Just under a year and a half ago, things were dark for Illini fans. Our former coach had just sent our basketball team packing from the NCAA Tournament. The football team was coming off a bowl win (and Mikel Leshoure’s Gozer the Gozerian impression at Wrigley), but had been kneecapped by a schedule that featured dates with Missouri (again) and Fresno State (on the road!) that, predictably, turned into losses (for more, see: scheduling, Abysmal). Our revenue sports were stagnating under the leadership of Ron Guenther, who had stayed way, way past his welcome. It looked as if we’d be doomed to float along in the purgatory that is annual trips to the NCAA Bubble and late December bowl games. The stars were aligning for a potential decade of non-achievement.
Then Mike Thomas showed up.
0-6 to finish the football season? Ron Zook is gone.
Just like that – poof! – the slate was clean. We stand on the precipice of the school year, starting anew with both sports. And the man who is going to start us out is one who employs an incentive system of tiered meat products that just feels innately correct. This is America, after all.
Here’s what I wrote when Beckman was first hired, and after an offseason of practices and recruiting, nothing has changed my mind. Here’s the key part:
Here’s a borderline insane nugget – this is the first time since 1971 we have hired away a current head football coach (Bob Blackmon, from Dartmouth). Our last six hires were guys that had been fired, guys that hadn’t been coaching in college, coordinators, etc. Although they didn’t totally feel like it, these were, in a sense, gimmick hires. Two of them were made by Ron “Fighting the Last War” Guenther, who went less for splash and more for a dramatic overcompensation of whatever the previous coach was lacking, be it offensive prowess (Lou Tepper) or recruiting chops (Ron Turner). Now we’re getting a guy that righted a capsizing ship at Toledo (as ships are wont to do when there is a point-shaving scandal) and worked under Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer and Mike Gundy. That’s a smart move. Sorry, it just is – sometimes the smart move is the less exciting and less fun move; that’s life. Take a quick glance around the Big Ten over the last 10-15 years, and you’ll see a few guys that were fallback options or unsexy choices at the time: Kirk Ferentz, Mark Dantonio, Brady Hoke, Bret Bielema and Barry Alvarez, Joe Tiller. Look around the country and you’ll see guys emerging from the MAC and hitting the ground running at BCS programs: Urban Meyer, Gary Pinkel, (grits teeth) Brian Kelly. I mean, for crying out loud, this is a coach that Ohio State fans had on their radar as the eventual guy to take the reins in Columbus.
I really just feel like we’ve got a guy who knows what he’s doing at the helm. It’s a strange and, frankly, unsettling feeling. Does that mean I’ve stowed all the demons from the previous 10 years and am approaching tomorrow’s game with confidence? YESSIR. No. While there’s reason for hope, I’m scarred – I can’t just forget that things like this happened. They can’t be unseen. Franks and beans for me, coach.
But at least for now, at the start of this season, I find myself worrying for legitimate football reasons (our safeties are banged up and our o-line is unproven and Alex Carder is going to unleash some MACtion that doubles as our own medicine gaaaaahhhhhhh), as opposed to expecting bad things to happen simply because we’re Illinois. That’s progress, and we haven’t even played a game yet.