News Of The Day
There have been several newsworthy items today. And one of them - the death of the head coach of our bowl opponent - is very difficult to write about. Probably more difficult to write than our defensive coordinator becoming the head coach at Purdue.
Well, one is difficult in a human sense. The other is difficult in a fan sense. I can already tell that I'm going to try to stall here with several paragraphs about nothing so let's just get right to it.
RIP Mike Leach
We've all had those difficult fan thoughts. Natural thoughts that come into your head but you know to never speak them nor even acknowledge them. Selfish thoughts. We all hate ourselves for having any "but has anyone thought about how this tragedy affects US?" thoughts. I'm here to work through those thoughts with you.
Some of us had the thought on Monday (when it was reported that Mike Leach was in critical condition) of "what does this mean for the bowl game?". And then we all immediately felt awful for thinking it (as we should). All that really matters here is was what the Leach family (and the extended Mississippi State family) are dealing with.
With today's announcement that the bowl game will still be played... that's still all that matters. This is their show. ReliaQuest Bowl coverage is going to feel quite lopsided over the next few weeks, and that's 100% fine. The game will be played in a stadium with a pirate ship and I think that's incredibly cool. I'm sure it made The Pirate quite happy, and hopefully it will bring a smile to the faces of Mississippi State fans on January 2nd.
This is one of those "whatever you want" scenarios in life. Virginia decided not to play their last two games after the shooting death of three teammates. I'm sure that was inconvenient for, say, Virginia Tech fans with pre-paid hotel reservations for their November 26th game or whatever. But at that moment, it's "whatever you want." Whatever Virginia wanted to do is what should happen. No one else gets a say.
Had Mississippi State decided to cancel the bowl game, my initial reaction would have been selfish. "I write that 'Finally Florida' article about how I've been waiting THREE DECADES for the Illini to make one of the two Florida bowls and now that we're finally there the game is canceled??" But I can eventually get my selfish side to shut up. Give me time, and I'll get back to "whatever you want." This situation is 100% "whatever you want."
If Mississippi State wants to cancel the parade on New Years Eve or the Busch Gardens day because they just don't feel like being festive, that's fine. Whatever they want. If they want all of those events to go on as scheduled and celebrate the life of their coach in some way, that's fine too.
And on game day, I'm going to be even more "just a bowl game" than I've been in the past. I spent the entire Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl screaming "people, it's just a bowl game with an interim coach - you don't have to yell at the offensive coordinator" (ironically, our OC was Jeff Brohm that day). I said the same thing in the run-up to the Heart Of Dallas Bowl and the Redbox Bowl. We get to drop "WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN??" for one day and just enjoy a college football game. Bowl games are when you try the trick play you've been practicing (Lloyd to Kittner, anyone?).
For this one, to me, it's that times three. The pregame, the broadcast, and even the postgame press conference - no matter who wins - will be about Mike Leach. It's the one and only storyline. Maybe their players are inspired or maybe their players are deflated (or maybe our defense is just too good), but that's what will define the 2023 Reliaquest Bowl. We're active participants - it's not like we're going to roll over and let them win - but this game is about The Pirate's final team playing one final game in a stadium with a pirate ship. Whatever you want, Mississippi State, you got it.
(Just maybe not a win?)
Walters To Purdue
I think this is one of those where I need to organize my thoughts using numbers:
1. I'm surprised he went Illinois Coordinator to Power Five head coach.
That's not a shot at him. Obviously, if you come to Illinois and you coordinate the #1 scoring defense in the country, you're an outstanding football coach. Look only at his two starting free safeties the last two years (Kerby Joseph and Kendall Smith) and you'll see that not only does he coordinate a great defense, he can take athletes abandoned by previous coaches and turn them into winners.
I'm just surprised that Purdue said "we think he's ready". So many coordinators have another step before "Power Five head coach". I mean, just look at the other five Broyles Award finalists (for top assistant coach in college football):
- Jesse Minter, Michigan DC
- Alex Golesh, Tennessee OC
- Todd Monken, Georgia OC
- Garrett Riley, TCU OC
- Ryan Walters, Illinois DC
Golesh got the South Florida job (a Group Of Five school). Monken, Minter, and Riley have been connected with a few jobs here and there, but I'm not sure I've heard them mentioned for Power Five jobs apart from Monken being mentioned for the Purdue job (which went to Walters, obviously). Monken is 56, so it seems like now would be his time, so I'm a bit surprised Purdue would pick Walters over Monken.
Again, this has nothing to do with Walters as a coach. I'm simply talking seasoning. Jesse Minter is defensive coordinator at Michigan and has the #3 scoring defense. It's a surprise that Purdue picked Illinois' young defensive coordinator over Michigan's young defensive coordinator, right? Like, Illinois to ANYWHERE has always been seen as a leap.
Maybe I just need to adjust to a new normal.
Josh Heupel went from hotshot Missouri coordinator to UCF and then to a Power Five job. Mike Norvell was the hotshot coordinator at Arizona State and he was seen as needing to prove himself at Memphis first before he was ready for Florida State. I guess maybe we could say "this is just Purdue", but I'm still surprised there wasn't a rung between Illinois DC and Purdue HC on the ladder. Even given the fact that he's the best Illini coordinator I've ever covered (sorry, Vic - you're #2 now).
2. I'm worried about proximity.
He's now a head coach 90 miles away from Champaign. Nope, don't like that.
Not only do I dislike that we'll be recruiting against him, I dislike that we'll be playing him in a trophy game every year. We haven't beaten Purdue in Champaign since (oh God don't make me look this up but I think the answer is 2010?), and now, the next time they come to Champaign, it's Ryan Walters on the sideline. Good for him (great for him), but man I hate that.
I guess it's a little different than losing your head coach to the Big Ten school closest to you. That's a true ex-wife situation. This is a coordinator who was destined for great things so you're happy for him.
But it's still gonna suck to see him beat us for a recruit (and then possibly beat us on the field with that recruit).
3. I'm worried about poaching.
Everyone is all "well, Kevin Kane will now be our DC". Well, what if Kevin Kane is now the Purdue DC? And what if Kevin Kane is the Purdue DC coordinating Keith Randolph at DT and Matt Bailey at safety? And what if this all happens next season?
The transfer portal makes a move like this five times more scary. Given the staff that Bret Bielema assembled (during a pandemic), I have 100% faith in him to find quality replacements, but still, I hate the thought of possibly losing some of these assistants (and players) to Purdue.
Or even recruits. What if Ryan Walters immediately pulls Jyaire Hill to Purdue? What if I open Twitter on Friday and see that Saboor Karriem and Zachary Tobe are both visiting Purdue this weekend? I know I'm full-on Chicken Little in subsection 3 here, but please understand that I'm an Illini football fan coming off our best season in 15 years and now there's a serious threat 90 miles away. Of course I'm going to think the sky is falling. The sky has always fallen at this exact moment.
(Well, I guess not this "exact" moment. I can't recall us ever losing an assistant to a Big Ten job.)
4. I'm excited to see what's next.
I was having a conversation with friends at the Nebraska game (or was it the Michigan State tailgate?) about how many head coaches are on this roster. Ryan Walters will be a head coach some day (today). Kevin Kane will be a head coach. George McDonald will be a head coach. Probably a few others. It's the sign of a great staff.
So if I end-of-the-day this, there's never been a better sign about the health of Illini football than Purdue hiring our defensive coordinator. It means the conversation I was having wasn't just some hope-filled thing by desperate Illini fans hoping that this staff is the real deal. This proves that we have something everyone else wants. (I'm a bit surprised that Purdue, having spent the last five years building up their offensive roster, is hiring a coach who focuses on the other side of the ball, but that's for another day.)
It's like losing a recruit to Michigan. You get frustrated after spending all this time convinced you have a chance only to find out that Michigan was going to always win that battle. It makes you want to focus on recruits that Michigan can't stroll in and steal. But when you do that, you're falling well behind Michigan on the field. If you want to compete on Saturdays, you have to win some recruiting battles against teams with a 90% chance to land that recruit.
This is the coaching equivalent of that. If you hire an outstanding coach, you might lose him to a Power Five school. But that doesn't mean you hire an assistant coach who is certain to stay. Losing him means you're doing something right. And now you have to go hire another coach who will eventually leave.
Preferably someone who will have 10 Power Five head coaching offers this time next year after an incredible season at Illinois.