ 09:57 PM CST

We'll see about Underwood. So far, some of the guys seem to like playing for him. The ones who don't, leave.

I still contend re: both Underwood and Lovie that really goo coaches can adapt to the talent they have while recruiting their guys.

Groundhogday on November 18 @ 11:53 PM CST

Of course we said the same thing about the guys who left Lovie's program. Addition by subtraction. Not good fits for Lovie's system. Etc...

At some point, you can't keep chasing off guys and then blaming on the guys chased off.

ATOillini on November 19 @ 09:50 AM CST

Quite possibly the single most appropriate picture ever for one of your articles. I know what I see....It's the same thing I saw on September 23, 1972 in Memorial Stadium. While watching pre-game warm ups as a 15 year old high school sophomore I distinctly remember looking at the sheer physical size difference between the Illini and the eventual national champion USC Trojans. It was a joke. At least then we only lost 55-20. I understand you can argue this picture shows a running back being tackled by what should obviously be much larger linebackers and lineman, but I'm just saying it's symbolic.

This article makes sense for me except for one major point. I disagree with the underemphasis on recruiting. When every report from training camp emphasizes the clear winner from day 1 in the quarterback derby is a transfer that never did anything of note at his other stops, I can't say I was particularly enthused. That's just one example.

Regarding hoops, it's still way too early. Plus I think this phrase "chasing off" is a bit overused. However, missing on key recruits (a rather common theme) more easy to categorize and agree upon. That continues to be disturbing.

HailToTheOrange on November 19 @ 11:14 AM CST

Hey, aren't we playing the number 3 team in the country tonight? Can we please shift gears and focus on Maui? Feels like that would be a decent antidote for my Illini football fan fatigue (IFFF).

Bear8287 on November 19 @ 01:15 PM CST


[You have to remember though that this site is largely written by one of the seventeen. There are still seventeen, right? Admittedly, I'm a basketball first guy, so clearly not in the seventeen club but it's hard to find good stuff on Illini football and Robert is a jewel in desert.]

thumpasaurus on November 20 @ 03:26 PM CST

I can't shift into basketball mode yet. Illinois improves to 4-5 with winnable games left? All football. Illinois loses 63-0 to pick up loss 7? All football. Illinois basketball wins the Maui tournament as Illinois football loses 84-0 to Northwestern? All Illinois football. Illinois basketball gets a 1 seed and goes to the Final Four? Almost stops football from hurting...briefly.

There are some of us who just can't do it. Basketball's great and I want Illini hoops to be fun again, but a packed house at Memorial Stadium means EVERYTHING to me. I think about it all the time.

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