October 12, 2019
I was a guest on an Iowa podcast in 2016 and the hosts asked me about the future of the Illini program under Lovie. I told them, of course, that October 12, 2019 would be the moment. One of the hosts said "calling your shot, huh?". About that shot.....
We were 3-7 at the time of the podcast, Iowa was headed to Champaign, and to be honest, the Iowa podcast hosts felt sorry for me (everyone usually does). We discussed their 1999 and 2000 seasons (1-10 and then 3-9 in the first two years under Kirk Ferentz) and how all the hope was placed in the future. That led to a discussion on recruiting, and the future, and whether 2018 would be the year or if it would be later.
I just went back and listened to the whole podcast (you can do the same here, if you like). It's weird to listen to. I sound... young? Even though it was November of 2016. This program has aged me. Anyway, the part about October 12, 2019 (at the 40:05 mark of the podcast) goes like this:
Robert: "My Twitter bio has October 12, 2019 when Michigan comes to Champaign. I set that a few days after Lovie was hired and I said 'that is the moment that things start to turn around for Illinois football'. I had been waiting to set a moment for 25 years, and October 12th of 2019 is it."
Host: "Wow - calling your shot."
Robert: "Yes, I've called my shot and put it in my Twitter bio."
Host: "That's fantastic."
I then go on to talk about the Michigan fumbles in 2000 (and, like always, I have them backwards - the Rocky Harvey fumble was before the Anthony Thomas non-fumble, not after, Robert). And then I get into the reason behind choosing that date.
Robert: "That's why I've called this shot. We don't play Michigan much anymore - they're in the other division. They come to town in 2019, it will be midway through the fourth year of Lovie Smith, we're doing this endzone re-do that will be done by the 2019 season so the stadium will be completely redone at that point (note: they later chose to build the Smith Performance Center as a stand-alone facility, not as part of a south endzone re-do), and it's time, you know, we need something to hang on to through these next 25 games. So for me, I want to see improvement in 2018, but 2019 is my season, and I've gotta beat Michigan, and that game better be at night on October 12th of 2019."
4-1 Michigan vs. 2-3 Illinois, October 12, 2019 - 11:00 am
Lovie Smith - 4-25 in Big Ten games.
Big Ten defenses in SP+:
Ohio State (3)
Michigan State (6)
Penn State (16)
What have I gotten myself into?
I call a shot, and this is the lead-up to that shot? I urge patience and "hang on" and we lose at home, to the 116th-best team in the country, Eastern Michigan? Basically, I pointed to the left field bleachers and then the coach told me it's not my turn to bat.
It's really weird listening to that podcast again. I was so comfortable in my "this is about the future, not right now". I went on this long rant about how Jeff George Jr. was the 5th-string freshman QB and then Eli Peters transferred to Toledo and he was the fourth-string freshman QB and then Jimmy Fitzgerald transferred to Dartmouth and he was the third-string freshman QB and then Wes Lunt took a helmet to the spine and he was the second-string freshman QB and then Chayce Crouch tore his labrum and JGjr is suddenly the starting QB. And I was so comfortable saying all of that because nobody was really all that angry about 2016. We weren't winning anything with the 5th string QB from the spring and that was that (although we did beat Michigan State with said QB). Overall, placing myself back in November 2016, I think most of the fanbase was comfortable just looking towards the future.
And I guess I'm surprised hearing how comfortable I was at the time. Listening back, I thought the podcast might sound pretty naive, but it doesn't come off that way (at least to me, and I'm pretty harsh on myself). It's easy now to look back and say "2016 was alarming", but I'm not sure that was the case at the time. Much like Purdue fans today, I was putting a lot on the QB injuries (although, much like Purdue fans today, there were defensive alarms going off which were being missed).
Regardless, I had a very simple assessment: 2017 is the foundation class, so October 12, 2019 is when we see the leap start to happen. I remember my week-of-the-hire assessment - minor bowl in 2016, something like 3-9 in 2017, then minor bowl in 2018, then leap in 2019 - and that was the origin of October 12, 2019, but by November of that year, with the seniors benched for freshmen (the hosts laughed out loud when I said "and you watch - next year's freshmen will start over these 2016 freshmen"), I was quite comfortable with my view of October 2019 being "the moment things start to turn around".
Which goes to show that conviction only goes so far. I was very comfortable at the time saying these exact words "that (October 12, 2019) is the moment that things start to turn around". And since I'm a guy who has always claimed that improvement is swift and sudden (September of 1999, November of 2006), I honestly think I would have been comfortable if you told me "OK, but say Illinois goes 2-10, then 4-8, and is then 2-3 heading into that game". In my November 2016 view (at least the way I'm talking there), I think I would have been OK with it.
It's now game week, and I'm not OK with it. I mean, I'd still love to see it, and maybe by Friday night I get stupid (like Wisconsin 2017) and predict a victory (I really did that), but "ok NOW the turnaround happens" doesn't feel like I thought it would feel. I called a shot - I even went on other podcasts and said "he gets five full years to rebuild this" (I think that was the Rutgers podcast where I compared him to Greg Schiano who went 4-7 in his fourth season before finally breaking through) - but now we're 3.42 years into this thing and I don't think I could find a single soul that would accept "the turnaround starts this weekend".
(I'm totally getting stupid and predicting a win on Friday night - you know that, right?)
So here I am, game week for the game I've been pointing to for three and a half years, trying desperately to listen to the calming words of 2016 Robert telling me that October 12, 2019 is when it all happens. He sounds so trustworthy. He's calm, he's clear-headed, and he's telling me that not being able to get a first recruiting class on the field until 2017 means that October 12, 2019 is the moment. That's when the click finally happens.
I'm not sure I believe him.