Misunderstood


Robert
Oct 03, 2018
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25 Comments

Back from vacation. Here's my pro tip for the day: if you want to do a beach vacation in non-Florida USAmerica, do it in September. The air is still warm, the water is still warm, and the beaches are 92% empty because the kids are back in school. The weather is better than June AND you have the beach to yourself. Perhaps all empty nesters are turning to me right now and saying "shhhh - that's our secret we don't want anyone to know", but that's my pro tip. September beach vacation owns.

OK, so as I wrote for much of the offseason, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to articulate how I view a long-term rebuild. Fanbases constantly want to hold someone's feet to the fire (either the coach or the AD), and a tear-down rebuild means there can't be any fires near any feet for quite some time, and I believe in tear-down rebuilds. Because of that stance, everything I write will sound like an excuse. Because it is. I believe that a tear-down rebuild means that you sacrifice current wins in hopes of gaining a future program. That seniors with 38 games starting experience in a few years will be the kickstart you need.

But I'm not sure people understand the other side of that. I'm not sure I've ever accurately articulated my focus on that program building. For example, I believe all of the below:

  • Jeff Brohm going to a bowl last year and perhaps going 5-7 or 6-6 this year doesn't mean all that much yet. Some coaches can turn a program around right away (Jim Mora Jr at UCLA) and yet fall flat after five years because no foundation was set. I want a program built. A sustainable program. You can do that when winning right away and when losing right away.
  • If Lovie has a Zook year in 2020 and goes to the Rose Bowl, it still doesn't mean anything. I'm not looking for a coach to find one good recruiting class, play them early, and win in four years. I want a program. I do not want what Ron Turner pulled off (one team) - I want a program.
  • If Lovie rides turnover luck and a horrific Big Ten West to 6-6 and a bowl this season, it doesn't mean much. It will lead my 2019 preview to push past 35,000 words, but it won't mean that we have a program. If we have the #100 defense and the #80 offense yet luck into six wins, it doesn't mean we're on our way to a program. It will mean we got lucky for one year. I don't just want occasional lucky bowls. I want a program.

I also believe these things:

  • If we lose to Rutgers this weekend, it doesn't mean much. There will be hotseat articles galore on Monday, but it's just one game in early October of Year Three. If this is a full five year rebuild (until we have the team the coach envisions), we're still not even to the halfway point. This is the "play the sophomores and freshmen" year. Next year is "play the juniors, sophomores, and freshmen".
  • The same goes for winning this one and then beating Wisconsin in three weeks. There would be "extend Lovie or lose him" articles, but it's just a couple games in October of Year Three. It points up (a Rutgers loss points down), but one game is one game. Months and years "mean" something - individual games do not. (Well, except for October 12, 2019.)

In that sense I see myself as a counselor for young married couples (stay with me). Some couples would come in and be all "we are in LOVE and we will FOREVER be in love and birds chirp outside our bedroom window every morning" and it wouldn't mean much. That's going to fade, and when it does, the real work of marriage begins. Other couples would come in ready to quit already and discuss all of the horrific things that have happened already in the first 18 months, expecting me to say "yep - this one clearly isn't working out. Time to split." Yet my advice would be nearly the same. There's work to do, but the long term matters, not the short term.

Are there some couples who would take that advice, do hard the hard work, and then still divorce five years later? And would they look back on my advice and say "we totally should have quit after 18 months - your advice cost us five more years"? Absolutely. But that's just how how I view things. A focus on the long term is always better in every situation. Stability over everything.

Which is why I've always been so against changing offenses/defenses as often as we do. I just want stability. When people reach their "time for a divorce, this isn't working" point, I'm always going to be the one saying "hold out a little bit longer - let's see where this goes". And when they're celebrating how perfect their life has become and that everything is fixed by this new relationship, I have the same message.

So yes, you might be shocked to read a "Lovie just won six games, but I'm still concerned we're not building a program" post after the season. Everyone is throwing a party and ROBERT is the one throwing a wet blanket?

Or you might read a "Lovie just went 2-10 in year three, but I still feel like things are on track" post. Maybe these next eight games are all losses but statisically (and eye-test-ically) encouraging. Maybe we look primed for a big step forward in 2019 and then again in 2020.

And then maybe we do break out and I'm concerned that 2021 is a cliff. Or maybe we don't break out and only win 5 games in 2019 and 6 games in 2020 (it feels like a ceiling to you) yet I see signs at camp that there's a legitimate program there, having tracked the progress over the previous five camps (and spring practices). All I can do is track everything against one single goal: is there a sustainable football program being built in Champaign?

How have we been tracking so far? Here's what I'd say:

  • 2016 was a disappointment. With 24 seniors, we should have gotten more. But seven of the nine losses were to teams with 8 or more wins. The eighth was 6-6 Northwestern. The ninth loss was doinked off the upright against Purdue.
  • 2017 was encouraging to me (and apparently only me). I really, really like this 2017 class. I think it will prove to be the class of the decade. Losing with them as true freshmen means nothing - I love that they're getting snaps as true freshmen. 2020 seems bright from here.
  • 2018, so far, is a step back for me. The offensive advancements have been great, but the defensive numbers are so bad - early potential to be the worst Illini defense of our lifetimes bad - that I'm scared of the next two months. The numbers so far are so, so bad, and this is year three.

Yes, there are other things that go into each of those. Missing Jamal Milan, Nate Hobbs, and Bennett Williams on defense has been a very big part of the defensive step back this year (and hopefully improves with their return). Last year's divided locker room was a big concern. I thought 2016 was clearly a 6-6 team that preseason (they were 5-7 the year before), so 3-9 is worse than I'm describing there.

But overall, that's my journey so far. Lovie gets five years until his first class of recruits are seniors. Rod Smith appears to have tweaked the offense in a very positive direction. It looks like we might need to do the same with the defense soon. The players needed to make this work are absolutely there in the 2017 class. Jury is still out on 2018. And looking at the roster balance so far, I'm wildly concerned that 2021 will be a Ron Turner Cliff.

At the core, though, is this: Lovie gets five years to do whatever he wants. And what it looks like AFTER those five years is what matters. You can have a stepback year after seniors graduate, but you cannot have two (Ron Turner, Ron Zook). My very wise Colorado Buffalo fan friend was like this when Colorado went 10-2 in 2016. He had stood by MacIntyre when he went 4-9 (1-8) in his third year, urging patience. And then, when they won the next year... "This is great. But it means nothing. Next year will be bowl-less, and that's fine. 2018 is everything. Do we have a program, or did we just get one 10-2 season?"

That's my plan. Cautious optimism if we're winning. Hesitation to go overboard if we're losing. I'm focused on a steady climb from where we've been the last 25 years to Sustainable College Football Program.

And also October 12, 2019.

Comments

Dr. Chim Richalds on October 03 @ 08:41 PM CDT

Robert, this is a genuine question and I don't want it to come off overly negative, but I'm always struck by how confident you are that Illinois football will be decent-to-good in 2019 and good-to-great in 2020. I understand the theory behind building a program, and your points around not being able to tell how it will shake out are taken (my guess is you would say you aren't "confident", we just can't tell how those years will look at this point), but I believe you've said a few times you're more worried about falling off in 2021 than just never turning things around even for a year. I want to believe in Beard Lovie as much as anyone, but plenty of coaches fail to get their program to a bowl game at all. It would be interesting to know how often coaches have climbed out of the cellar only to fall off a cliff as compared to never making a bowl game in their tenure (and apologies if you've done that analysis and I've forgotten it, I know there have been a few posts looking at the successful rebuilds by year but not sure the failures were analyzed).

I guess it makes me wonder how much of your view is colored by an arguably fluky bowl year in 2014 driving a pattern of Year Three surges. If Beckman had failed outright and gone 4-8 in 2014 (probably the NERDstats view on what should have happened: we were 79th in S&P+, stole a win from Minnesota when we gained only 263 yards, and entered the 4th quarter trailing in 4 of 6 wins, while never losing by single digits), do you think that would change your perspective?

I think I might be more positive on a surging 7-8 win team in say 2020 regardless of a step back after, given we haven't won that many regular season games since the Rose Bowl. It would seem to me to at least keep us from being viewed as Kansas (look at the national respect Purdue gets compared to Illinois after one 7-6 year).

Robert on October 04 @ 05:57 PM CDT

I think the best way to answer that is to say that I believe Darrell Hazell might have gotten Purdue to a bowl last year. They got there because of the defense he was building, and while his offense probably wouldn't have been as successful as Brohm's, I think Purdue would have had a good-to-great defense under Hazell last year. And please note that I said this in the 2017 football preview before Purdue had their breakout year. Brohm was taking over the team Hazell was building towards, much like Cubit did here.

So my view is more or less "any old coach could get to a bowl game in year four or five." It's really not that hard. Play a bunch of kids and stay with them for three years and they can get you to a minor bowl. It doesn't mean anything, and it's headed right back down immediately after they graduate, but it's fairly "easy".

So when Jon Embree is fired after two years at Colorado, or Ellis Johnson is fired after one year at Southern Miss, I'm always confused. I don't understand why the administrators believe that football is "show up and tell kids what to do and they do it and you win". If Scott Frost is at Purdue last year, they go 6-6. If Jeff Brohm is at Nebraska this year, they're still 0-4. To me, it's more about the roster you inherit than "coaching".

uofi08 on October 03 @ 09:36 PM CDT

I don’t want this to sound bad, but what do you have against Purdue and/or Brohm. You always seem to hint at their “rebuild” being unsustainable and weak. Basically you don’t believe in what Brohm is doing. I’m just trying to make sense of it. Brohm basically did in his first season what you admit you were hoping Lovie would’ve done. Go 6-6 led by upperclassmen while getting your program started. Through his first and second year there is clear, definitive improvement that any observer can see. He’s also 9-9 (5-6). Lovie is 7-21 (2-17).

I didn’t mean to turn this into a Purdue argument. I guess I just think you need to admit there’s other paths for programs similar to Illinois to do a rebuild. When you step back, sure the sustainable program is everyone’s goal. But the bottom line is that Brohm is on a path to starting his first 2 years with the record and improvement that you want Lovie to accomplish in year 4. My main problem with this rebuild is it’s speed and level of improvement. I worry that it’s going too slow and showing too little improvement. And after next year Lovie needs to be extended or fired. Is 6-6 in 2019 in the worst division in P5 really gonna prove enough that the rebuild is working and Lovie deserves an extension?

steveinseattle on October 04 @ 12:55 AM CDT

Not only did Brohm go to a bowl last year and has put a really competitive team on the field this year - but he’s also finding kids like Rondale Moore. He’s currently working on the 25th ranked recruiting class over there.

Where are we ranked? Mid 40’s somewhere? Kids are waiting for Lovie to show something before buying in. Brohm doesn’t have that issue.

AHSIllini32 on October 04 @ 09:58 AM CDT

A really competitive team......that lost to Eastern Michigan at home.

Also, funny story about recruiting rankings, according to 247 the average commit rank for Purdue - 85.95, for Illinois - 85.93. Hmmm.....seems as though their ranking is buoyed by having 20 commits to our 10 (and our class isn't going to be a big one by the way).

uofi08 on October 04 @ 04:04 PM CDT

So we’re recruiting about the same caliber players. But they’re showing improvement on the field. In 1 season and 1 month, Brohm and Purdue have 7 wins against power 5 opponents. In 2 seasons and 1 month, Lovie and Illinois have 2 power 5 victories, the last of which came almost 2 years ago.

illiniranger on October 05 @ 07:57 AM CDT

PU has 4x 4 star commits. Karlaftis is a fringe 5 star player, like Williams. But that’s at his actual position (DE) whereas Williams is at ATH. If Williams were viewed as a QB he’s probably in the 300s. Brohm also has 4* safety, DT, and WR. He also has high 3* TE and ATH committed and players at every position group. It’s likely that the recruiting class falls into the 30s somewhere, but it’s going to be better than any group Lovie has yet recruited. And I’d expect this classes average rating to go down as we round out the class with “diamond in the rough” types.

The fact is, despite losing to EMU, PU is still going to win 5 or 6 games this year and 3 or 4 of them B1G games. That’s objectively better than anything Lovie has done, and I don’t think we can dismiss PU - they are making the move we should be making. Maybe it doesn’t last but the trendline at this point is obvious.

Robert on October 04 @ 06:03 PM CDT

My hints are that a rebuild when you play the juniors and seniors (like Purdue) vs. a rebuild where you play the freshmen and sophomores (like Illinois) is always on shaky ground years 3 and 4. Some coaches have the talent-spotting chops and the player development chops to do it; others fade each year after taking over.

As I mentioned above, and as I said in the 2017 preview, I thought Purdue would be significantly better than us. Brohm walked into a better situation than many realized at the time. Much better than, say, Frost walked into at Nebraska. So I said that Purdue fans should be worried about a Jim Mora Jr scenario (win right away, then lose, then lose some more, leaving a pile of ashes for Chip Kelly).

I'm not saying that will happen. It might be that Brohm is a Supercoach. I'm just saying that winning right away (and losing right away) doesn't MEAN anything yet.

illiniranger on October 05 @ 08:01 AM CDT

I think it means something in the sense it helps a program recruit better. Also helps when you go back to the ATH DEPT to ask for more money in the assistant salary pool or admissions to ask them to get this one kid in despite missing a class - admins think they are getting ROI.

Not saying PU works out long term, but winning is always better than losing. If I had the choice I’d win up front.

MuckFichigan92 on October 04 @ 02:11 AM CDT

Rather nihilistic take in the article that nothing matters except for the next season. When will an evaluation be done? How could one conclude no more time is needed to establish, not rebuid, the program? Ponder that then read this on Glen Mason:

The Minnesota Golden Gophers were head coached by Glen Mason for ten seasons, from 1997 to 2006.[1] In those ten seasons, the Golden Gophers had 64 wins and 57 losses.[1] In the Big Ten, they won 32 games and lost 48.[2] The Golden Gophers went to seven bowl games, which is more than all other Golden Gopher head coaches combined (5 other bowl appearances in university history).

I was thinking such would be the Illinois goal but given it is the B1G West, an Iowa-like product is the target: bowl every season and a season with double-digit wins every so often.

@ Brohm’s two agents, Brohm certainly is the archetype, without question. Most coaches win in year three, some in year four but yeah, Brohm has done it in 1.5. Of course he has.

BexleyIllini on October 04 @ 08:09 AM CDT

I understand the thought process of giving Lovie a full 5 years before making a complete evaluation, but what about the recruits for 2019, 2020 and beyond? If we don't beat low-end teams like Rutgers, can we expect top recruits to commit to us? I think we have to win a few conference games to keep the re-build trending up and therefore continue to attract the right recruits. I think winning in Piscataway is very important.

Bear8287 on October 04 @ 10:01 AM CDT

and eye-test-ically

Hey, that's keeping your eye on the ball Robert (or would that have been eye-testicle-y... hmmm... never mind...).

IBFan on October 04 @ 05:09 PM CDT

Luck....Is the Kennedy family unlucky? No they have experienced tragedy that most families statistically will never experience. John Jr flies his private plane in bad weather and has a negative result. I don't have a private plane and even if IB Robert bought me one I wouldn't fly in bad weather. I'm not luckier in this regard that I won't die in this manner...odds are it isn't going to happen. Turnovers aren't luck. This team practices it in many forms. You also have to have athletes that can complete the catch for an interception or have the length, speed, jumping ability to cause a deflection or tip. It's amazing to me that Robert can't accept the fact that one of his most harped about topics, turnovers, is actually being improved on. I don't think I remember you saying if only an Illini team could get unbelievably lucky an get some turnovers. Defenses get credit for causing turnovers not the luck dragon. You can point to yards given up and say the defense isn't tackling good enough, bad scheme, not strong enough, too young/unprepared - all concrete examples. When they do something right-it isn't tipped balls, right scheme, good coverage, great anticipation, good coaching, great hands, etc....you come up with luck. Someone pass me a beer, it's 5:08

Robert on October 04 @ 06:11 PM CDT

I'll attempt to explain it again.

A cornerback reading the quarterback's eyes and jumping a route - absolutely not luck. A great play.

A defensive end pressuring the quarterback and forcing a back-foot wobbly throw that gets picked by a safety - absolutely not luck. A great play.

Stanley Green connecting with Penn State tight end's hands and forcing the ball out - absolutely not luck. A great play.

BUT...

A fumble (ANY fumble) bouncing around on the turf: 100% luck who recovers it. It might hit on the point and bounce left to the linebacker. It might hit on the fat part of the ball and bounce to the offensive lineman. You're going to recover 50% of all fumbles, so if you're recovering 80%, you're getting lucky.

A tipped pass - 100% luck where it goes. You can't control the deflection. It might fall to a wide receiver (see: 2008 Rose Bowl) or it might fall to a defensive back or it might fall harmlessly to the turf. Where it lands is 100% up to fate. College teams get a turnover from 22% of all tipped passes. So if you're getting turnovers from 4% of your tipped passes, you're unlucky. If you're getting interceptions from 63% of your tipped passes, you're getting extremely lucky.

This year, Illinois has recovered more than 50% of the fumbles and grabbed more than 22% of the tipped passes. We're getting lucky so far.

IBFan on October 04 @ 11:00 PM CDT

Actually this is completely false. As a player you practice recovering fumbles, some coaches do it more than others. I can tell you I laid on my back 5 yards apart from another player, our heads towards each other, with a coach whistle in mouth would tweet then spike the ball, roll it, toss it in the air etc...a few hundred times? We had to jump up off our backs and get the ball while fighting off the other man. I could go over drills taught to DBs, LBs, and Lineman that are all related to interceptions, including controlling tips. I.E., some LB coaches teach to almost do a volleyball set on a thrown ball that can't be grabbed...better to bat it up then swat it down. The risk is the offense gets a ricochet reception but that gain is minimal comapared to the result of a pick of course. The point is there is a lot more to do with turnovers, recovers, and the yardage gained. For many years players were never taught scoop and score.....you'd better never try to pick up a ball and not get possession, you'd get benched. Every single point you made about turnovers is wrong. Yes, there are drills for reacting to tipped passes the defense works on, fumble drills like one of them I mentioned and many many moreSwarming to the ball and stripping it, the defense has a much better chance of recovery if there are 7 men there instead of 3.
Unfortunately it seems you are unable to grasp even the simple fact that luck isn't real. I guess it's a warm fuzzy feeling for those that fail to have an excuse of bad luck?
Then to top it off you want to bring in fate? Cmon man. Things happen because it was predetermined? My overall point, from hustling to the ball, drills, talent level, etc determines who gets the ball. If an rb gets stripped of the ball and the rest of the offense refuses to bend over to pick it up, how "lucky" is that offense going to be?

Hoppy on October 05 @ 08:39 AM CDT

Robert isn't saying there aren't drills to help players try to get an advantage when a turnover happens, he's saying that even with those drills and lessons and techniques taught, you are still dealing with an oblong ball that could and usually does go rogue the moment it is knocked off it's initial trajectory. (Either by tipping a pass or getting it out of the running back's arms)

He also isn't using anecdotal evidence to make his claim as you are. I too played football, and I too did all the tip drills, the laying down head to head fumble drills, and was taught how to punch a ball out and how to swarm to a tackle. All of that doesn't mean ANYTHING if when the ball comes out, it bounces in a way that makes it 99% easier for the opposing player to get it than for any of our own guys to get it.

I distinctly remember the fumble drill you talk about and how several times the ball bounced in a way that there was no way the other guy could get to it before I was on it, wrapped around it, and had a death grip on it. It was true the other way as well. That is LUCK. The coach isn't TRYING to bounce the ball in a way that only one player can get it, but it's a weird shaped ball, it will bounce how it will bounce.

So, with your anecdotal evidence vs Robert's statistical evidence using 10s of thousands of plays over decades, I'll believe the stats. He's not saying causing turnovers is luck. In fact, about 99.9% of the time it's not. But what he is saying is that, statistically, teams recover half the fumbles they see in a game. If you are recovering more than that, you are getting lucky that the ball is bouncing toward your swarming defenders or that it didn't bounce away from your guys and toward the opponent.

Same for tipped passes. It's not like Bobby Roundtree puts his hand up knowing he is directing the ball toward one of our waiting LBs or DBs, he is simply putting his hand up (with the proper technique of course) knowing that statistically, a tipped pass has a higher chance of being a good thing for the defense then an untouched pass.

I don't know why this is hard to understand.

Joe Edge on October 04 @ 08:13 PM CDT

Great piece Robert... Although I don't think I misunderstood you the first time around. I've always been thinking along the same lines. With that said, I'm a little concerned (as you seem to be) that the defense may need some tweaking.... fairly soon. A big problem with having a long-term plan for building a true program is (IMHO) keeping the same scheme's even if coordinators and assistant coaches come and go. I'm afraid that keeping Rod Smith may be problematic if (after) we get to a bowl - lots of programs with money will want to hire him away, and I'm afraid that Hardy will be kept too long by Lovie after it's clear he's not working out... Yet again, we really, really, really need consistency and continuity in our coaching staff as much as possible. The other big problem with long-term plans for building a program is the 'fans'.... Everyone wants success, and everyone wants it RIGHT NOW! And if there is even a hiccup (or bump) along the way, those 'FANS' freak out faster than a Millennium Falcon jump to hyperspace. Particularly the ones with money who overly influence these decisions.

I'd love to be able to attend a bowl again before I'm outta here, but unless it's on the west coast and soon, I've been to my last. What I more realistically hope for is that my grand-daughter and her children (who I also hope attend the UI) can witness some really good football (and basketball) games in C-U and maybe that will remind them of their old grandpa who steared them on their course to our great university. For that to happen, a good, solid program has to be built. Firing, tearing down, starting over and repeating this process every 5 years will NOT get the job done, and must STOP....

illiniranger on October 05 @ 07:21 AM CDT

I don’t think there’s any guarantee at rebuild if you’re a Purdue or Illinois. It can always fall apart whether you play SRs and JUCOs or FR and SOs.

I think the real key is coaching. Alvarez was a great coach, he built it. Ferentz, same. Bill Snyder, who does a lot with JUCOs and cast off transfers, rebuilt it.

Either Lovie is the guy or he’s not. Either Brohm is the guy or he’s not. I don’t think the way that they try to do the rebuild really matters so much as the execution.

illiniranger on October 05 @ 08:06 AM CDT

To the larger idea of evaluating coaches - I’d rather be too quick to fire a guy than too late.

IMO college football is all about the coach. If you don’t think you have the coach, go get another guy. After 3 years you know, and more importantly, so do the recruits.

I’m not arguing “must make a bowl game in year 3.” I am arguing “should be clearly pointing up in on field play and recruiting). So far that is still murky 33% into year 3.

Hoppy on October 05 @ 08:42 AM CDT

I'm willing to give Lovie the extra year for evaluation considering when he was hired. His year 3 is my year 2 when it comes to evaluation.

If we are still the bottom dweller of the B1G in such a down B1G West...it'll get me worried and I will want to see a bowl game the next year. (Actual year 4, evaluation year 3)

I don't think it'll come to that, though. Let's start with this week and win against a horrible Rutgers team.

illiniranger on October 05 @ 10:23 AM CDT

I’m fine with considering this year 2

HiggsBoson on October 06 @ 10:13 AM CDT

For the record, Lovie had already been fired by Tampa at this point in his tenure.

Douglascountyillinifan on October 05 @ 03:03 PM CDT

Robert, the one thing I disagree with here is your thought that a loss in this game doesn't matter. We have 'cruits waiting to see progress, and a loss, to this team, now, seems like a devastating blow.

HiggsBoson on October 06 @ 11:25 AM CDT

So far Rutgers looks like the better team, which, contrary to Robert, matters.

Bush had one good run, but his passing and decision making haven't been good.

PacNW Illini on October 06 @ 06:29 PM CDT

Now that the game is over, Illinois looked solid. Sorry to all the Debbie-Downers. Better luck next week.

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