Illini resolutions for 2016

Illinois head coach John Groce looks down in disbelief during the game against Yale at the State Farm Center on Wednesday, December 9, 2015. The Illini won 69-65.

By Kevin McCarthy

Let me tell you a story.

When I was nine years old, I rode my first-ever roller coaster at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, Florida. I’ll cut to the chase: It turned me green.

As bad as the experience was for my weak stomach on that beautiful Florida day, it was actually far worse for my father. He ended up covered in my lunch from earlier that afternoon.

This image of my father in his legally required Tommy Bahama shirt — which had now been soiled — jumped to mind as I considered how 2015 went for the Illinois athletic department.

While this analogy may seem like a ridiculous exaggeration, I beg you to give it a chance. To be perfectly honest, I refrained from being entirely blunt to open my column this week out of fear that my editors would finally smack me on my doggone head — something they’ve longed to do for some time now.

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Editor’s note: At times, reining in Kevin’s columns can be a bit of a chore.

Turning the calendar on a new year gives people the opportunity to make some overly optimistic New Year’s resolutions — or for the purpose of my analogy, to clean off the metaphorical mess.

The Illinois athletic department should follow suit and make a couple of promises themselves. The roller coaster ride is over and it’s time for Illinois to finally get its act together.

Land the basketball recruit

One guy can completely change a college basketball program. Don’t believe me? Ask any Maryland basketball fan. The Terrapins struck gold when star-guard Melo Trimble committed just two springs ago. The Terps hadn’t made the tournament for four straight seasons — but, Trimble lead the Terps to the round of 32 as a freshman. Now, in his sophomore season, the All-American has lead his team to a national ranking of No. 3.

Sure, the Illini will continue to lose top Chicago recruits to blue blood programs like Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas. However, landing a five-star recruit is not out of the realm of possibility for Illinois.

John Groce needs to find the next Dee Brown. Thankfully, as a part of Brown’s new role within the athletic department, he will help Groce to do just that.

If he doesn’t land that big-time player, his hair will go gray. OK, bad joke in this case. But you get the idea.

If he’s unable to do that by the start of next season, I am willing to lace ‘em up once again. At 6’3”, I’d make a heck of a combo guard. While I can’t hit the ocean from the beach with a tennis ball, I’ve got great ball handles and can dish a few dimes as well. Plus, Groce is a self-proclaimed “point-guard coach.” He can make me truly elite.

Joking aside, Groce has the opportunity to turn this program around. And, in my humble, all-knowing opinion, it only takes one guy. 2016 is the year to find that player, Groce.

Fix your image

The last couple of years have been filled with seemingly constant gaffes — between talking about lasagna and the meaning of the word “Oskee,” former head football coach Tim Beckman became the laughing stock of the Big Ten. His pressers were truly “must-see TV.”

Following his firing, I was beginning to think that the Illini had it all figured out after watching the way that they handled the coaching change before the football season began. While the decision probably should’ve been made far earlier, it seemed that Illinois was handling things smoothly. Interim head coach Bill Cubit was out on the quad each week, smiling for pictures, shaking hands and handing out tickets. He spoke passionately about his team and this University each week at the podium.

This glimmer of PR-hope quickly vanished after hearing interim Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk speak following their decision to extend Cubit for the next two years. He explained that the move was, “not a dagger to the heart of the program.”

This was, perhaps, one of the most ridiculous things he could have possibly uttered. Putting aside the fact that the decision to extend Cubit for two years seemed like a terrible mistake, this only made things worse. Illini nation was hoping that at the very least, their fearless leader, Mr. Kowalczyk, could spit some basic platitudes their way in order to restore some sense of hope in Illini football.

He should have told people how wonderful of a decision it was. He should have spoken optimistically. He should have painted a picture for the visions he had for this program.

Instead, he only further affirmed the thought we all had: You guys aren’t confident in your decision.

The University needs to clearly communicate its goals to fans. Because right now, people are laughing at Illinois.

Figure it out.

A resolution for the students: Start going to more games.

Few students realize just how successful some of the Illini athletic programs truly are. Men’s gymnastics, men’s golf, wrestling and others compete for national titles each year.

Last spring, the Illini baseball team won 26 games in a row — a Big Ten record. There is plenty to cheer about in Champaign.

For the sake of brevity, I won’t dive into each sport, but I think it’s worth noting just how good many of the non-revenue generating programs really are.

School spirit is most definitely down on campus. While I completely understand the frustration, I also believe there’s plenty of reason for our spirits to be high.

Maybe the athletic office needs to do a better job of marketing these smaller teams, too. To avoid slipping into my crotchety, cranky, columnist voice, I’ll leave it at that.

Final words of wisdom…

2015 was a bad year for the Illini. Between various allegations of abuse from coaches and very little success for both the men’s basketball and football teams, not a whole lot seemed to go right.

2016 is a new year. My advice to the athletic department: Flip the calendar, throw it away or burn it, but whatever you do, move on.

Allow me to quote the great Winston Churchill.

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

Don’t lose enthusiasm, Illinois. Success can be just around the corner. Your Tommy Bahama shirt may be ruined, but I’ve got good news: There’s an online sale on all of their aloha-floral-silk-shirts this week. Buy one, and they’ll throw in a linen polo for no extra charge.

Figure it out in 2016, Illinois. Your fans are waiting.

Kevin is a sophomore in Media.

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