Pick My Post - The 2020's

Aug 2, 2022

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Need to clear my head and write something different. I'd love to be writing about football practice, but we've only been allowed to view 30 total minutes of stretching and warmups the last four days, so I have no information to share besides "when walking through a warmup 'punch drill', Magnus Møller is tall." So all I've been writing is these 'The 90 Illini' articles. Need to reboot my brain.

(And yes, my desire to reboot my brain is 38% "been writing too many 90 Illini articles" and 62% "I'm incredibly bitter about not being able to watch an actual football practice so I need to focus my attention somewhere else.")

So I put out the call for Pick My Post topics. And you responded with some great ideas (to the point where I want to write about several of them). This is likely the first of several PMP articles this week. And let's combine two questions into one:

The second question asked about basketball so I'll start there. That one seems very simple to me. We have to get back to the Sweet 16, and we have to get back to the Elite Eight, and we have to get back to the Final Four. So I guess I'm saying three sweet 16's, two Elite Eights, and a Final Four make the rest of this decade a success.

Bar too high? Maybe. But this is what I was screaming about the entire decade of the 2010's. As national voices forgot about Illinois basketball (completely our fault) and the "is Illinois even a top-25 program?" debates began, I kept screaming about who we used to be. Three Sweet Sixteens, two Elite Eights, and a Final Four too much? We accomplished all of that between 2001 and 2005.

People hate this comparison, but the comp I've always cited is Michigan under John Beilein. Before Beilein, Michigan went from 1998 to 2009 without making the NCAA Tournament. Read that again. Michigan basketball went 1998 to 2009 without a single NCAA Tournament appearance. (And 1998 was later vacated, so technically it was 1996 to 2009). Yes, our seven-year streak without an NCAA Tournament was bad. Especially after we went to 21 of 25 Tournaments from 1983 to 2007. But Michigan's was worse.

After some initial struggles (just like Underwood), Beilein's program eventually took off. 10-22 his first year and then he broke their NCAA Tournament streak his second year (10-seed). Third year was 15-17 and fourth year 21-14 (and an 8-seed). Then it took off.

Well, there was another false step first. Michigan won 24 games and got a four-seed in 2012, but they lost in the 4/13 to John Groce and the Ohio Bobcats. Groce then got to the Sweet 16 (where he lost to North Carolina in overtime) and that led to him getting a Big Ten job of his own. Can't remember where that was, though.

The following season was the full breakthrough for Michigan. 26 regular season wins, another 4-seed, and this time, a run to the national title game. And Beilein followed that with an Elite Eight the next season. (Then a down season. Then another run where they made two Sweet 16's and another title game.)

I think that should be the goal for Brad Underwood. He started slow as well (4 Big Ten wins and then 7 Big Ten wins). His fourth season was way better than anything Beilein did in his first four seasons, but his fifth season was nearly identical to Beilein's fifth season: first Big Ten title in forever. (For Michigan's Big Ten title in 2012, it was their first since 1986; for Illinois, as you know, it was the first title since 2005.) And then both coaches ended their fifth seasons poorly: Michigan lost to Groce and Underwood lost to Sampson.

The final eight years for Beilein at Michigan included two title games, one Elite Eight, and two additional Sweet 16's (but only one more Big Ten title). So my goals for Underwood the next ten years actually come in below that bar. Beilein got to four Sweet 16's, three Elite Eights, and two Final Fours (with both Final Fours resulting in a title game loss). For Underwood, with one less season to work with (2023 through 2029, so seven seasons), I'm asking for three Sweet 16's, two Elite Eights, and one Final Four.

May the bar forever stay that high.

For football, the bar is obviously lower than that. I'm not going to sit here and ask for CFP appearances. I think it's best to find some comps. And these are easy.

At Bret Bielema's introductory press conference, Josh Whitman mentioned Iowa, Kansas State, and Wisconsin as the programs he wanted to emulate. And he noted that Bielema had coached at all three. So let's use those three programs as comps.

Here's the ten-year win progression for the three coaches who built those three programs:

Hayden Fry: 5, 4, 8, 8, 9, 8, 10, 9, 10, 6
Bill Snyder: 1, 5, 7, 5, 9, 9, 10, 9, 11, 11
Barry Alvarez: 1, 5, 5, 10, 8, 4, 8, 8, 11, 10

Obviously, I'm discussing three of the best rebuilding projects in the modern era. All three programs had seen several decades of awful football. When Hayden Fry took over in 1979, Iowa hadn't had a winning season since 1960. When Bill Snyder took over in 1989, Kansas State had exactly two winning seasons the previous 35 years. And when Barry Alvarez arrived at Wisconsin in 1990, they hadn't won 8 or more games since 1962 (only five winning seasons between 1962 and 1990).

And then, the average wins their first ten seasons:

Hayden Fry: 7.7
Bill Snyder: 7.7
Barry Alvarez: 7.0

There are, obviously, a lot of variables here. Hayden Fry got to perform his rebuild in the 1980's when Minnesota, Wisconsin, and (especially) Northwestern were barely trying to win at football (but he only had 11 games per year to reach that average of 7.7 wins). Non-conference scheduling has changed significantly over the years (and the catalyst was one Bill Snyder). Bret Bielema has the transfer portal available to him so program building is different as well.

But I feel like the comps there really nail it. Success is winning seventy games in a decade. That should be the goal.

Reading back through this, I guess I didn't really address the first question. If Illinois has a thriving football program in 2032, what changed to get Illinois to this spot? I'll list the three main things:

  • An identity was established in Champaign (much like Mike White's passing game in the 80's or Alvarez establishing the running game in Wisconsin). I'd love for that identity to be "defense."
  • Illinois got creative with recruiting and NIL in order to keep up with the USCs and Michigans in the Big Ten. Fans will be a huge part of this, and the current fanbase apathy just won't cut it.
  • Consistency was established on offense. Illinois has installed eight different offenses since 2009 (count 'em up - Schultz, Petrino, Beatty/Gonzales, Cubit, McGee, R. Smith, Petersen, Lunney) with every single coordinator (besides Lunney, of course) eventually fired. At some point it has to stop.

I probably don't need to go on, do I? You're going to think about that last one for a long, long time. Eight offensive coordinators since 2009, the last seven all fired.

Be the change I want to see in the world, Barry Lunney Jr.


IlliniJoe81 on August 2, 2022 @ 03:06 PM

If Barry Lunney Jr's offense helps us win more games this year than expected then the rest should take care of itself.

SactownIllini on August 2, 2022 @ 06:51 PM

Great post. I guess technically though Bill Cubit wasn't fired as a coordinator, but his son was? What a weird time that was. Though I have to say in retrospect, Bill Cubit did a heck of a job with a "not ideal" situation.

Also, I just saw this gem of a quote from just weeks before he was fired:

"Illinois football coach Bill Cubit has a simple message for everyone that doesn’t think he will be there next year.

“Last year, when I was the interim everyone didn’t think I would standing here. I outlasted 20 of them and I will outlast another 20 of them next year. I will be here,’’ said Cubit on Wednesday when announcing his 22 newest Fighting Illini football players that will join the three already on campus giving Illinois a 25-man 2016 recruiting class."

Jacob on August 2, 2022 @ 10:31 PM

Bill Cubit did a terrible job. He did a uniquely awful job

CapitalCityOutlaw50 on August 4, 2022 @ 07:54 AM

How anyone can even think that with Beckman as a recent frame of reference is mind-boggling.

Nick-Chainsaw-Smith on August 2, 2022 @ 08:04 PM

4th bullet point, QB play improves significantly

Illiniboat on August 3, 2022 @ 07:12 AM

This. A thousand times this. Even just a few average, replacement level QBs in a row would do wonders.

Robert on August 10, 2022 @ 04:03 PM

(Bumping this ahead of all the old posts with spambot comments.)

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