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I promised myself - PROMISED MYSELF - that I would not buy any stock this time. Internally, I suspended all stock buying and selling. When Lovie was hired, his stock was trading in the single digits and then I purchased a bunch the next day at 55-something. Offloading that stock this December was quite painful, so that's it - I'm not trading anymore. Whoever the new coach will be - I don't care if it's Luke Fickell - I'm suspending all stock purchases.
But with these latest coaching and recruiting moves, I feel like I'm watching Pfizer stock soar and telling myself "I could have bought in a month ago!". I made this promise, and I, I don't know, deleted my online trading account so I couldn't buy coaching stock even if I wanted to, yet here I sit watching it climb. So many fans seem to be buying stock right now and I feel left out. BUT, I learned my lesson (did I?), and I made a promise, and I'm sticking to it.
Besides, this is my job now, so it's better that I don't, uh, have a position in the market. Much better to just observe from the outside (and maybe a little from the inside). I'll always be an optimist, and I'll always have one goal: I want to see the University of Illinois football program return to where it was on November 3rd, 1990 (#5 in the polls, playing #13 Iowa in front of a sold-out stadium). And then I want to see us win that game.
So it's not that I'm going to suddenly turn into a skeptic or something. I'm just saying that a few weeks into Lovie I was "IT'S HAPPENINNNGGGG" and a few weeks into Bielema I'm restricting myself to "really smart move there". And man, I've said that a lot lately. Let's list all the smart moves just in the last week.
Aaron Henry - DB Coach
As I said on the Slack, if he starts a church in Champaign, I'm there every Sunday. I don't care what he's preaching about, I just want to hear him preach. And given that his first offer in the business was to be Team Chaplain at NC State, he just might start that church some day.
If you listened to the podcast I recorded with Coach Bielema and skipped over the first 10 minutes to get to the good stuff, those first 10 minutes were centered around Aaron Henry and the things he said about his relationship with Coach Bielema. He's a passionate guy, which is needed in the world of college football recruiting, so I think he'll be an important hire. Every staff needs the "talker" - the Thad Ward whose energy never stops - and I think Aaron Henry will be that guy on this staff.
Can he improve the secondary? We shall see. I asked him about whether he'd be coaching the full defensive backfield or if he'd split it with DC Ryan Walters and he said Walters would coach the safeties and he'd coach the corners. Corners were maybe the most disappointing position on the 2020 Illini (we thought it would be the strongest position on the team and it.. wasn't). So he'll have a big task ahead of him to fix something that's broken.
But getting a former player (as in, Henry played for Bielema at Wisconsin) to coach for you as well is always great for selling your program. So this seems like a very smart move.
Eddie Smith - DB transfer from Alabama
I went looking for some preliminary info on Smith (was he, like, 4th string and never going to play or was he more "I'm a sophomore stuck behind a sophomore"?). Found this tweet from one of Alabama's games this fall:
This was yesterday's depth chart for the Ole Miss game. Since Alabama will be without Jordan Battle for the first half against UGA,(due to targeting) it looks like either Eddie Smith or DeMarcco Hellams will start the game for Alabama against Georgia. pic.twitter.com/JRcGNZLyM3— Mason (@BamaBunker) October 11, 2020
Smith didn't record any statistics this season, so I think the answer to that tweet was that the backup free safety got the start. But Eddie Smith did just play in the National Title game. Jordan Proctor was ejected for targeting in the second quarter and Smith was his immediate replacement. I believe Alabama used two different safeties the rest of the game (Smith and someone else).
It's hard to get a read on Smith's situation next season at Bama (I've reached out to some Alabama people for comment which I will include in the LLUOI), but if he was in the official two-deep this season (and played when the starter went out), that gets me 85% of the way there. The safety spot became so dire at the end of the season that Kerby Joseph was moved back to safety (from wide receiver) for the last few games. So while a starter is needed, warm bodies are also welcome.
And just on the surface, "second string at Alabama as a sophomore yet looking at two sophomores and a junior in front of him so he decides to look elsewhere" is much more than a warm body. We always joke that Alabama's second string could beat Illinois, and now we'll have an Alabama second-stringer competing for a starting safety job. My guess is he wins it.
George McDonald - WR Coach and Assistant Head Coach
I'm not sure why this is such a big deal to me, but getting someone from that era feels important to me. George McDonald's first game as an Illini wide receiver (he went by George McDonald-Ashford back then) was the opener in 1995 when we were ranked 25th and were taking on #13 Michigan. After a 15 year run where we were in and out of the rankings (#22 preseason in 1994, #25 preseason in 1995), that loss to Michigan in the opener in '95 was the beginning of the fall. By the end of McDonald's junior year, we had lost 17 games in a row.
But then in his final home game, on Senior Day, we beat Indiana in Champaign for our first home Big Ten win in 763 days. He caught a TD just before halftime to give Illinois all the momentum heading into the locker room (and the Memorial Stadium crowd, small and quiet for two years - was actually energized as the team headed to the locker room).
That carried over to the next year and the 8-4 record (and the blowout bowl win). We don't have to rehash all of that, but I like that McDonald's career spanned what I believe to be the deepest low point in Illini history - a roster so poorly constructed that the new coach lost 19 of his first 22 games. I'm sure you thought games in 2017 (and 2005) were not competitive, and there were some really low moments, but I don't think anything felt more helpless than October 1997. We lost all four conference games that month and not one game was even close. 41-6, 31-7, 48-3, 23-6.
When George McDonald verballed to Illinois, though, the roster John Mackovic had assembled was doing quite well in Lou Tepper's third season. Illinois was ranked at two different times that season and finished the year with a 30-0 bowl win. So when McDonald (from Fort Wayne, Indiana) verballed, he was verballing to a Big Ten team in the conversation. Six bowls the previous seven seasons. The program he was actually joining, though, fell apart under the weight of a roster that had - what was that famous stat again? - 8 quarterbacks (for one spot) and 10 defensive linemen (for four spots).
So I like that there's someone on the staff who saw both the program he was verballing to (six bowls in seven years) as well as the program as it actually was (18 consecutive losses spanning the 1996, 1997, and 1998 seasons). We all know what a massive task it is to turn this thing around, so I like that there's someone on the staff who knows it firsthand. Perhaps it's best put this way:
- The program George McDonald verballed to could tell him this: from 1988 to 1994, six bowls in seven years.
- The program George McDonald played for (and now returns to) requires him to face this: from 1995 to 2020, seven bowls in 26 years.
Yes, there are many more encouraging things about adding McDonald to this staff. He's been an offensive coordinator before (at Syracuse). He's recruited at several Power Five programs (Stanford, Miami, Syracuse, and most recently, NC State). Having a former coordinator as your WR coach (and an experienced recruiter as your Assistant Head Coach) - smart move after smart move.
But I think the biggest thing, for me, is his knowledge of the time period when ILLINOIS FOOTBALL became illinois football. That's just the kind of guy who can maybe help pull us out of this dive.
OK, I can feel myself doing it again. If I don't stop myself, I'm five paragraphs away from "IT'S HAPPENINNNGGG". Deep breaths, Robert. Long road ahead.
(I just so, so very badly need this program to turn around, you know?)