Apr 09, 2018

I thought about it all day. I wrote about it some in the recap of the football scrimmage, but it's still bouncing around in my head. The words still need to get out. I need to find a way to put this complete and total athletic overhaul into words.

Here's my Saturday. I walk into Ubben to watch the basketball scrimmage at 10:15. The players are going through position drills - all six of them. There were some walkons out there with them, but it was so alarming. Currently, there are six players on the team. Six.

Why six? Well, transfers. Last summer, Jalen Coleman-Lands transferred to DePaul and DJ Williams transferred to George Washington, which meant that we went into the season with 11 scholarship players instead of the normal 13. Then, after the season, one player graduated (Mark Alstork) and four more transferred. Well, three announced a transfer (Smith, Finke, and Lucas) and Leron announced he was forgoing his senior season to play professional basketball. So 13 becomes 11 becomes 6.

Where have we heard this before? On the other side of Kirby, of course. After his first season, Lovie had so many players depart that he went into his second season with 76 scholarship players (out of the max of 85) - he had maxed out his recruiting class but that only brought him to 76 players. Then, after this last season, 15 more players left the program.

Which meant that we went into the spring scrimmage with, by my count, 41 scholarship players participating. When you run the ones against the twos for a scrimmage (counting the kickers and the punters) you need 48 players just to play. And that's just to run two strings - when you sub in players you need way more than 48. So if we played 60 players yesterday it was 41 scholarship players and about 20 walkons.

Why so thin going into year three? Because this is a complete overhaul. I wrote about that several times after the season. At this point, Zook was still playing mostly Turner players and Beckman was still playing mostly Zook players and Lovie played 22 true freshmen and watched 15 inherited players transfer after the season.

Which, as I wrote yesterday, is why it's more or less a lost spring. That's not a bad thing necessarily - there's a reason, there's a goal - but combined with the six basketball players at Ubben, it's hard to find words to put into context. But I can try:

Lovie Smith now has 13 inherited scholarship players remaining. The average coach, at the beginning of their third season, would have around 35-40. Brad Underwood now has only two inherited scholarship players remaining (Aaron Jordan and Kipper Nichols). The average coach, going into their second season, would have 8-10.

I'm not talking inherited recruiting classes there, obviously. Trent Frazier and Da'Monte Williams were inherited recruits, as were the Bill Cubit recruits for Lovie. But just looking at inherited players, Lovie saw all that attrition in the first two years and now Underwood has seen six players choose to leave. Complete. And total. Overhaul.

Because it's happening to both programs at the same time you have to think that this was Whitman-encouraged. That's another thing I've written about many times yet haven't been able to properly put into words (yet). I believe Josh Whitman has told both coaches that they're inheriting a cultural mess and have all the room in the world to completely overhaul the roster and start over. Transfers aren't really mandated, I don't think, but when you're Te'Jon Lucas and you lose your starting spot to Trent Frazier and then the team is bringing in Ayo Dosunmu, you look to maybe get your minutes elsewhere.

Because it's very clear to me that both coaches want to play their own guys as soon as possible. We saw that with Lovie in his second season and I think we're going to see that with Brad Underwood in his. Big class, almost all of them get to play immediately. In the future, there will be redshirts and selective recruiting where the coaches are filling certain roster holes. Year two? Barely any upperclassmen (basketball will have one junior and one senior next season) and freshman take over everything.

Where does it all lead? Well, if it works, it's two completely rebuilt programs. The cupboards were bare, and even though it almost always guarantees losses, the second year, with the first full recruiting class, is a freshman adventure as the upperclassmen have found themselves on the bench (so they transfer) and the underclassmen dominate the game. Then, from there, year by year, slowly add pieces until the entire thing is rebuilt.

If it works we'll say it was brilliant. Both programs were going nowhere, the fired coaches left absolutely nothing to work with, so blow it up and start over.

If it doesn't work? I don't even want to think about it.


track on April 09 @ 09:34 AM CDT

Robert, why even consider that it won't work? If I remember correctly, your experiences with the Illini go back to ~1990-ish. Think about those of us who go back to the slush fund days. Yet, I'm more optimistic than you.

I see a nice foundation being built in football and quite possibly basketball. Even though the basketball team faced more athletic and talented teams this year, they were competitive in most of their games. Contrast that with the prior staff where we lost quite a few games by 20+ points.With Griffin and Jones ( as of April 11th) , we've added length and athleticism. Add the two guards coming in, Ayo and Feliz, and things are looking better. The major caveat of course is landing someone with post presence.

DB50 on April 09 @ 11:04 AM CDT

Well said, my days go back to Butkas & Grabowski and this is the most optimistic I've been about both sports since the 80's.

Bear8287 on April 09 @ 12:21 PM CDT

Like some others who hang out here, my first game in the stands as a freshman was the 0-0 tie with the Moeller led Illini against a hapless Northwestern team.

Given the past decade for both programs, I don't have any problems with changing the culture.

If the football program's recent recruiting success continues then there's definitely reason for optimism.

I also like the basketball recruits that Underwood is bringing in. It looks like this team is going to be way more "athletic". I also like Eboigbodin and Kane for playing in the middle. Eboigbodin maybe isn't going to take off like Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he's very athletic and could make a nice leap.

Both of these rebuilds are going to take some time and patience. I'm optimistic though.

Groundhogday on April 09 @ 02:47 PM CDT

Dang, my first game in the stands was also the 0-0 tie against NW. I was only in high school at the time and thought it was a fantastic game.

Joe Edge on April 09 @ 06:02 PM CDT

Remember that game well.... What a disaster..... lol.... Great pic btw...

Norcal Illini on April 09 @ 04:29 PM CDT

I don't go as far back as Butkus and Grabowski, but I remember the Harv Schmidt basketball teams after Weatherspoon and Conner graduated. The program really started its return to respectability when Gene Bartow convinced Audie Mathews to come, and then Henson got Levi Cobb, Mark Smith and Eddie Johnson. The winning didn't come overnight, but by 1979, the team started 15-0, including a win against Magic Johnson, and were only a win over tOSU away from being ranked no. 1. I think getting Ayo to Champaign is similar to getting those first big name recruits in the late 1970s. And the same momentum is building with the football team.

I agree that Whitman realized how bad the rosters were and is giving a lot of rope to the coaches to play the freshmen early get the rosters the way they want them.

Joe Edge on April 09 @ 06:20 PM CDT

This: 'If it works we'll say it was brilliant. Both programs were going nowhere, the fired coaches left absolutely nothing to work with, so blow it up and start over. If it doesn't work? I don't even want to think about it.'

Let's change this around a little...

If it works we'll say it was brilliant. If it doesn't work? I don't even want to think about it [and I'll be too old to care about it again]. Both programs were going nowhere.. the fired coaches left absolutely NOTHING to work with... So, the only way to improve FB & BB at Illinois was to OVERHAUL it... Otherwise, they would still be going NOWHERE...

uilaw71 on April 10 @ 05:14 AM CDT

Jones, Dunlap, Spanish, Koberski and crew had just beaten Kentucky in OT and come within a basket of beating a loaded West Virginia team on their floor. And it was gone in a flash, along with the heart of a loaded football frosh class - in the days before freshman eligibility - plus Callie Pinder. And did I mention the head coaches in both sports? In the aftermath, Jim Valek and Harv Schmidt coached with their hearts, and little more. Those were the dark days of Illini sports. By comparison, what we’re seeing with this AD and these HCs is nothing short of amazing. Keep the faith, Robert.

uilaw71 on April 10 @ 07:49 AM CDT

Spanich - GRRR auto correct.

ATOillini on April 10 @ 09:34 AM CDT

There is a theme to these comments from the older contingent which includes me (was a senior at Illinois for that magical 0-0 tie with NU).....Count me as agreeing with those who are very positive. When I look at the phrase "lost spring" I simply think off the brutally cold weather we've been having. But as for Illini athletics, I haven't been this excited in a long time.

Schlepper on April 10 @ 01:03 PM CDT

I too was a freshman at the 0-0 tie although I've been going to games since 1970. It's tough to endure these bad seasons but I'm a lot more positive about what's going on than I've been in the past. You can see the foundations being laid for future stability and success, which is better than mostly just being hopeful in the past.

Also, I wouldn't consider this a lost spring. I see it more as developing the depth we'll need over the next few seasons.

HiggsBoson on April 10 @ 05:46 PM CDT

Absolutely nothing to work with? Nonsense. The coaches just wouldn't/couldn't adapt to what they had and take a shot at winning. Which is what really good coaches do. Both head coaches have excelled in running off players and not much else so far. Maybe Lovie can put something together if the 2019 recruiting class holds together. I get the feeling Underwood would be fine with having half the team leave every year. It remains to be seen if he can recruit faster than he loses players. And coach up those who stay. Or have a winning record.

You ask what happens if this doesn't work out. If it doesn't, I would expect Whitman to go out the door with the coaches and the Illini try to hire an experienced power conference AD. I hope that doesn't happen because I'm getting too old to watch a total "rebuild" every few years.

HailToTheOrange on April 11 @ 12:17 PM CDT

Robert...love your passion, writing style and insight and I'm planning on being a loyal subscriber for the duration. Totally get the concern and share it to some degree (how could you not?).

But while I respect that the words "need to come out" I'd much rather be reading a LLUOI post on Andres (and related analysis) than more of the same borderline moping / consistent hand-wringing re the future.

Sure it's an incredibly unique position to be in (I realize I'm probably not totally appreciating despite your focus on it :-))....sure it's tenuous...sure if things go sideways the program could spend a lot more time in this "phase." But (like the other peeps above) i'm focusing on the positive. I'm fully bought in to BU and his system. I have some doubts re Lovie, but am still optimistic.

Come join us Robert :)

BTW, my first game was CU in 1990. Man that was some intro to Illini FB. May those days be just around the corner.

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