More than a home game

By BobLa Gesse

Friday is the first men’s basketball exhibition game. Fans will show up and debate if a national championship is in reach. They will ponder whether James Augustine can turn into a consistent force in the post. They will question each other on how Nick Smith earned the nickname, “Chainsaw.”

By tip-off, football will officially be an afterthought.

But it shouldn’t be.

There is more going on with Illinois football than discussions of when Ron Turner could be fired.

The seniors have two games left to put on the pads. For most, the final two times ever.

And more importantly for fans, those final games can be a building block for next year’s team.

Simply put: “Four wins is a hell of a lot better than two,” Turner said.

Especially for the seniors.

To say they foresaw eight wins and a 14-game Big Ten losing streak after the 2001 Big Ten title is on par with saying John Kerry foresaw giving a concession speech on Wednesday after seeing the early exit polls Tuesday.

“We got the ring right away,” said Illinois senior wide receiver Mark Kornfeld. “We figured it would be easy (from then on).”

It hasn’t been.

And that is why the seniors need a win. So that when they look back on their final days at Illinois, they can smile – even if it’s because of two wins.

The seniors have gone through enough on the field. They need to feel what it’s like to win a Big Ten game again.

“We definitely hoped for more wins,” said Kornfeld. “But it would be great to walk off that field with a win and with the fans cheering for us and supporting us like they have.”

And since when don’t wins help teams in general? Especially wins at the end of the season.

Oklahoma State had two wins with two games left in 2001. The Cowboys won both games – including an upset against No. 4 Oklahoma, who would have been in the BCS title game with a win.

Since those two wins, the Cowboys have won 23 games and have been to two bowl games – with another on the way.

Iowa was 4-4 in 2001 before winning three of their final four games – including an Alamo Bowl victory.

In 2002, Iowa went 11-2 and was a co-Big Ten champion with Ohio State. The Hawkeyes will be heading to their fourth consecutive bowl game this year.

So can it happen at Illinois?

Why not? Oklahoma State has been where Illinois currently is. The Cowboys were able to turn their football program around. They are now No. 19 in the country.

Iowa had a grand total of four wins in the two seasons before making it to the Alamo Bowl.

Winning the final two games will at least stop the team from wondering if the Illini are destined to continue losing while going through early-morning offseason workouts.

“In the offseason, the coaches can show them that they have executed (if we win the final games),” Kornfeld said. “They can see that is the type of team we can be.”

Call it the football version of learning through osmosis.

If the team is told again and again they can win, maybe they begin to believe it.

If the team is shown on film again and again they can win, maybe they actually begin to believe it.

It’s shocking.

Not as shocking as the Illini fans that gave up on the football team, not realizing four means so much more than two.

Bobby La Gesse is a senior in communications and can be reached at [email protected]