Conversation with an Illini: Dr. Michael Raycraft

Head coach Bill Cubit watches his seniors line up to be honored on Senior Day before the game against Northwestern at Soldier Field on Saturday, Nov. 28.

By Kevin McCarthy

Dr. Michael Raycraft bleeds orange and blue — I’m not sure if that has his doctors concerned or not. He served as Assistant Athletic Director at the University for seven years in the `90s. Now, he’s a Lecturer in the University’s department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism — teaching courses on sports management, sports marketing, fan experience and many others. 

This week, I sat down with him to better understand the question I’ve been trying to answer for months: What in the Sam Hill is this athletic department going to do?

Kevin McCarthy: What’s the current vibe over at the Bielfeldt Athletic Administration building?

Dr. Michael Raycraft: I think the vibe right now is that this is clearly a time of transition. A lot of people are coming and going. They’re looking for direction, hopefully we find somebody pretty soon.

KM: You mentioned that there’s a lot of questions — many fans have questions. I would argue that the current administration has done a poor job at communicating their answers to their fans. What would you recommend they do?

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MR: I hope they end up hiring some people with Illinois roots and an Illinois background. I think one of the disconnects we’ve had in recent years revolves around cultural issues. People are coming in and making athletic decisions, but maybe they’re not fully aware of the history and traditions of our campus. 

If we can bring in a leadership that has an understanding of the orange and blue, and what it means to be a part of this campus — that will bring some direction.

KM: It’s been a crazy last year for the football team. Do you trust the current administration to turn this around?

MR: The current administration is new. I don’t trust or not trust them. I do trust that we are a part of a great university, with great traditions. We’ve gone through tough times before and we’ve rebounded. I have a tremendous amount of trust in our coaches, our student athletes, the faculty and people around them.

KM: Can you justify the Cubit signing?

MR: He’s an honorable man, he’s a nice person and he has a good background. Personally, I think he was the right guy for the job at the time. He provided some stability to a program. He inherited a rough situation, and he handled it with grace.

KM: Chocolate or vanilla ice cream?

MR: Vanilla, gourmet vanilla.

KM: I’m gonna disagree with you there. I’d go chocolate. Back to the real stuff. Is John Groce’s seat getting warmer?

MR: Clearly. I think John Groce is a noble guy, he speaks well, he represents the program well. He’s had some bad luck this year — between mumps, injuries and all that stuff. He’s handled situations with relative grace. I like John Groce.

KM: What else do you like about him?

MR: I like his character. When he talks to our athletes and our fans, he speaks well. He looks and feels like a basketball coach should. And he cares about the players and is involved in their lives. I respect that.

KM: You taught him in class, you know him well — what do you think about the Dee Brown hire?

MRDee Brown is a special guy. His enthusiasm for the athletic department and the rest of the University is infectious. He’s a good guy and I think he’s capable of doing some nice things on this campus.

KM: How can the University do a better job of marketing their highly-successful non-revenue generating sports?

MR: I think they’ve come a long way. They’ve reduced ticket pricing. The more things they can do to get involved on campus and in the community, the better.

They need to schedule things that appeal to students’ schedules. They need to provide an atmosphere. So much of what they’re trying to do is create an atmosphere where students can go, blow off steam, get a reasonably cheap meal and have a positive university experience.

KM: The basketball student section, Orange Krush, was started in the ’70s but you made it completely different in the late ’90s. What did you do with Orange Krush and why?

MR: The Krush at that time had gotten kind of stagnant. It was dominated by just a few student organizations. Our goal was to open it up to everybody. We were inspired by what we saw with “Coaches vs. Cancer” — people would go and generate pledges for 3-pointers made by their team. We decided to provide a program where Orange Krush members can get free basketball tickets based on how many three pointers the Illini made. It was instantly successful. To date, we’ve brought in about $2.5 million.

They support all types of charities with that money — not just University ones. The local boys and girls clubs, United way, and many others. I’m very proud of that. They’re a role model to all student sections in college sports.

KM: So you, Dr. Raycraft, are at the podium. You’ve got the microphone. Illini nation is listening. How do you reassure the fans that that the athletic program can turn this thing around?

MR: It all goes back to the tradition of this great campus. I would say this: we have an alma mater statue on this campus that represents the past, the present, and the future. That is an icon that connects all generations — 2-year-old kids and 80-year-old alumni. We’ve got a great past. We have a great future ahead of us. We’re working on the present right now.

My final thoughts

Winston Churchill, who I’ve found myself quoting more frequently in this post-adolescent time in my life, once said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Good thing failure is not fatal — otherwise this athletic program would have been dead a long time ago.

Dr. Raycraft put things into perspective for me — maybe it’s not as bad as it seems. At times, I’ve been the curmudgeonly columnist — I completely understand why Illini fans are as angry as they are with the athletic department. 

But maybe, just maybe, it’s time for a deep breath. Maybe they know what they’re doing over there in the athletic department. Maybe they can turn this thing around.

My advice to Illini nation? Wait. And please, always remember — failure is not fatal. Now, it’s just time for a little courage to continue.

Press on regardless, Illinois.

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