Illini Revenue Sports Disaster Still Not at Northwestern “Dark Ages” Depths


Illini fans have used many different names to describe the catastrophe that the two revenue-producing sports have become: dumpster fire, tire fire, house on fire, a cartoon dog sitting in the middle of a house fire saying “this is fine.” As egregiously awful as it currently is, and will likely be for a long time, it’s still not unprecedented- not in this conference, and not in this state.

If you go back to the 1980s, a time that many Northwestern fans often refer to as “the dark ages,” you’ll see that things can be worse. It’s always darkest, right before it gets pitch black. Tonight the Illini will welcome #9 Michigan State to their home court, and that’s coincidental (watch a BTN announcer will incorrectly call this “ironic”) as it was these same Spartans who were the most recent team to fall victim to an Illinois revenue producing team back on March 1st.

josh whitman brad underwood illini basketball

Yes, it’s been 326 days since either Illinois’ men’s basketball or football teams has won a B1G game, a losing streak that encompasses 17 straight games. Hoops has lost eight straight league games, football a dozen. Lovie Smith’s crew last won a league game 434 days ago, on November 5, 2016. The victim? wait for it……wait for it…..Michigan State.

The fact that MSU has a role in the story of Illini revenue sport decline is interesting and coincidental in itself, as many Spartan fans were recently hailing the arrival of “A Golden Age” ushered in by Athletic Director Mark Hollis. This crested in 2015, as both programs reached the Final Four in the same calendar year, about as rare and elite a feat as one could ask.

Of course, it quickly crashed in 2016 with a 3-9 showing in football and a cataclysmic #2 seed falling to a #15 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. However, #SpartansWill turn it around quickly, and that’s exactly what they did in 2017, getting right back to their recent winning ways. Illinois and Michigan State were actually two athletic programs on relatively equal footing in 1990s and early 2000s, but went in polar opposite directions in the late 2000s/early 2010s (more on that at this link).

Now, to find the peer for Illini athletics, one must harken back to Northwestern, during a period in which most millennials weren’t even around yet, or just being born.


Since joining the B1G in 1953, only one Northwestern men’s basketball team has gone winless in league play- Bill Foster’s 1990-91 team that went 0-18. The football team went 1-7 in conference that year, so you had a combined 1-25 in Evanston that school year of 1990-1991. So it’s on this Illini basketball team to now win at least two of their 11 remaining regular season games in order to avoid being tied with NU for the worst of all time.

At this point, “We Will Win” is every bit a laughably inaccurate marketing slogan as “Chicago’s B1G Team,” if not more so.

If they finish with only one regular season win, they would end up 1-27, and thus the new “standard” for ineptitude. To be fair, it’s worth pointing out that this wasn’t a one-off for Northwestern athletics back then. You also have a 3-23 combined in 1994-95, and a basketball program that never did better than 2-16 in B1G competition from 1984-1992 and couldn’t be better than 7-11 from 1984 to 2002.

On the gridiron, Northwestern never won more than two league games from 1973 to 1992, and drew goose eggs 1979-1981, 1989, 1993 and 1998.

So as dreadful as things are in Champaign right now, this isn’t unprecedented. Additionally, the Illini school record for single season losses is 19, set in 2007-08 and tied in 2015-16.

When you factor in at least one B1G tournament game on the schedule next month, Brad Underwood’s boys must go 4-7 or better in this final stretch in order to avoid being placed on equal footing with Bruce Weber and John Groce’s worst work.

By no means is this a”fire everyone” kind of column, so don’t get it twisted.

I don’t pretend to have any possible answers, I can only say that the severe issues that have turned Illini revenue sport athletics into a total disaster reside at a level that’s well above Athletic Director Josh Whitman. It’s a totalitarian infrastructure failure that goes way up the University leadership, and the recent chaos that resided within the very top of the University food chain.

While the Whitman, Underwood and Smith regimes have been disastrous thus far, it’s way too early to declare any of their hires a total disaster. I firmly believe that you have got to give these guys a fair chance to see what they can all do, especially given the horrible cards that they were dealt.

Yes, Mike Thomas, Tim Beckman/Bill Cubit and John Groce were calamity hires, but the fact that the University moved so slow in replacing all of them is just as consequential to creating the current catastrophic carnage as those specific hires were.


The University dragged its feet in taking action, due to leadership chaos, and now the current teams are paying the price.

So when will it all change? I have no clue, but as we’ve outlined in painstaking detail already, football has sunk to Kansas depths and it will be there for awhile no doubt. Smith’s team is going to be unwatchable for a season or two, at least.

As for basketball, they’re not accomplishing much next season unless they can somehow get an instant impact big man, and they probably need at least another in addition to that. Basketball needs to find at least a stop gap solution of some sort at center as badly as football does at QB.

Until that happens, mediocrity, let alone respectability will be long ways out of reach. When you’re dead last in the league in both sports at the same time, and looking firmly entrenched there, you just want to see what rock bottom finally is, so you can get through it, embrace the suck and “let’s let the healing begin,” as Will Hunting said in his first therapy session.

A lot of Illini fans don’t like the phrase “rock bottom,” but that’s too bad, because you have to hit the floor before you can finally bounce back up. The football program is the perfect example of this, as they continue to lose badly, even after the season is long over.

Now more than ever, the only thing that matters is victories, and victories over real teams, period.

Staff changes, facility upgrades, recruiting news- yes, these are all typically important developments that we should all be paying a lot of attention to in normal times. However, at this point, the Illini must simply prove that a new coaching staff can actually win a game with those new recruits in those upgraded facilities.

Otherwise, what is the point of this exercise?

Since 2009, only one power five school has seen their basketball team fail to reach the sweet 16, and win less than eight games in a single season.

You know who that is.

So the “moral victories/they showed progress/the future is….blah, blah, blah” crowd can put a sock in it for now.


“Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival,” Sir Winston Churchill famously said.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports and TheBank.News, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, NBC and Chicago, currently contributes regularly to WGN CLTV and the Tribune corporation blogging community Chicago Now.

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