Pick My Post - When Will We Know?

May 14, 2019

This isn't a typical Pick My Post. The standard is I ask for post ideas, pick one, and then try to crank it out in 45 minutes. This time I asked for questions and then did a bunch of other things for 90 minutes. And with time to reflect on all of the submissions, I chose this one:

When/how would we know it's over in the fall?

-- Forrest Chump ?? (@ForrestChump_) May 15, 2019

I'm glad I waited because I was going to pick a different PMP suggestion. But as I did my other stuff, this question stuck with me. There are so many different ways to answer this.

I'll start with the opposite: if we go 10-2, it doesn't really "mean" anything. If we go 10-2, I believe I will have a lot of people reach out to me saying "it happened - the thing you always wanted has happened!" and I will disappoint them greatly by responding with "it doesn't really mean anything yet". We've suffered through two "it's happening - we're in a BCS Bowl!" rug-pulls - more like Charlie Brown and Lucy football-pulls - and I won't get fooled again. I'll be thrilled if we go 10-2 - heck, I'll be over the moon if we go 6-6 - but it won't "mean" anything. We'll still have a massive climb ahead before we can declare that we finally have a football program.

I'm starting with that because I think my approach to "is this the right coach?" is different than nearly everyone on the planet. Really, the only comparable thing to our post-Not Ideal position is post-Weis Kansas. I guess post-Kyle Flood fired Rutgers is close. I should pause here and describe those three craters.

  • Charlie Weis tried to fix Kansas with junior college players. It was a miserable failure. When David Beatty took over, his first spring had 28 scholarship players which meant his first team that fall had 53 out of 85 scholarships filled. That's worse than us - that's a minimum four year hole. I still don't understand why they fired Beatty. He had just gotten back to level.
  • Kyle Flood actually had a winning record at Rutgers (27-24). But it started to fall apart fast, much like the Lou Tepper era here. And he tossed in a scandal on top of all that (Flood was accused of trying to influence player grades), so both he and the Athletic Director went out the door together (sound familiar?). Their situation was very similar to Not Ideal.
  • What do I mean when I say "Not Ideal"? Where this football program sat on the day Lovie took over. A scandal had taken down a coach and an AD. We had a lame duck recruiting class. To make matters worse, instead of letting the interim AD make the hire (like Rutgers did), we punted, extending the interim coach for two more years so that the new AD could make the hire. The reason we all focused on the quote "it's not ideal but I don't think it will drive a dagger to the heart of the program" is because we all (almost universally) responded with "yes - it will absolutely do just that".

Because of that, I put our rebuild in a different category. Baylor had a scandal, and Baylor had interim coach issues, but Baylor was coming off seven consecutive bowls. That's not exactly the same hole as Kansas/Rutgers/Illinois.

As a result, I try to adjust to that. I know you know this, but to answer the question, I need to establish this again. I've been excessively patient with Lovie. I've used the term "year zero" to describe 2016. I've tried to comp the youth on the 2017 team and settled on "youngest college football team of the decade". I predicted 3-9/4-8 the last two years and got 2-10/4-8. Many people have claimed "I think we know now", especially after the Maryland and Iowa losses last fall, but I haven't gone there. I've continued to - probably idiotically - point to the youth and inexperience.

But now we're reaching a "finally we'll find out if this is going anywhere" season. And the question here is "how/when would we know that it's over". And my answer is... not until very late in the season.

I'm going to the UConn game. I was discussing it with a friend recently and we were trying to picture what the fanbase would be like if we lost that game. If you thought our defense was bad last year, UConn had the worst defense (statistically) of the modern era of college football. We'll likely be favored by 14+. And if we lose that game.....

OK I'll finish the thought. If we lose that game.... it's still not over. It will feel like it's over, just like it felt like it was over after the Purdue loss in 2014, but I don't think it will be over. In 2014, it was out-of-nowhere wins over Minnesota, Penn State, and Northwestern late in the season that saved Tim Beckman's job. That team looked quite incompetent in September but then somehow put it together in November.

I could see the same thing happening this season. Lose one of the non-conference games (we absolutely should not lose one of the non-conference games), start the Big Ten 0-4 (Nebraska, at Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin), there we sit at 2-5 with the world declaring it over. But then we surprise Purdue, beat Rutgers, surprise either Iowa or Michigan State on the road, and head into the final week 5-6. Not likely, but I could see it. When young teams grow up, it happens all at once.

A good example of that: Mike Leach at Washington State. They got to 6-6 in year two but fell to 3-9 in year three. And in the first game of year four, they lost to FCS Portland State in the opening game. Leach was 12-26 at that point, so many Washington State fans thought they KNEW. They didn't know. Wazzu turned that season around, won eight games, and are now on a four-year bowl streak.

Now, if you read this space frequently, you'll know that my confidence in 2019 being a bowl season took a huge hit watching spring practice. I didn't see a starting quarterback on the field (and that was before MJ Rivers transferred). I'm not sure who steps up as the #1 receiver (or the #2 or the #3). I think the defense is improved, but I'm not sure if it's 6-6 improved (or even 5-7 improved). If we go to UConn and give up 525 yards then yeah, it's probably over.

But I don't think we'll "know". This feels like a team that will be better in November than September (especially if we're immediately turning to the superstar freshmen like Isaiah Williams, Marquez Beason, and Shammond Cooper). Which means that when we're 2-5 in mid-October (oh crap we're probably going to be 2-5 in mid-October), I'm going to be standing in the face of the violent WE KNOW NOW winds and saying "let's wait a little bit longer".

Again, if the opposite happens and we go 9-3, I'll be saying "we still don't know". I'll be encouraged, but we haven't followed up a great season with a great season since 1989/1990 (seriously - look it up). There will be a lot of people declaring "the longform rebuild worked!", but I won't be one of them (and yes, someone screencap that in case I forget I said it).

So when would we know? I'll play out both scenarios:

  1. If the season starts out poorly (the 2-5 I suggested above), then we know once the eighth loss arrives. That would mean zero improvement with everyone back.
  2. If it's a successful season and we follow it up with another bowl in 2020, uh, sorry, we still won't know. 2021 looks like an obvious step back with 30 seniors graduating (and I'll allow for one bad season), so then 2022 tells us everything. And yes, you won't even recognize me in 2021 if we're on our way to back-to-back bowls and I'm writing "people, we still don't know anything" articles.

So put me down for "8th loss is when we know" on the bad side and "when we lose a bunch of seniors but we're still good the next season" on the good side. I'm not sure the AD feels that way, but that's the way I see it.

One last thing. Kevin Wilson went 4-8 (1-7) at Indiana in year four and kept his job. David Cutcliffe went 3-9 (1-7) in year four at Duke and kept his job. So while I think the eighth loss tells us what we need to know, there is precedent for AD's keeping coaches after four bowl-less years. And yes, both Wilson and Cutcliffe went to bowls in years five and six. So... just be prepared for a scenario where most of the fanbase thinks we "know" and the AD says "one more year".

OK, that was a lot of words to say "eighth loss". Maybe I should just respond to these questions on Twitter.

"Robert, when will we know?"

"Eighth loss."


Nashvegas Illini on May 15 @ 08:27 AM CDT

Thanks Robert. This is why we need you on that wall!!!! Your perspective is different from any other Illini word out there.

AHSIllini32 on May 15 @ 08:40 AM CDT

I appreciate the hell out of your work, I really do. But man I don't like this new Robert. The Robert I've been reading for the last X-number of years since you started writing would have absolutely been thrilled with a 10-win season and would have written about how much of an immense shot in the arm that would be to the future of this program.

Now, I read that a 10-win season "doesn't mean much" and neither would a bowl game the NEXT year, either.

Robert come back!

Hoppy on May 15 @ 01:32 PM CDT

I guarantee Robert will be screaming his head off, crying during the “from-the-stands” posts, and writing amazing piece after amazing piece about the team during a 10-2 season.

He will go to the bowl game and have another amazing time that makes an extremely positive imprint on his life. (Especially if we win)

Then, after the season, he will re-calibrate and remember that one season does not make a program.

I think that’s all he is saying. He will enjoy the hell out of a 10-2 season. But he won’t assume that means 10-2 seasons (or even consistent 7-5 seasons) are automatically following.

illiniranger on May 15 @ 03:37 PM CDT

in our recent history we've had two BCS seasons that were almost immediately followed by falling off a cliff. i don't think anyone should read any guarantees into a 10 win season.

NC_OrangeKrush on May 15 @ 11:30 AM CDT

That Robert is 10 years wiser and has seen the results.. He is a wiser Robert than previous and not more pessimistic....

IlliNYC on May 15 @ 12:10 PM CDT

When you think about it, we'll never really know, ya know?

Joe Edge on May 15 @ 12:39 PM CDT

If you continue this 'fan-blog' Robert (and I hope you do), you will probably write and re-write about this issue many times over the decades of your life.... Illinois football has 'NEARLY' always been in rollercoaster mode, and we don't keep coaches around because of this. Build the team up, get to a bowl, slide back down, fire the coach, start over again... It's what we do - the way we operate! ! We haven't built a 'program' for decades and decades.

I do enjoy reading your 'take' on things. Yet, I for one have decided to just enjoy the good times, and spend more time with my old-man gardening thing in the bad times...

illiniranger on May 15 @ 03:35 PM CDT

two things:

first, i think you're right that it's very subjective and the scale slides all the time. We can plausibly start 4-0 (it's happening!) and then finish 1-7 (it didn't happen!) my metric is to not use a metric but to look at the totality of the program. Are we playing competitive football? Are we recruiting well? Are we building a roster for continued success in the next 2-3 seasons? And that's pretty much it, and all three are subject to an eye test. Assume we go 4-8 but every loss is by 7 points or less, and we have a Top 25 recruiting class coming in. I would hesitate to fire Lovie Smith at that point. We probably just had some bad luck and would bounce back in 2020. Assume we go 6-6 but 5 of the 6 losses are by 21+ points and we are bringing in a bottom 3 in the conference recruiting class. Well, we probably got really lucky and we are going to revert to the mean soon, so we might as well move on. Ws and Ls are really just snapshots in time and looking at any single season isn't going to tell you what you think it is going to tell you.

second, i think the Nebraska games tells us a lot. The reason i think this is that Nebraska runs a HUNH spread attack featuring 4 WRs on many if not most plays (10 personnel). We have been absolutely decimated by teams that run that type of offense (USF twice, PSU, Nebraska, UNC). I'm looking at our defensive performance in that game because if it is bad at home despite a) almost the entire two deep returning and b) at least the 6th look Lovie Smith has had at that defense, then it probably tells us that he is not good enough to adapt his roster and game plan to his opponents and get the most out of his team when he needs it.

deadguy on May 16 @ 10:40 AM CDT

It would nice to actually see us improve as the year goes on for once under Lovie. It just doesn't feel like that has happened in the last three seasons.

This gives me pause as others speculate that we will hit our stride in November when we often are getting destroyed by other B1G West teams. Some of these games haven't even been remotely competitive.

Bear8287 on May 19 @ 01:49 PM CDT

It just doesn't feel like that has happened in the last three seasons.

I'm going to temper that a bit with Lovie seemingly willing to continue to play for getting more experience for younger players and if the season is "over" early then he may be even more likely to continue to use games as "learning and building" experiences rather than trying to just put the best team on the field for that game/season. It also may in part be not so much the team not getting better, but just being horribly inconsistent which is also a typical trait for younger teams... I guess we'll find out eventually and hopefully not with an 8th loss this season.

Bear8287 on May 19 @ 01:32 PM CDT

We've suffered through two "it's happening - we're in a BCS Bowl!" rug-pulls - more like Charlie Brown and Lucy football-pulls - and I won't get fooled again.

“There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.”

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