Pick My Post - Football Momentum

Dec 26, 2022

I've been doing laundry and packing most of the day. My trip to Tampa begins tomorrow. I'm driving because that's how you get tailgate supplies from Champaign to Tampa. You drive them down and then you put them in your hotel room for a week. I'm already wasting precious time on my 45 minute clock so let's get right to the Pick My Post.

Two people responded to the PMP tweet with basically the same question so that's what I've chosen:

Could not embed tweet.

My thoughts, in 41 minutes:

The first thing that comes to mind is the ebb and flow of college football. All I've ever asked is that we climb to the level where one year is 8-4 and the next year is 5-7 but then we have a 9-3 before a 6-6. We just went through a stretch of 22 losing seasons in 27 years and for the back half of those 27 years I've had this little blog where I've begged the football gods for a coach that averages 6-7 wins a year.

I have to start there because some are thinking that 8-4 is the expectation now. 8-4 is not the bar to clear. Since I moved into my Forbes Hall dorm room in August of 1991 we've won eight or more regular season games THREE TIMES (2001, 2007, and 2022). To suddenly expect 8-4 to be the norm around Champaign is foolish.

The goal, to me - how I'm hoping to see us "build on momentum" to where we are "consistently competitive" - is to level out the average wins on a rung much higher than before. We've been this team with deep valleys and occasional spikes (Rose Bowl in 2007 and then between 2008 and 2018 we average 4.36 wins per season). Throwing out 2020 (only eight games played), we averaged 6.33 wins per season in 2019, 2021, and 2022. That's two rungs up the ladder from where we've been.

So my first answer rests there. The goal here is a strong foundation. My focus is on those steps being made. In every Illini football build of the last three decades, the winds came, and the waves crashed, and the program was washed away. We need this one to be a super strong foundation, and it might still look ugly here and there as that work is completed.

The question(s) here, though, focus on how we translate this season's success into a competitive program in the future. Now that we've established that I'm leaving plenty of room for growing pains (I want it done right, not quickly), I'll make a numbered list of what to build on.

  1. Recruiting. This is the most obvious one. It's how every college football program is built. Once you win, you must immediately sell that success to the next class. The type of player targeted this spring needs to be a step above the type of player targeted last spring. We have to turn this into that.
  2. Program Identity. Bret Bielema said he wanted to establish run game and defense. In his second season, he had the #1 rusher and the #1 scoring defense (in the country). We've never seen a coach deliver on an identity promise so quickly. Now, the job is to continue to build that identity. We've established who we are. Now it's very important to sell that vision to the next Chase Brown and the next Devon Witherspoon.
  3. Coaching Hires. OK, I'm getting the feeling that my list here needs a "duh" after each one. A coach wins and then he needs to improve recruiting, further establish program identity, and identify great assistants? Groundbreaking stuff! But yes, this is the key to "consistently competitive". Hire coaches that other programs want (like Ryan Walters). And when those other programs take those coaches, hire more of them.
  4. Fan Investment. This one is so critical and I don't think our fanbase fully realizes it. We haven't sold out a game since 2016, even during this 8-4 season. Season ticket sales are at laughable numbers. Purdue, with a similar "this program is going nowhere" 10 years in the 2000's/2010's, is now dominating us (and I mean DOMINATING us) in attendance, especially student support. We remain in our fandom funk, and it will really begin to hurt the program next season. If we don't jump 10,000 season ticket holders this spring, we're absolutely screwed.

I really don't think people understand #4. I get yelled at a lot for railing on our "uniquely negative" fanbase, but I believe it to be the single biggest threat to our future success. If Bielema doesn't see investment, he'll leave. If recruits can't sense momentum, they won't come. Money will arrive via the television contracts, but if we're 15th out of 16th in supporting our own program (behind Rutgers but ahead of Northwestern) in the 16-team Big Ten, it won't matter.

If I'm honest, I'm already worried about season ticket sales. I think about it all the time. If fans don't jump on board it's over. The coaches just provided the best back-to-back seasons (9-9 in the Big Ten) in forever, and at 12 of the 14 Big Ten programs, that would result in 5-digit season ticket sales increases. I'm worried we just won't see that - that the "you withhold your money from the program and that creates pressure for the administrators, forcing them into action" crowd will continue to win hearts and minds - and all of this will be for nothing.

I just went four minutes over so I need to end this. Not even gonna edit - just gonna post this one like an SOC article. There is a four-legged table for building on this season and maintaining success. Recruiting success, establishing a program identity, making more excellent coaching hires, and getting the fans to invest.

Really worried about that 4th leg.


Forbes2South on December 26, 2022 @ 09:20 PM

In the preseason press conference with Whitman, you asked him, besides winning, how does he plan to get butts in the seats. Whitman mentioned they have ideas and plans, but gave no specifics. So it’s time to ask him again “What are the plans? And be specific.”

I’m guessing most of your readers are invested. So it’s on the DIA to figure out how to get people who haven’t been supporting the program to start investing in being a fan.

Alaskan Illini on December 27, 2022 @ 09:12 PM

And I don't think you can ignore the "No Chief, No Check" crowd . . .

tvillini on December 28, 2022 @ 08:50 AM

Maybe you should change it from 1 of the 17... to 1 of the 17 (thousand) as a goal for season tickets?

Illinimac68 on December 28, 2022 @ 10:51 AM

The concessions need way upgraded in terms of moving product. Fans miss a lot of action when they go to get a hot dog or soft drink during a media time out and then don't get served for 15 minutes.

Illinir1 on December 28, 2022 @ 09:36 PM

Robert, I'm confused in the current landscape of college football and would appreciate your perspective.

Let's say I have $1,000 to apply to improving Illini Football. Should I apply it to: a. IFund b. Illini Guardians c. Buy as many season tickets as $1,000 gets d. Buy Illinois Football player NIL gear

O&B4life on December 29, 2022 @ 12:09 PM

Really good question

detlef on December 29, 2022 @ 07:41 AM

Please don't be like another reporter who keeps asking players if they are transferring.

on July 3, 2023 @ 03:59 PM


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