0-3 Mailbag II


Robert
Nov 11, 2020
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18 Comments

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The biggest issues these first three weeks, I think: preparedness. It's a tricky year for sure, with no spring practices and limited fall camp before the season was shut down and then brought back. So the test was to have your team ready despite not much actual football the last 10 months. Indiana? Northwestern? The coaching staffs figured it out. Illinois? Did not.

I just feel like it boils down to that. Yes, we've been hit by Covid and yes, that meant a 4th-string quarterback the last two weeks and yes, if Minnesota had to use their fourth string quarterback on Saturday they would have had serious issues. But they still rushed for 325 yards (with two offensive linemen missing). They still... didn't allow us to rush for 325 yards after having the 5th-worst defense (yards allowed per game) in all of college football through two weeks.

So with that in mind, let's get to some more questions. Some from Twitter, some from the comments under the last mailbag post, and some from Slack. Like this one:

Just read the first mailbag. If it took 10 years to get Indiana to be a top 10 team (maybe not a true top ten team but you know what I mean), do we stick with Lovie?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on how we are different. What are the signs that IU looked at and said "we can't abandon this ship"? Do we have any of those signs?

If we let him go after this year are we missing out on the 10 year team being a top 25 team and some alternate universe Kansas blogger is telling his subscribers on Slack that "Illinois simply stuck it out"?

What is different and why would we take one path vs the other?

I don't want my answer to that question to get confused, so I'm answering this Slack question here. That question (from the first mailbag post) was "how did Indiana get to the top-10" and my answer was "you're not gonna want to hear this but it was a steady, un-wavering 9-year build to this moment". But that doesn't mean "give every coach nine years". Indiana made a very smart mid-stream switch to the coach who took them even higher. I should probably recap that post because not everyone is going to know the premise of this question.

Indiana did what very few teams do: they kept Kevin Wilson after four consecutive losing seasons. They did this because his offense had shown signs of life (suddenly Indiana had all these receivers making plays) and that was a thing to stick with. Wilson got a fifth year and won six games - 4-0 in the non-conference but 2-6 in the Big Ten. He then got a sixth year and won six games again, but this time it was led by the defense under the new defensive coordinator. They took that moment to dump Wilson (for his temper, mostly) while keeping the staff and players in place. After a 4-14 start in the Big Ten for Tom Allen in 2017 and 2018, year three was eight wins and year four is currently #10. They were patient with Wilson, and they were patient with Allen even though he took over a team that had been to back-to-back bowls, and now it's paying off.

But no, that doesn't mean "every bottom-10 school like Indiana or Illinois should just stick with a 9-year plan". Not at all. At some point - at most points - you'd be sticking with a coach who cannot build it.

For Lovie, I thought it a "fair shake" to wait for a fourth-year click. We got a click and a four-game Big Ten win streak. But since then, 0-6. This was the year to prove what could be built, and so far, we're one of the 10 worst teams in the country. You can't be one of the 10 worst teams in the country with all these seniors and believe that anything is being built. Even though Kevin Wilson was 26-47, there were signs that they were improving. If we go 1-8......

And again, I say that as the most patient fan imaginable. Since you mentioned Kansas, I still say KU should have kept David Beaty for a fifth year. I cannot believe they dumped him after four seasons. He was just finally on the cusp. And yes, I'm stating that a coach who went 6-42 was "on the cusp".

As you might recall, when Beaty took over Kansas, because of Charlie Weis' failed "let's just be Kansas State and recruit juco players" attempt, they were down to 39 scholarship players. 39 out of 85. When a program is at that level, you're screwed for 3+ years. Honestly, no chance, even if you brought in top-20 classes. No team can win with that few players.

Beaty goes 3-33 his first three years. He's an awful coach, right? My answer - we have no idea. Nick Saban is probably 5-31 under those circumstances.

The fourth season, Beaty finally gets them back to 85 scholarship players (you can only add 25 per year). And they start to play better. They beat Rutgers and Central Michigan in the non-conference and then stun TCU in a conference game. In the final two games they hang with #6 Oklahoma until the end (lost 55-40) and they nearly beat #11 Texas (lost 24-17). I still remember seeing tweets across college football twitter (like this one from Brian at MGoBlog), all saying the same thing: why is Kansas firing Beaty? Sure, out of context, 6-42 and keep your job sounds absurd. But with what Weis left, it was always going to take four years before you were even competitive. Why go through four years of that and then tear it all down and start over again? (Kansas' current record in year two of Les Miles: 0-7).

The point: you have to evaluate every program differently. Yes, it was smart for Indiana to keep their staff together and pivot to a new head coach in 2016. No, Kansas shouldn't have fired Beaty after four years because he was finally getting somewhere and had seniors returning. LSU? You get 2.5 years to prove something or you're gone. Illinois coming off Beckman scandal/Cubit extension? I think you should get 5 years.

This is year five. We're 0-3.

Removed Tweet

Kinda funny that you sent me this on November 9th, right?

On November 9th, 2019, Patrick had DM'd me saying he would be tailgating at the Michigan State game and I should swing by if I had time. I had four tailgate stops I was going to make, only made it to two, and apologized via DM that we hadn't had a chance to meet up. Then, after the comeback win, we did meet up, high-fived in the stands, and had the same conversations all Illini fans were having in that endzone that night: THIS is why we do this.

And now, a year later, we're all back to "why do we do this?" and the answer "because of moments like November 9th, 2019" rings hollow once again. If the celebratory moments are only fleeting, what's the point? Why not follow from a distance and wait for basketball like everyone else?

For me, the answer is complicated. And a lot of you will get very angry at this answer. But it's (unfortunately) true.

There was a comment in the postgame post that said the following:

Are you all in on any product Illinois football puts out there, or are you all in on winning? I'm the latter so it's easy for me to turn the page on this regime, declare it dead, bury it, and move on to the next coach. And that doesn't kill me. That is what gives me hope.

I answered in the comments:

My HONEST response to that:

I'm all in on any product Illinois football puts out there.

That usually makes some people very angry. They see me as part of the problem, and honestly, they're probably right. If I'm "all in" regardless of success, then I'm allowing Josh Whitman to potentially say "these suckers will show up no matter what so why improve the product?". Worse yet, I'm in the pressbox, and this is my job, and if I'm not going to use my voice to demand excellence, then I'm hurting the program.

I mostly agree with that premise. I disagree that I'm not using my voice - I feel like I ask some of the most pointed questions during the press conferences? - but in the general picture two things really hurt my credibility: 1. I've been patient with this rebuild, saying "give it five years" from the very beginning, and 2. I'm all in on any product Illinois football puts out there.

The reason for the second one is mostly personality. Not a boycott guy. I honestly don't think I've said "until _, they will get zero dollars from me" in my life. I have products I prefer, and I have companies I like to support, but I don't think I could ever "change this or else" because I can't ever see myself being certain that I was correct. My favorite book the last five years? Chuck Klosterman's "But What If We're Wrong?".

Please note that I'm not saying I'm "right" about that, either. Could be my deathbed thoughts will all be "man, I could have made some real change in the world". I'm just saying that, personality-wise, through 47 years, I've never had much of a stance on anything (besides the wind in Memorial Stadium and its effects on the kicking game). I vote in elections and then I don't pay much attention until the next election. I've never voted straight down party lines because I cannot imagine one party being "correct" so I try to stay informed and cross the aisle as much as I can. If God did a mailbag post I think my question would be "could you explain to me why everyone is so certain?".

So with my football team, I know I'm always going to show up. I have friends violently opposed to that - NOT ONE MORE CENT types - and I can respect that level of conviction. I'm probably way too trusting in authority (across the board). But mostly because of that, I'm "all in on any product Illinois football puts out there". This is my team, these players are my guys, they're mostly ignored in the college football world so I want to cover them like their Big Ten opponents are covered. When the football fails, I'm 99% sad and 1% angry.

Back to the original question. "Why do we do it?" For me, it's because I love this school, I love a fall Saturday in Memorial Stadium, and I lean in the Ted Lasso direction when it comes to wins and losses. Which means I probably need a Coach Beard to yell at me in the pub.

I was thinking about this the other day. Say we beat Rutgers and Nebraska but that's it - we finish the season 2-7. Then this team - this flawed, headed for the basement, 12th in returning production yet somehow significantly worse team - would have started 5-0 and might have been ranked.

It would have been 2011 again - ranked and then lose six straight (actually would have been seven straight since the old schedule ended with Purdue, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio State, and Northwestern). But with that old schedule - again, assuming wins over Rutgers and Nebraska which we shouldn't assume - it would have been a 5-0 start.

Because Bowling Green is worse than we are - Bill Connelly has it as a battle between Bowling Green and UMass for worst team in America - and UConn (if they were even playing this year) is on that same level. After all of their graduations and postseason transfers, I'm of the belief that UConn's choice to not play this season wasn't 100% Covid. They barely had a two-deep. They were going to be "lose to Illinois by 30" bad.

So the only real question for me is whether we would have beaten Illinois State. One more time with that sentence. The only real question is whether we would have beaten Illinois State. They were an FCS playoff team last season, and we look like this. They did lose the reason they were an FCS playoff team, and that reason is currently 6th in the NFL in rushing (James Robinson), so I do think we would have won given that they lost their bellcow. But yeah, it's hard to say that with any certainty, and THAT makes me more depressed than I was two minutes ago.

What would we have been playing the pre-Covid schedule? 3-0 heading to Rutgers instead of 0-3. And possibly headed for 4-0 and maybe even 5-0. And then 5-7.

We don't know how it finishes, so it's hard to put into context (the 0-3 start in 1993 destroyed my young soul but then we went 5-3 in the Big Ten; the 6-0 start in 2011 had us dreaming of Rose Bowls before an 0-6 finish showed us the truth). But given the product we've seen so far, this feels like it's headed for 2009/2004/1996 territory. Just look at some simple stats:

Yards: 1,427-977 (outgained by 450 yards in only three games)
Points: 117-45
Penalties: 16 for opponents, 24 for Illinois

That seems headed for 1996, I think. Yes, the points are limited by "fourth-string QB for two of the three games", but the defensive numbers are so alarming that they drown out everything else.

Here, I'll give you the worst and then move on to the next question. Third down conversions. 35 attempted third down conversions for Illinois, 35 for our opponents:

Illinois: 9-35 (25.7%)
Opponents: 21-35 (60%)

That first stat: 114th out of the 123 FBS teams that are playing this season

That second stat: 122nd out of the 123 FBS teams that are playing this season (only Stanford, with one game played, is worse percentage-wise).

Didn't need any of those others stats above. It's all right there.

OK, this final question comes from the comments under the first mailbag post:

My kids are starting to question my sanity after many years of season tickets, and asking them and my grandkids to accompany me to at least one game each year. My oldest son missed a short putt for a birdie the other day, and blamed it on the football team. I probably don't have enough time for a long rebuild, and would like to know if you were the AD, what would your next step be?

As is being discussed everything, with the current financial shortages due to severely reduced Big Ten revenues, I'm not sure what Josh Whitman can or will do after the season. As we've discussed, there might only be five college coaching changes across the country because no one can go to their board to approve a contract when they're also asking for a massive loan. No idea how any of that plays out.

But I do have a standard answer when asked "what would you do if you were the AD?". It's been the same for 10+ years. I still desire a system-wide acceptance of how bad we are and how much the fans have been asked to endure. When we tweet how many sacks Owen Carney had, and when we put together hype videos, I feel like we fail to acknowledge that. We behave like we're competitive in the conference, but we're not. I don't want to pretend. I want to actually do it.

I've gotten myself in trouble with this over the years, once getting in an unfortunate spat with the band director about the celebratory mood in the north stands during a bad home loss. I know I'm overboard with it (like I was there), but I just want to see the public behavior of everyone around the program (not the players - they can do whatever they want) come off as "it's broken, and it's our job to fix it, and it bothers us so much that we're not even going to smile until it's fixed". I know that social media managers have a job to do and I still want individual successes from players to be celebrated. I'm not saying "if Blake Hayes wins Big Ten Punter of the Year again do NOT celebrate it because we suck".

I AM saying that I'd love to see some Lou Holtz "we haven't won anything" even when we win. I saw some quote yesterday from a Lions coach who owned their 10-men-on-the-field mistake by saying he failed his players - yes please. I know that Lovie gets up and says "it's our fault" at press conferences (which is a lot better than Bruce Weber's "but I guess that's my fault"), yet I still don't feel like there's system-wide contrition. I'd love to know that the losses bother everyone in the DIA as much as they bother the fans.

We're dying over here.

Comments

212Daniel on November 11, 2020 @ 04:17 PM

Been attending UI FB since 1966. Have donated, have had season tickets, have gone to games, have actually sat all the way thru 40 & 50 ( & a couple 60 ) pt beatdowns and the losses to MAC teams, have told ADs & coaches that I ( & friends) will donate even more if the admin, coaches & team show consistently (EMU, then WI, MI ST, then NW & CAL???) some life and hold coaches/players accountable. If I had one of those conversations today, I'd add-- NO MORE hiring relatives and friends. Maybe it's my age but I find a lot of friends tell me the same thing. We still watch or attend a few games simply out of nostalgia. If it takes 10 more yrs, it's possible I won't see it. The up & down (mostly down) wanderings of the team since Mackovic have simply worn us out. I probably won't donate anymore. If it's a nice day, I'll go & "give" the DIA a gift in the form of a ticket purchase. My friends & I will have pizza, BBQ, & a beer. I believe that's where UI FB is. Why do we do this? 50 yrs inertia, but we've given up on competitiveness.

Now the BB team, that's another matter.

Dr. Chim Richalds on November 11, 2020 @ 04:33 PM

I don't really expect an answer to this now, because it might be a larger topic and a better thing to write in the offseason depending how things play out, but I'm curious if anything has changed in your thinking of how you evaluate rebuilds based on the Lovie experience?

Most specifically, the part where I would disagree with the framework you go by is the idea that nothing is evaluable during the coach's first 3-4 years (the "no questions asked" part of "5 full years no questions asked"). I agree with the point that making judgments based on record is often misleading for programs in this state, but my view would be that there are still useful inputs including strategic in-game decision-making, hiring of assistants and staff, ability to appear competent and articulate in press conferences, etc. Anyways, doesn't have to be that, also interested in the overall question of if there's anything else you think your mind has changed on over the course of the last 4.5 years.

Nabor568 on November 11, 2020 @ 05:01 PM

So was our ‘10-year rebuild’ moment when Zook got fired? I don’t quite remember the talent on the field but back-to-back bowl wins and an offensive coordinator seems to fit the mold just described...

Nick-Chainsaw-Smith on November 11, 2020 @ 06:39 PM

I was thinking the same thing. I know alot of his players say it was a mistake to fire him when we did.

larue on November 13, 2020 @ 06:43 AM

I understand that point of view, but I'll never get over 'I forgot the score.' And he proved that he was incapable of staying out of the way and letting his coordinators do their job, which was his only route to success.

The Olaf Rules on November 11, 2020 @ 09:16 PM

You KNOW that this has got to be killing Josh Whitman.

IBFan on November 11, 2020 @ 09:44 PM

I feel for 212 and all who have had such little joy in the results of this program. The biggest damage this repeated disaster has wrought is the destruction of the faithful. I hope for Robert, 212, and all this sports nightmare ends.

Dix on November 12, 2020 @ 09:16 AM

I agree on the hype videos/act like we haven’t won anything yet point. On a game level, I don’t even like some of the celebrations of sacks or takeaways when you’re down two scores and are generally having a bad year.

I think it goes to discipline. I know emotions are high and making an individual play feels good, but to me celebrating or jawing at opponents is just the flipside of a late hit penalty—emotions got the best of you in both circumstances. Lovie should be instilling that discipline, a critique he’s faced his entire tenure.

Finally, just as striking was the lack of emotion when things go wrong. I saw multiple tipped balls or just out of reach interceptions when normally those players or slamming the turf, hands on helmet like “ahhh how did I miss that.” The last few games I’ve watched more of an “oh well” response to those plays. Feels like we’re spiraling towards the team giving up.

stuone19 on November 12, 2020 @ 10:17 AM

is it fair to throw out a lot of what happens this season as "well it's COVID and this season was a bonus anyway"? I know you mention preparedness but what about the mental/physical toll of taking college courses and playing on a Big Ten football team in the middle of a global pandemic? could we / should we judge Lovie if this season had never happened and we just went into the fall of 2021 with the same optimism and returning production that we did this fall?

IBFan on November 12, 2020 @ 10:41 AM

I can see your point. Should a veteran team be more prepared thru the pandemic as compared to Minnesota?
But, How bad does it hurt not having two of your most important players in Kramer and Peters? I think we beat Purdue with Peters but the defense is just a mess. Team discipline is not great, team looks unprepared, and did the team give up a little in the last game? I am a Lovie supporter and have believed in Robert’s theory based on the analytical data on giving the players time to develop. This is getting ugly though. Hoping for a miraculous jump in quality of play.

ditkanate on November 12, 2020 @ 12:52 PM

Ok, here is my question about the comparison to what Indiana did in transitioning from Kevin Wilson to Tom Allen and their 9-10 years of "patience". As I was reading that, I couldn't help but wonder what our situation would look like if we'd simply stuck with Cubit? Would our last 5 years look more like Indiana? Or is that absurd on it's face because of where our program was at that time? I'd like to hear Robert's take on the alternate universe where we let Cubit have a few years after the Beckman fiasco....
Let's say Tampa doesn't fire Lovie that year, so he isn't available and there is no seeming "slam dunk" (ha!) replacement ready to go. So Whitman denounces the scandal and vows to right the ship and restore Illini pride #wewillwin. He says Cubit has his full support, increases the budget for assistant coaches, plans for facility upgrades, etc, etc.... If that happens, are we THIS BAD for the last five years?

BigRedIllini on November 12, 2020 @ 06:20 PM

I think the administration correctly judged that Cubit was not a long term solution. So my take is that we would not have been as bad as Lovie's fist few seasons, but I think we would have had a lot of 3-4 win seasons. I agree with an earlier post that when Zook was fired that was the time to pivot to another coach without blowing up the whole staff.

GilThorpe on November 12, 2020 @ 02:47 PM

I attended 1979-1983. Graduated in 1983 when it was still EXPECTED you would finish in 4 years with 3 or 6 hours earned during summer at your local community college (I took CS 105 at Prairie St & an English class at Thornton CC) Anyway , was lucky enough to see the program in some very exciting times and it made for some fun returns to campus as a mid 20 year old with plenty of cash to spend . Times change things a little , but you still know a “winner” when you see it . We knew Mike White was going to make Sat afternoons exciting . Fans & even non fans loved to watch as the offense could often score 35+ , and the defense was just as capable of 2-3 turnovers and holding the other team to 21 or less . All most of us want is football played CORRECTLY & with passion . we want to win , but will accept losses if true , sincere effort is given .
Im not seeing that at all this season . They are making it very very difficult to watch . I’m not asking nor expecting to see Tim Killeen to really ever show up and demand excellence from his football coach as he does from College Deans or Dept Heads , but that really is the difference between sports at UI and sports at the top 25 in most sports at other schools . Mediocrity is just not tolerated in any other area at UI , nor should it be , but it really seems to me that sports are an after thought in Champaign . I’m not blaming Killeen , but when he was named and I learned of his Scottish heritage , I knew athletics at UI were once again a screwed . It’s basically impossible to watch after halftime again

wizardofoz on November 13, 2020 @ 04:50 PM

The first offensive play from scrimmage in the Mike White era was a long bomb that went incomplete. But it didn’t matter. Two messages were sent, one to the Big Ten (actually 10) that there was a new style of football to contend with. The other message was to the fans. We we care about you, too and making Saturday afternoons enjoyable again.

Robert on November 14, 2020 @ 09:09 AM

I mean, to be fair, Zook tried the same thing in 2005 (Brasic got sacked), Cubit did the same thing in 2013 on his first play as OC (bomb to Ryan Lankford), and even Rod Smith did the exact same thing (bomb from Bush to Smalling for his very first play call in 2018 but it fell incomplete).

Efremwinters84 on November 14, 2020 @ 06:44 AM

"You know a winner when you see it." Great observation Gil!

I was around for those same Mike White years. He made football so much fun as a spectator. There was no question after 1 game that we had the RIGHT GUY. Let's find a dynamic offensive-minded "recruiter" who can put fans in the seats even if we go 3-9 in each of the first two years and lose by an average score of 56-42. How about some Big 12 style football to shake things up? The new guy can then ultimately hire a genius DC and we become a perennial bowl team. It's easy to tell when you've hired a really good coach --- not necessarily by the initial wins and losses --- but by the product on the field, the discipline displayed by the players, and the way the coach deals with the press. In judging their stints at Illinois..........White = A+; Mackovic = A+; Blackman = B; Zook = B; Tepper = C-; Turner C-; Cubit = C-; Beckman = fail; Lovie = fail. And even with all of that said, I still acknowledge that Lovie is a highly ethical, truly genuine, top-notch human being. He just doesn't have the drive, ambition, motivation and energy to excel in today's college football environment.

And lastly, Robert, doesn't it just gnaw at your gut that you put in all this effort to research/understand program rebuilds, coaching tendencies/trajectories and player skillsets up and down our entire Illini roster and yet the national pundits (from afar) nail their predictions with just 10 minutes of effort ---- 7th place, 7th place, 7th place, 7th place, 7th place.

Robert on November 14, 2020 @ 09:20 AM

And lastly, Robert, doesn't it just gnaw at your gut that you put in all this effort to research/understand program rebuilds, coaching tendencies/trajectories and player skillsets up and down our entire Illini roster and yet the national pundits (from afar) nail their predictions with just 10 minutes of effort ---- 7th place, 7th place, 7th place, 7th place, 7th place.

Absolutely. I honestly believe what I wrote: a bowl team that's 3rd in the conference in returning production has a greater than 80% chance of being at that level or better the next season. The two teams in front of us in returning production (Northwestern and Indiana) are proving that it almost always means a leap.

So when I see those "7th, 7th, 7th" predictions I see predictions with an 18% chance of being correct. 80% chance of rain and it didn't rain and now I'm the weather guy getting the "why did I cancel my picnic?" emails.

After the season it's going to be difficult to emphasize just how bad of a coaching job this was.

212Daniel on November 16, 2020 @ 11:44 AM

Since I started this string, one more comment & then back to the couch-

According to Urban Meyer, when it comes to struggling teams, usually one of three things are the problem.

The issues come down to: trust issues, dysfunctional environment, or selfishness.

Source: https://pressfrom.info/us/news/sports/-587348-urban-meyer-goes-viral-for-message-about-fixing-struggling-teams.html

Sound familiar?

And re Mackovic & his A+ above--my fav moment was gorgeous Fall afternoon up at WI playing a pretty bad Badger team-pre Alvarez- just before halftime Badgers are moving ball, IL has a couple dumb penalties, WI looking like scoring; Mackovic calls time out, brings entire team around him; according to later reports reminds them of who they are; next 3 plays WI goes 30 yds backwards.

Wouldn't that be refreshing again?

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