October 12, 2019

Oct 07, 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+:

Michigan (2)
Ohio State (3)
Wisconsin (4)
Michigan State (6)
Northwestern (8)
Iowa (9)
Penn State (16)
Maryland (34)
Indiana (39)
Minnesota (46)
Nebraska (52)
Rutgers (70)
Illinois (82)
Purdue (108)

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.


uilaw71 on October 07 @ 06:29 PM CDT

7 and 5, time to thrive.

Groundhogday on October 07 @ 07:59 PM CDT

With Purdue imploding and Rutgers dumping their coach, I could easily see Illinois pulling out a 4-8 record. Then we'll hear about the "what ifs" for the EMU and Nebraska games, we were almost 6-6, and ... NO!!!!

CraigG on October 08 @ 08:30 AM CDT

GHD, I sincerely hope you are wrong. I've seen you lay things like this out often enough that I now suspect you are right. No offense, but I hate you being right. I think mentally I am now in the acceptance stage.

Groundhogday on October 08 @ 10:20 AM CDT

I have doubts even Whitman would try to spin 4-8 as almost a bowl game, hence progress. And this team might well make the decision easy by losing the rest of our games.

Bear8287 on October 08 @ 11:56 AM CDT

Sweetchuck13 on October 07 @ 10:54 AM CDT
I think of Zook's mantra of "lose big, lose small, win small, win big"...

So far this season the Illini have:
won big, won small, lost small, lost small, lost big ...

Hmmm, I wonder, what's next?

No bowl, no tourney on October 07 @ 09:39 PM CDT

I say treat this as what it was - just a boastful claim. There's no real magic or logic to it. Even if we somehow won against a wonky Michigan team, it may not really mean all that much. Our problems are systemic. You were optimistic but wrong. Most of us are wrong, like a lot, but we never get to your level of optimism. And shame on us.

You're a super-dedicated fan who wants to see the thing in front of him actually working. We should all start there. Whether or not you actually start endorsing something that "everyone else knows is not working" doesn't affect what's really happening in the "front office". UIUC will - or won't - make the moves needed to exact change. Your blog, as great as it is, isn't holding us back if you keep trying to believe in #WeWillWin.

We're not holding your feet to this October 12, 2019 fire because you thought it might be our "rising from the ashes" moment. Don't hold yourself to it. Let it go, my man.

ahamm445 on October 08 @ 12:17 AM CDT

Lol if there’s one thing Robert has proved its that there was a lot of logic that went into that date.... bottom tier programs like Illinois take time to rebuild.... “simple as that” ;)

IlliniBobLoblaw on October 07 @ 10:35 PM CDT

“Your blog, as great as it is, isn't holding us back...”

^ This

“ Don't hold yourself to it. Let it go, my man.”

^ Not this

No bowl, no tourney on October 07 @ 10:55 PM CDT

I meant let go of October 12, 2019. Not his passion for the Illini.

ahamm445 on October 08 @ 12:11 AM CDT

SHOOTERS SHOOT ROBERT! A wise man once said that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. You better pick Illinois this weekend, f how you feel about it. I found this glorious website circa 2016/17 and I’ve been riding with you the whole way. I go to school in Portland and saw a kid riding a scooter with his family today, and you know what kind of shirt he was wearing? ILLINOIS FOOTBALL. A good omen? Maybe.....

Bear8287 on October 08 @ 09:36 AM CDT

Oh yeah. I know that kid. I had just cleaned out a closet and was taking stuff out to the garage when he stopped by selling boy scout popcorn and I said, "hey, want a t-shirt?" and we was all like, "cool!" so I gave it to him. :-D

Just kidding...

Why did the Rollings Stones "Shattered" pop into my head while reading this article?

Look at me, I'm in tatters
I'm a shattered
This town's been wearing tatters (shattered, sha ooobie shattered)

Go Illini!

Sha ooobie!

Dickbupkis on October 08 @ 07:56 AM CDT

The coach who told you it wasn't your turn to bat will soon be cleaning out his locker.

IlliNYC on October 08 @ 08:26 AM CDT

Dude, it's fine. How could you have predicted that Lovie just wouldn't care much?

Dr Luke on October 08 @ 03:40 PM CDT

Whether he cares or not, it’s hard to speculate how much work Lovie and his staff have put in. But, regardless I think the entire issue with Lovie is that he’s tried to apply an NFL approach to a college program and that will never work with the type of talent that Illinois has.

For instance, Werner and J Leman have talked about how little Illinois actually tackles in practice. And it’s been that way since Lovie arrived. Lovie brought his NFL approach of “no tackling, just stay healthy” attitude of practice week. That works for NFL pros who already are experts at tackling. But it doesn’t work at a college program where these kids still need those weekly reps to develop their skills and get better. It’s no surprise our defense is bad when we don’t live tackle nearly as much as our opponents do in practice.

Then you have recruiting, and Lovie’s name just doesn’t carry the weight some thought it would. You need energy and a relentlessness to attract these kids, and at a program as low as Illinois you need to be first with an offer. That hasn’t happened. Lovie treating the portal as an NFL waiver wire to build a team isn’t going to work either.

Then running a defense that is basic, that relies on winning 1 on 1 matchups. If we had Michigan’s personnel, that’d work. Harbaugh can play NFL style football because he has the players to do it (tho most Michigan fans think he’s underachieved and isn’t playing modern college football). But we don’t.

This was just a very poor hire. Surprised Whitman believed an NFL style of program would work at Illinois.

Groundhogday on October 09 @ 07:57 AM CDT

It isn't that easy. The right NFL coach would succeed at Illinois, and many college coaches would fail. The problem is that when we hired Lovie the NFL had already started to pass him up.

I can certainly see why Whitman hired Lovie:

  • Hiring in late spring, not many options on the table.
  • Outside the box. Something you need to do at Illinois.
  • Gave athletics a boost in fundraising, helped improve facilities.
  • Lovie's name did improve recruiting. Just not enough.

Easy enough to get on the podium with 20/20 hindsight, but most thought it was a good gamble back when Lovie was hired. Clearly it didn't work out. Kind of surprised Whitman didn't put more pressure on Lovie to hire a real DC last season, but maybe he did (and Lovie didn't listen.)

Douglascountyillinifan on October 10 @ 08:36 AM CDT

I equate "outside the box" with Lovie being an African American. It was vital at that time (and now as well, imho) that the UI give serious consideration to hiring a person of color as a head coach of one of the major sports. Lovie checked off all the boxes, and had tremendous name recognition in Chicago and the state of Illinois. He brought a lot of big NFL names with him, as well and made a splash. From there, it hasn't worked out, but there is no doubt that he was the right hire at the time.

CraigG on October 10 @ 11:31 AM CDT

Outside of football, and I'm not knocking the football portion, Lovie was a good hire. As you mentioned, the timing and optics of the hire definitely helped with the perception after Dagger to the Heart. Lovie could have succeeded as you said as well. As much as Herm Edwards was ridiculed, he figured it out. Lovie constructed a staff that created a large part of his future issues. Hindsight is 20/20 on it now, but that was my first red flag in discussing with others.

Groundhogday on October 10 @ 12:39 PM CDT

Most surprising thing is that someone with Lovie's connections and reputation of being a good boss (profession & personal) couldn't or wouldn't put together a quality staff. A few of the more baffling hires:

  • McGee. Okay, looked good on paper, but if Lovie knew McGee should have known there would be serious problems.
  • Nickerson. Looked baffling from the start. Not qualified for DC. Did Lovie expect him to be a good recruiter?
  • Miles. Embarrassing hire. Hire a DC instead and you have a completely different D staff.
  • Austin Clark. DL isn't the place to park a recruiter who can't develop guys. Maybe this works if you have a DC with DL experience?
  • Bob McClain. Questionable hire given his background. Hasn't really worked out.
  • Gil Byrd. I liked this hire. But our secondary has been awful. Even talented guys like Hobbs seem to be regressing.

THere have been some good hires like Ligs (I questioned this at the time), Hayes-Stoker, Rod Smith (still think he is great with the right QB). But overall...

Bear8287 on October 10 @ 04:08 PM CDT

THere have been some good hires like Ligs (I questioned this at the time), Hayes-Stoker, Rod Smith (still think he is great with the right QB). But overall...

I don't claim to be a "football guy", but I'm in agreement with the above. I also had some doubts about Ligashesky, but special teams seems to be a strong point for this team. (Illinois should be an "easy" place to recruit a punter. Can't think of another B1G school were a punter can showcase their talent like Hayes can at Illinois. :-D)

Likewise with Rod Smith. I often wonder what this season would('ve) look(ed) like if Khalil Tate had said "yes" and was the QB.

Groundhogday on October 11 @ 07:45 AM CDT

Khalil Tate? Oh my... but just give him Tommy Smith or Matt Fink and Rod Smith would have a good offense.

Brave Illini on October 09 @ 01:47 PM CDT

As much as I believe in and admire AD Whitman, I wonder what if anything he missed in his diligence in the Lovie Smith hiring decision that could have indicated it would not be a good fit. Also, his fairly recent (2 or so months ago?) restated belief in and support for Coach Smith is hard to understand. I don't see Whitman as the kind of person to make those kinds of statements publicly just for the sake of supporting the team and program, if he didn't sincerely believe what he said. And if he did believe what he said, what is the basis for his belief? I don't believe Whitman is naive or would overlook what seems apparent to most Illini fans. Something is strange about this whole situation.

HiggsBoson on October 09 @ 06:17 PM CDT

Whitman's a good fundraiser and volleyball coach picker, but he hasn't shown much otherwise.

Groundhogday on October 10 @ 12:40 PM CDT

Fund raising is perhaps the primary job of an AD. And Josh seems to be good at it. But if you don't hire winning coaches, it gets really hard to fund raise.

Groundhogday on October 11 @ 07:46 AM CDT

Tommy Stevens! (Wish you could edit posts!)

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