As I watched Illinois’ chances at an NCAA tourney whittled away by the eyesore that is Wisconsin basketball on Sunday, I was asking myself a question that is likely familiar to most Illini fans – “What am I doing?” It’s almost always
tongue-in-cheek, in a “Keep kicking that football, Charlie Brown” kind of way, but this time I found myself at least 70 percent serious. Like I was challenging myself to make some kind of rational case for the time, energy and emotion I invest in following college sports.
Immediately ruled out was any notion that they are “better.” I fully realize that there are many people that are primarily fans of a certain team, and thus, fans of the corresponding sport tangentially (and this is more prevalent in college sports than anywhere else, I believe – Notre Dame football, Kansas basketball, etc.), but I do not count myself among them. I really like watching basketball and football in and of themselves, largely because I think they are pretty great sports. So having said that, the NBA and the NFL offer a much higher quality product by any possible measure. It’s not up for debate. Remember when UConn and Butler threw rocks at each other for a National Championship? Or the Alabama-LSU BCS title game? Good God. And it’s not just the biggest stages – have you watched a college basketball game in the last two years? What conceivable explanation is there for what the officials are doing out there? I’m not just talking about inconsistency. This is outright ineptitude. People brush it off with inanities like “Well, that’s life on the road!” No. “Life on the road” does not mean watching the rules of basketball get sodomized so Ed Hightower can get on TV.
So given that a premium product is available – and at the same cost, no less – why would I continue to watch its subpar version? Especially when both of the collegiate sports have flawed ways of concluding their respective seasons (the limitations of the BCS don’t need further discussion here and the NCAA tournament, as great as it is from a spectator standpoint, is kind of a bizarre way to determine the best team). There must be something, right?
Well, sort of. College sports are supposed to win on intangibles. Tradition, loyalty, history, and so on – all of the stuff that can’t be measured and often preempts thought in favor of emotion. Pro sports aren’t immune to this, of course (“BEARS FOOTBALL!”), but it’s tempered by the fact that, in the pros, people are getting paid to do a job, and that job is “win.”
“But wait!” you say, “college coaches get paid a lot of money to win too, and they get fired if they don’t!” True. Mostly. But they’re the only ones. Since the players aren’t getting paid, we have to come up with other things that are motivating them – pride, heart, love of the game, the name on the front of the jersey and not on the back, and all that jazz. And we look for coaches who can bottle up that magic elixir of “talent + want to” and sell it not just to their current players, but their future ones. When a coach can successfully do this, he becomes revered at a level slightly below “sorcerer.” All things are possible! This high school senior doesn’t like contact? NO MATTER. Tom Izzo will give him the Spartan rebounding potion. Kids used to not care about being from Indiana but now Tom Crean has RESTORED THE PRIDE in the state. And so on.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleading guilty on this. Look no further than the double-barreled insanity of #ILCoachSearch, in which I chronicled the hirings of Tim Beckman and John Groce in a fashion so spastic and breathless it would make BuzzFeed proud. Who will be our Barry Alvarez? Who will be our Bill Self (again)? OMG….R WE ELITE?!?!?!?
Contrast this to the recent Bears coaching search, where I maintained an even enough keel that I couldn’t even muster a post about it. All the finalists seemed qualified in their own way, and in the end I thought Marc Trestman was a
creative choice that could potentially make the Bears immediately better. It was relatively drama-free, because the job description is relatively simple: make good football decisions. I don’t need to concern myself about the fact that it looks like he sleeps in a ballcap and how that might play in somebody’s living room. For the Illinois position (or any other school, for that matter), it includes helping to raise money, convince kids you’re building something, schmooze high school coaches everywhere, keep college-aged kids out of trouble, re-energize Chicago, put together a staff that can also do all of those things and by the way also win football games. And that’s a condensed list. Likewise, when Lovie Smith’s job was up in the air, I didn’t feel like his failures were an honest-to-god weight on my own personal shoulders. Professional coaches are just that – professionals, doing a job. College coaches become vessels for our own validation of every positive feeling we have about our chosen school. That’s not a healthy arrangement on either end.
But what else can you do? After all, once the players are in, they are fixtures for up to four years. There are no personnel moves. If a player realizes things aren’t working out, they can only make a change at great cost to themselves that sometimes entails even more pain-in-the-assery. Maybe it’s because I’m cold-hearted and unsentimental, but it’s comforting to me that – at the professional level – if all else fails, a player can be cut loose or shipped off. You can even get something in return. In the collegiate world, all that’s left is teeth-gnashing at unpaid university employees who aren’t even 23 yet. “Can’t wait til that kid graduates,” they say. So our wizard coach will bring in a newer model that appropriately bleeds [school color], presumably.
So maybe the point of this is that it’s wrong to compare the two, professional and amateur. Maybe college sports is just its own thing, where you have to take the bad with the good on its own terms, not in comparison to the highest levels of competition. But what is the “good” then? For football, the good is pretty much social. The odds of Illinois winning a BCS national championship are infinitesimal. Sure, playing in the Big Ten gives us an entry point to the championship picture, but given that programs like Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan are light years ahead of us now and have a combined two (2) national titles over the course of my entire life, it’s not happening. Our ceiling is “not be a total laughingstock, have some fun with your friends on Saturdays, and get a nice bowl trip every few years.” Seems manageable, but is it worth suffering through tire fires like the 2012 season? It’s pretty tough to answer “yes” to that.
For basketball, we’re talking a different kind of difficult. I know it sounds absurd right now, but Illinois is in the advantageous position of being able to qualify for the tournament more years than not (don’t laugh! remember, there are 346 D-I basketball schools). Still, there’s a pretty good chance I’ve already seen the one time we’re going to play for a national title in my lifetime. Sorry. Needs to be said. Unless you’re Duke or Kentucky or UNC getting 1-seeds on the regular, the road to the Final Four is a crapshoot. And once you’re there, winning those two final games is a taller order still. Don’t think so? Take Kansas – a school that has won its conference eight times in a row and has missed the tournament just twice in the last THIRTY years (and one of those misses was due to probation). Without some Memphis missed free throws and an insane 3 from Mario Chalmers, they’d have exactly one title in that span, and as an out-of-nowhere 6-seed. Nearly every other year ended in crushing disappointment. Is it worth it for them? I guess it is, since they’re not the ones writing posts like this. But maybe it wouldn’t be if Chalmers’ 3 doesn’t go down.
I guess all that needs to be said is that I feel more comfortable about the Cubs putting it all together than I do the Illini. Even with the craziness that is the baseball playoffs, the Cubs only need to best 29 other teams. Pro teams at the very least have the insulation of the draft to partially offset poor seasons. And in baseball, they’re able to completely overhaul their organization and develop their own players – Illinois is stuck with the status quo of every not-Kentucky school. Collegiate struggles are self-sustaining cycles.
I don’t know where this leaves me. I mean, even A Lion Eye is going to this dark place. A hiatus? A middle road? I dunno. But I’ll clearly be watching the Indiana game, because some things are bigger than sports, and detesting the state of Indiana is one of them.