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.