Revisiting Expectations

Sep 27, 2019

Every year, during the bye week, I take a look at next year's depth chart. I still plan to do that, but given my broken state after the Eastern Michigan loss, I can barely lift my hands to the keyboard. The sadness I wrote about immediately after the EMU loss hasn't departed. I covered it up with some great family moments in Idaho (and that's not really "covering up", because peace of mind comes from that stuff, not football), but whenever I think about/talk about/write about Illini football, since the EMU loss, there's a knot in my stomach. It's so, so depressing that this isn't working.

As I said in the preview, it's almost impossible to go four years in P5 football and not go to a bowl. I studied every single coach hired at every single P5 program (even the punchlines, like Joker Phillips, Derek Dooley, Randy Edsall, Tim Beckman), and if they got four years, only five coaches didn't bowl - David Cutcliffe at Duke, Paul Wolff at Wazzu, Darrell Hazell at Purdue, Kevin Wilson at Indiana, and David Beatty at Kansas. Wolff, Hazell, and Beatty were all fired. Cutcliffe and Wilson got a fifth year (and both went to bowls that fifth year).

So when you saw me predict "we will win 18 of the next 31 games" after the Wisconsin game last year, that's why. Even the bad coaches do that. Mike MacIntyre started 10-27 at Colorado, then he went 13-4 his next 17 games. It didn't mean he was a "good coach" (just like, as I've said several times, 18 of 31 wouldn't mean Lovie is a good coach, just someone who assembled a bunch of seniors), and MacIntyre certainly wasn't a program builder (it all fell apart after One Great Team) - it's simply a way to rebuild a football program. And what you do after that needs to be Alvarez and not MacIntyre.

Alvarez wins: 1, 5, 5, 10, 8, 4, 8, and on up from there.
MacIntylre wins: 4, 2, 4, 10, 5, 5, fired.

A dip is OK after your breakout, but you have to then go back up. It's why I took that #stance on Lovie after he played 22 true freshmen in 2017: the next five teams will likely be awful, bad, good, great, bad (in 2021 after the 30 seniors graduate). And then what he does in 2022 tells us everything. Good program builders go up from there, bad coaches only built one good team.

But again, it's so, so easy to build at least one good team. It's why I did all that research for the opener of the preview. Maybe I should walk you through that thought process.

On July 10th, I wrote this post about where this thing is headed. In that post I wrote this:

Does that mean it's "over"? Not at all. In fact, I still think I'd bet on a bowl in 2019 and a bowl in 2020. We'll have the single-most experienced team in the country in 2020, and it would take monumentally inept coaching for a team with that much experience in this system to not make a bowl. Even this season, they should be able to do this with their eyes closed.

No, that's not a set-up. I'm not putting "it would take monumentally inept coaching" on a tee for you to whack. It's how I see college football. Pretty much 90% of all coaches could play 22 true freshmen in 2017 and then go to a bowl in 2020. Even with four marginal recruiting classes. Just keep the systems in place and it's a near-lock. I mean, 61 of the 65 Power Five teams have been to a bowl since 2015. It's so incredibly easy to do.

Let's look at the four teams that haven't been to bowls since then. There's Kansas and their two year firing program. Turner Gill fired after two years, Charlie Weis fired four games into his third season, and when David Beatty takes over they have 39 scholarship players (Weis had tried to K-State his way to wins with junior college players). That's a minimum four year hole, in my estimation.

Rutgers had Kyle Flood getting fired for off the field stuff (player arrests + Flood had gone to a faculty member to try to change a player's class grade), Oregon State had the weird Gary Andersen thing (he resigned and didn't ask for the $12 million buyout of his contract without ever saying why - he just walked away), and Illinois had Cvijanovic/Beckman/Cubit. My takeaway: most any coach can get back to a bowl in three years by just implementing new schemes. It usually takes something off the field (leading to excessive roster turnover) for it to take longer than that.

Which is why I tossed out "18 of the next 31" and why I'm sticking with it (even though it now means we have to go 17-9 the next two seasons). The program might not go anywhere, and it might sink right back down like Zook or Turner, but the next two seasons should be solid. "Experience" almost always points to wins.

The concern? That we're in that "10% of coaches would actually fail to get an experienced team to a bowl" category I listed above. Why? Zero improvement over three years.

Because I just made up those stats (90% / 10%), I figured I'd do some research to back it up. That's what led to the intro of the preview, looking at every coach hired at every P5 program since 2006. And that led me to that number: 89 of the 97 coaches had won six games at least once (one of them left for a better job after only two years, so tossing that one out, it's 89 of 96 coaches that were able to get their team to a bowl when they rebuilt their programs). So, 90% was a little low. I'll amend my statement from above:

The concern? That we're in that "7.29% of coaches would actually fail to get an experienced team to a bowl" category.

That's why I can't believe what I'm seeing. That's why the Eastern Michigan loss still haunts me. That's why, in the back of my mind, I still expect this season to turn around. I just cannot believe that a head coach who took a team to a Super Bowl could be in the 7.29%. I get that the NFL is a completely different animal, but I'm not asking Lovie to win the Big Ten here. Just go .500 one time in four seasons. Then we can set the bar at "middle of the pack Big Ten West team". THEN we can talk about maybe winning the Big Ten West.

I went to a friend's wedding once where there was a 90% chance of rain. And it was an outdoor wedding. It was held on the grounds of this historic mansion, and there was no room inside to hold a ceremony, so the backup plan was moving all the tables in the reception tent and holding the ceremony there. It was in May, and an all-day rain was on it's way, with storms stretching from Texas to the Dakotas.

And then the storm split into two right around St. Louis and it didn't rain. The ceremony went off without a hitch. It rained from Alton, IL all the way up to Minnesota, and it rained from Farmington, MO all the way down to Mississippi, but the rain missed St. Louis. The tiny chance of that happening is why the forecaster put it at 90% and not 100%, and somehow, the 10% hit.

Writing these posts about "18 of 31" and such, that's how confident I felt. The same confidence with which I would have told the groom "hey man, sorry, but it's absolutely going to rain tomorrow - just look at how big this storm is". And then it didn't rain. And we lost to Eastern Michigan and now must win four Big Ten games to go to a bowl. Oh, and we've only won four Big Ten games twice since 2003.

Which means, I guess, that October 12, 2019 looms even larger than before. We likely lose to Minnesota next week, meaning we'll be 2-3 and going nowhere. And we're not beating Wisconsin, so 2-5 is staring us straight in the face. So October 12, 2019 against a not-as-good-as-they-should-be Michigan team is our chance to turn it around.

See? I had it right all along. When I put October 12, 2019 in my Twitter bio 3.5 years ago, I knew that Lovie would be 11-30 before and would then go 14-6 after (the numbers that would be required to get us that 18 of 31). Look out, world! Illini football comin'!

Oh. Right. The world never really has to look out for us. We're Illinois football and we can't be trusted.


thumpasaurus on September 27 @ 12:45 PM CDT

I am right there with you; the only thing you might call "hope" that I have left this season comes from a place of sincerely having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that lovie smith, a coach who i thought was run out of town unfairly by two nfl teams that suffered after firing him, is going to end up as one of the 10 worst power 5 college football coaches of the last 15 years.

if you remove games against coaches that aren't co-members of that club with lovie, illinois has won 2 of its last 28 big ten games.

at this rate, we win roughly 3 every 4 years.

Illiniiniowa on September 29 @ 05:59 AM CDT

My one faint glimmer of hope is that often when bad football teams get good, you don't see it coming. It's like flipping on a light switch rather than building a fire, so probably not, but maybe?

Bear8287 on September 27 @ 01:24 PM CDT

Cards fans should be happy that with a one game lead for the division title, the Cubs are coming to town with a 9 game losing streak. The Cubs are eliminated and the remaining games mean nothing for them.

Early in the season the Cubs had a higher playoff probability than the Cards too.

(I hear that some Brewers are "irked" by the Cubs/Cards match up... oh well, honeybadger don't care.)

Bear8287 on September 27 @ 01:27 PM CDT

Check this out:

If you go to the left hand column and find the "Win Probability" graph, you can move the slider to the right until you get this:

Win Probability CHC 99.6%
Bottom 9
Segura flied out to left.

Yup, up 5-1 with 1 out in the bottom of the 9th and nobody on... The team that's up basically has a 249 out of 250 chance of winning. How did that turn out?

Phillies - Bottom 9th
Heyward in right field.
WICK PITCHING FOR CHC                                                                CHC    PHI
Segura flied out to left.                                                              5      1
Hernández safe at first on error by shortstop Bote.                                    5      1
Kingery singled to center, Hernández to second.                                        5      1
Miller hit for Suárez                                                                  5      1
Miller singled to center, Hernández scored, Kingery to third.                          5      2
STROP PITCHING FOR CHC                                                               CHC    PHI
Quinn singled to right center, Kingery scored, Miller to second                        5      3
Hoskins hit by pitch, Quinn to second, Miller to third.                                5      3
HOLLAND PITCHING FOR CHC                                                             CHC    PHI
Harper homered to right (413 feet), Miller scored, Quinn scored and Hoskins scored.    5      7

... and that's why they play every out.

Falling into that 7.29% category? It happens...

mrmill on September 28 @ 06:54 PM CDT

What has Lovie done since 2010 that makes us say he’s a good coach? What has he done to show he understands how to win in college. I liked the hire at the time, and he’s without a doubt upgraded the program - but I don’t think he’s cut out for it.

IBFan on September 27 @ 02:10 PM CDT

The program was trash, our trash, but trash. Horrible facilities, coaches, ad, etc etc. It’s the Big10, maybe a bit harder than other conferences to rebuild in? Lovie can coach and can absolutely coach better than some that have had more success and faster. I don’t know if he was the best answer but the program is getting rebuilt. If somehow he keeps getting recruits and quality transfers I think there is a better chance to succeed overall with him than without him. The players left it all out on the field against Nebraska, stadium was hopping, that was a quality football game. I think what’s most painful is we can see that we are almost there, a call (that’s not somehow overturned?), a catch, one more stop. That early present under the tree is the right size box for “Rockem Sockem Robots”, it must be, I finally got it, I’m so happy! Maybe it’s a sweater, it might be a sweater, my life at 8 is over, I think it’s a sweater, again.

uofi08 on September 27 @ 02:46 PM CDT

I don't know man. We must be watching different games. I definitely don't see a team that's "almost there." There's absolutely no positive out of a loss to Eastern Michigan at home, no matter how close it was. There's nothing good about a defense giving up 700 yards or an offense that can't convert a 3rd down. And the recruiting thing: if Lovie couldn't recruit well enough to win when he had stability and playing time to sell, how do you think he will be able to recruit with 3-4 historically bad seasons under his belt?

IBFan on September 27 @ 03:05 PM CDT

He’s still getting players and the ones he’s got are bought in. Eastern Michigan I agree shouldn’t happen but they aren’t the same as South Dakota State. That was a good game, I really wish we could have won but that might have been the hardest hitting Illini game in years. If you get a chance rewatch the game after the pain wears off. Illini were beating the West preseason favorite with one of the most dynamic players in Martinez by 14 in the second half. If the team was giving up, not competing, or didn’t have a chance because of size and speed it would be one thing.

uofi08 on September 27 @ 04:34 PM CDT

When it comes to the players, I think we are actually in agreement. I agree that Lovie has increased the talent level, and I also believe that the players are giving their all for the most part. I think the coaching staff is really letting them down. Effort isn't really an issue in these games. It's playcalling, discipline, positioning, strategy, and player development. I think all those items fall on the coaching. With a more competent staff, this is easily a 6+ win team. There's no excuse for a team with this much talent and experience to be this porous on defense, undisciplined with penalties, and stagnant on offense. That's like 95% coaching.

Groundhogday on September 28 @ 01:03 PM CDT

I suspect that as the season proceeds we'll realize Nebraska isn't that good. Eastern Michigan is not at all good. And Illinois is going to get pounded by the good teams on the schedule (MIchigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, MSU). Year 4 you need to compete with good teams and I don't see it.

thumpasaurus on September 30 @ 11:58 AM CDT

If Lovie can coach, please explain why he hasn't started doing it yet.

Bear8287 on September 27 @ 03:11 PM CDT

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danny on September 27 @ 04:18 PM CDT

You refer to this year as bring Year 4 for Lovie, which technically it is, but I view it as Year 3. His first year isn’t the same as being hired in early-mid December w the opportunity to recruit players, assembly a staff and be prepared for Spring Ball. Lovie had none of that in his first year. To me, I view 2019 as Year 3. It’s his 3rd year with his players.

While the last two games have been disappointing, this team was competitive to the end in both. Plus I feel if this team had Roundtree n Beason they would have won one or both games. This team is better than last year’s team.

Lovie is upgrading the talent. And is a good evaluator of talent. I recall Robert saying, this isn’t a typical rebuild, this is like an expansion team. That’s where Lovie started. Don’t stop the Lovie bus yet.

Robert on September 27 @ 05:16 PM CDT

This is true. I considered a paragraph noting it in the article. Probably should have gone there (but when you mention that, it becomes the sole argument in the comments).

I'll just say this: if 2016 was "Year Zero", making this Year Three - and I do think it's fair to view it that way - then I'll note that these are the Year Three records for the last six Illini coaches:

Beckman: 6-6; Zook: 9-3; Turner: 7-4; Tepper: 6-5; Mackovic: 8-3; White: 7-4

Average win total: 7.2 wins

Bear8287 on September 29 @ 02:48 AM CDT

Gee, you didn't even point out that 4 of the coaches on that list did that in only 11 games.

thumpasaurus on September 30 @ 12:00 PM CDT

If 2016 was "Year Zero," Lovie is 2-17 against the Big Ten instead of 4-24.

That's...even worse. 10.5% win percentage compared to 14.3%.

uofi08 on September 27 @ 08:48 PM CDT

Maybe it’s just me, but I have such a hard time with the “year 3” argument. It’s just so dishonest to me. Yeah it might not really be year 4, but it’s much closer to that than year 3. It’s like year 3.8. A normal coaching hire is made in December. Lovie was hired at the beginning of March. He missed signing day and winter workouts. Not insignificant, but not even close to a whole year.

Most new hires only have a matter of weeks to complete their first recruiting class, usually filled with players already committed to the school and guys the new coach can flip or find. Lovie had to deal with Cubit’s class. Not ideal but also not THAT much worse than a quickly put together 1st class.

Lovie had an entire spring, summer, fall, and season to install his system and philosophy and get a feel for his team. He also had 11 months to put together his first recruiting class. You can’t just write off all that extra time, experience, and recruiting work.

As far as his staff, Lovie easily could’ve changed out a lot of his staff after that first year but chose not to. And when compared to past Illinois coaching situations, I honestly think the “hole” Lovie inherited is overblown. Both Zook and Turner were basically trying to recruit while on the hot seat for their past 2 seasons, hardly pulling in top classes for the next coach.

mrmill on September 28 @ 06:56 PM CDT

Right. He missed out on a handful of recruits. But he’s shown zero ability to adapt to the college game.

danny on September 27 @ 05:30 PM CDT

To go back to a point you made in a previous post, this is like an expansion team. It’s not a rebuild, it’s a tear it down to the studs.

The other coaches you mention (except White) had something to build from. None of the other coaches started where Lovie did or took the approach Lovie has - let’s tear it down and build a new foundation.

Not sure there is a true valid comparison to Lovie. The wins are not there yet, but the talent is better n better talent is coming in that I saw with Turner and Beckman. Also TM was 4-6 after 10 games in Year 3.

I’m not ready to move on from Lovie.

Groundhogday on September 30 @ 01:20 PM CDT

Tear it down, rebuild from the studs, and then scramble for transfers in Year 4 to save your bacon.

IlliniOllie on September 28 @ 08:56 AM CDT

“I'm not putting "it would take monumentally inept coaching" on a tee for you to whack.“

watches the clock run out before halftime... again

picks up Wiffle bat

swainer89 on September 28 @ 12:47 PM CDT

All you have to know is that he still claims residence in Florida (which means he physically has to be in Florida half the year) Only has condo in Champaign. Heard this the other day on podcast.

Bear8287 on September 29 @ 02:51 AM CDT

Who moves from Florida to Illinois to retire?

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