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.