How the Illini Revenue Sports Disaster Occurred and Who’s to Blame

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Lovie Smith isn’t going anywhere right now. In fact, now he’s going to be sticking around even longer. Contracted until 2021, the school announced a two year extension for him Sunday morning. The numbers speak for themselves: in three years he’s gone 1-17 against his division, 4-23 against his own league and 9-27 overall.

Yet here we are, as the complete football disaster has been rewarded. If you’re a betting man, perhaps with BFB, you would not have put money on this happening. This was a long shot scenario to say the least. That’s because in all three seasons that Smith has been in Champaign, the team has gotten worse as the year has dragged on. 

The Illini will head into next season with the third longest bowl drought among power five conference teams (Kansas and Oregon State are worse).

But hey, it is what it is. Like “Rex is our quarterback,” Lovie is the coach for foreseeable future.

Shifting over to men’s basketball, Illinois has the ninth worst (tied) NCAA Tournament drought among high major teams. The current squad is off to a very rough start, 1-4 and failing to win even a single game at the Maui Invitational this past week; just six seasons after claiming that tournament’s title.

Speaking of six seasons, it looks very likely the Illini NCAA Tournament drought will reach that number come March. Yes, the season is only a few weeks old, but the early returns have been extremely dreadful.

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How the two sports with a general interest audience stay this down for this long?

Well, it’s been a group effort; plenty of blame to go around. When you have a basketball program that the Associated Press ranked the 11th best all-time in 2017, and yet they are irrelevant for a half-decade and counting, it takes a “team effort” to get there. When you have a football program with five claimed national championships and two BCS bowl appearances, yet can’t beat a Big Ten West team to save their life, the fault is shared. 

Let’s take a look at how the Illini got here, and remember this list is in no particular order of blame. Everyone below has had a hand in this degradation.

We will however, start with the figures who are currently still in power.

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Illini Athletic Director Josh Whitman

He inherited a dumpster fire, and unfortunately hasn’t been able to reduce the inferno one iota. If anything, the flames burn hotter and larger right now. He’s been very ambitious with facilities upgrade plans and fund-raising, but eventually those facilities need to be paid for, and it’s only going to take real sustained success from the revenue sports in order to pay down those debts.

Football and men’s basketball need to give people a reason to show up, and then they need to be competitive enough to keep fans in the venue, buy concessions, merchandise etc. 

You can credit Whitman for this, he answered the doubters who believed his age and inexperience made him too green for the job by going out and hiring the biggest name available on day one of his new job. He whiffed very badly, but at least he stepped up to the plate and immediately took a big swing; and today he doubled down on it. 

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Overall, things have only gotten worse on Whitman’s watch, and he needs to start being held accountable to that.

Head Football Coach Lovie Smith

Smith inherited a team that went 5-7 the previous season, and actually made a bowl before that campaign. When you’re handed mediocrity to work with, a couple wrong moves gets you into the dregs rather quickly and that’s exactly where it is. Smith whiffed badly on both of his initial coordinator hires, and that certainly didn’t help.

When your team gives up 63 points three times in the same conference season, and 46+ on three additional occasions, it’s the look of a team where the head coach has lost the locker room. If that was the case, you’d think the head man would be pretty angry about it, and show that anger.

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However, the most well compensated employee of the state has maintained an extremely laid back public persona his whole career, and he’s even less forthcoming about any kind of inside information than your typical football coach. It’s unfathomable that a Lovie Smith team can’t stop a nose bleed, as strong defense is his brand, but here we are. And now we know the misery will be prolonged. 

Men’s Head Basketball Coach Brad Underwood

Although it’s still early in his tenure, there are plenty of red flags. Underwood has won everywhere else he has gone and he’s been able to improve each program almost immediately. Yet last season saw Illinois basketball set a school record for conference season losses, and unable to win a road game until the very last day of the season. That was Rutgers by the way.

Also, while it’s understandable that players from the previous regime might leave, having a substantial percentage of your own signees bolt for greener pastures is very telling and not in a good way.

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Assistant Coaches

Another bad sign for Underwood is that there has been no real improvement in the quality of players being recruited. It’s basically been at the same level, regardless of who has been in charge, since the middle/late Bruce Weber era. Chin Coleman’s connections to the Mac Irvin Fire/fertile recruiting ground of Chicago nor Orlando Antigua, expected to replicate the same kind of success on the recruiting trail that he had at Kentucky, have made much of an impact.

As for football, firing the coordinators didn’t solve anything at all.

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Illini Players, in Both Sports, Leaving Early with Eligibility Left

Players are going to do what is best for themselves, as they absolutely should. I have no answer as to why so many key players, in both sports, keep exiting early, but I suggest you look at the following tweet from former Illini defensive lineman Rob Bain.

He has the right idea- just look at the facts and figures in front of you.

Former Athletic Director Mike Thomas

He’s the most common individual scapegoat, and understandably so. A disastrous A.D. hire preluded an awful football hire and atrocious men’s basketball hire. Yes, Thomas did as much damage to the revenue sports as any one single person, but making disaster hires is only part of his “legacy.”

Taking too long to realize you’ve made a mistake, and then not doing anything corrective about that mistake just compounds the misery even further. Thomas lasted way longer than he should have because he succeeded when it came to corporate partnerships.

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Former Men’s Head Basketball Coach John Groce

It was clear early on in his tenure that he was in way over his head, but due to all the instability above him in the athletic department (and of course the chaos that surrounded the Illini football program, and the department had to try to fix that first) he long overstayed his welcome.

Groce continued the sharp decline which started in the later years of Bruce Weber.

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Former Head Football Coaches Bill Cubit and Tim Beckman

Beckman is regarded by many Illini fans to be among the biggest disasters in program history, and there is some truth to that. However, look further back and you’ll see that the last Illini football head coach to actually move up in the world (or even stay level for that matter) was John Mackovic, and that was way back in 1991.

As for Cubit, well the program was going nowhere under Captain Nepotism, and the fact that he’s coaching high school ball right now only further validates that idea.

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Former Interim Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk

Upon granting then interim head coach Bill Cubit a two year extension three years ago this weekend, he gave that infamously tone-deaf and ridiculously patronizing sound bite:

“It’s not ideal but for now, I don’t think it’ll put a dagger in the heart of the program.”

The statement was egregiously awful, but the actual decision wasn’t as damaging as has been perceived. The Cubit extension kind of torpedoed one recruiting cycle, maybe one and a half at most. When you look at the overall recruiting rankings over the Beckman-Cubit-Smith eras, the variability actually isn’t really that extreme.

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The University President and Chancellor Offices

When you have an interim Chancellor and an interim President presiding over an interim Athletic Director, like we saw during much of 2015-16, you get a rudderless ship that drifts off to nowhere. It takes awhile to guide that vessel back on course, but we haven’t seen any signs of that yet.

What has happened was a perfect storm of events, which grew into a super storm that shows no signs of dissipating. It’s also worth noting that Ron Guenther, Ron Zook and Bruce Weber all had their own flaws which contributed to this gigantic mess as well.

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The last time football really did anything worth remembering, Rashard Mendenhall was in the backfield. The last time basketball was special, it was with players recruited by Bill Self. It’s been a long, slow but serious drop off for Illini revenue sports.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, a former writer for NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com, regularly appears as a guest pundit on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation

He also contributes sociopolitical essays to Lineups.com and Chicago NowFollow him on Twitter and Instagram. The content of his cat’s Instagram account is unquestionably superior to his.

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