It's summer of uncertainty for Illini football, basketball fans
July 18, 2015
When you’ve been out of school since mid-May, it feels like
summer is winding down by the time late July rolls around.
Classes start in about a month. The first football game is a
little over six weeks away, which will kick off another year of Illini sports. I’ve
been trying to envision how the revenue sports teams will do this year, trying
to put together a horoscope for Illini fans.
You are about to enter
a period of great joy in your fandom. Everything you have been waiting for will
soon come to pass, and will have made it worth the wait. Exciting times are
Something like that.
But I’ve realized that it’s a useless exercise. There are so
many unknowns going into 2015-16 revenue sports year at Illinois, and I’m as
uncertain as I’ve ever been about Illini sports.
I’m going to be a senior, so my freshman year at Illinois
was definitely uncharted territory for Illini fans. Going into 2012-13, Tim
Beckman and John Groce were entering their first seasons. Mike Thomas was still
new on the job as Athletic Director. We didn’t know what to expect, but at
least we knew it would be new.
Now, we don’t really have a great idea if the football and
basketball teams will see improvement, if they’ll regress or if Beckman, Groce
and Thomas will even have jobs this time next year.
If I’m looking at my orange glass of kool-aid as half-full,
I’m thinking that this could be the year that Beckman finally wins over the fan
base. The Illini go 7-5 or even 8-4, and an exhilarating home win over Nebraska
or Wisconsin gets fans believing in Illinois football again.
I’m thinking that Groce scrubs the skid mark of back-to-back
NITs and gets his group back to the NCAA tournament, regaining that positive
momentum he’s always been able to conjure but not necessarily continue.
If those things happen, it will have been a fantastic year
for Illinois sports. A solid foundation will have been laid for the two major
teams to transition into the top tier of the Big Ten, and Groce and Beckman won’t
be coaching and recruiting with their jobs on the line going forward.
But if my orange glass of kool-aid looks half-empty, things
could get pretty ugly. Injuries have already hit the football team hard. If
Beckman wins less than six games next season, he better hope his teams put up a
hell of a fight in the losses. If the Illini don’t reach a bowl game, Beckman
is probably gone, and whatever recruiting momentum he’s built up is gone with
him. Illinois football would then be starting over, again.
If Groce misses the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive
year, it will be something Illinois basketball hasn’t seen since the 1970s. Who
knows if he could survive that situation? In the nightmare scenario that Groce
is shown the door, then the new guy would step in with a graduating and still-unproven group of players for one year, and a very thin roster after that with
a steep recruiting mountain to climb. Worst-case scenario, this all leads to
the teens being a lost decade for Illinois basketball.
On top of all that, Thomas is under a cloud of scrutiny
amidst the ongoing mistreatment investigations, so there’s a chance he might
not be here a year from now, either.
I don’t think my doomsday scenarios will play out, and if
they do, maybe they won’t in the same year. But that’s the thing; we just don’t
know what to expect. It’s a fork in the road. Turn left for sustained success, turn right for the reset button.
There are reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming year of
Illini sports. But with so much uncertainty and so much on the line, I’ll be
watching with my hands over my eyes, peeking out through closed fingers.