Why Is Illinois Football Always So Bad?

Submitted by Robbie Moore on September 22nd, 2009 at 2:10 PM

I've always thought Illinois was a sleeping giant in Big Ten football, if not the in all of college football. They are the only major conference large state school in Illinois. Chicagoland is a recruiting gold mine. Northwestern and Notre Dame have more difficult academic requirements. If Ohio State can dominate Ohio and create a program that is always good, why can't Illinois do the same? How is it that Illinois can never get it right?



September 22nd, 2009 at 2:17 PM ^

Illinois has not had the consistent coaching that other dominant programs have had. This is really the single biggest issue. The fanbase was thrilled with landing the Zooker, as their expectations are set that low. Guys like Tepper and Turner have been among the worst coaches in the B10 while they were at UofI.

Also, recruiting Chicago is very different than Ohio. Chicago tends towards ND at least as much as Illinois. Many folks living in Chicago are from elsewhere, so the built in allegiances that Ohio has towards OSU don't exist in Chicago. And a lot of schools have established themselves well in the Chicago area. ND, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, etc.


September 22nd, 2009 at 2:18 PM ^

How many of the top 250 recruits are in Chicago/Chicago area? I know they have some pretty good B-Ball talent but as far as football goes I don't recall too much.

I think the talent that decides not to go there because of either other programs having better facilities, fan base, ability to develop talent. Look what Ron Zook did at Florida with all that talent in the south....do you think he was going to do any better at Illinois with no where near the recruiting base?


September 22nd, 2009 at 2:20 PM ^

Ohio is a much better recruiting state than Illinois. Ohio is typically ranked as the 5 or 6 best in the country, while Illinois I don't believe is in the top 10. Chicagoland catholic schools are probably friendly to ND.


September 22nd, 2009 at 2:22 PM ^

Chicago is different than Detroit or Cleveland in that it has a LOT of transplants from out of state, so it's much more of a mixing pot of fanbases than a monolithically Illinois one.

Plus, past crappiness begets future crappiness just as past success begets future success. Way it is in CFB. You have to be good for a LONG TIME before a kid grows up with the ingrained notion that your program is one of the "good" programs.

03 Blue 07

September 22nd, 2009 at 2:48 PM ^

Disclaimer: I'm from Illinois, grew up downstate, and played high school football in Illinois. Parents are U of I alums. I went to Michigan.

I have always felt the same way as the OP, and disagree with some of what is said here. Illinois is not as good as Ohio for talent, that I will agree with. Not a lot of places are. But if the University of Illinois could keep the instate talent instate, they'd be fine. I would say that as many of the top players from Chicago go to ND, Iowa, Wisconsin, IU, Michigan (Schofield) and some others as go to Illinois. U of I, as the instate school, which is about 2 hours straight south of Chicago, should get at least 50% of these players.

And the football in the suburbs of Chicago, as well as the private schools in the city is pretty solid. Plenty of good D-I players. More than I think people on here realize. Yeah, I know- I'm not linking to any articles or anything on this, and I may be biased, so grain of salt, etc, etc. But there are lots of good players from the Chicagoland area.

Illinois IS a sleeping giant. Their stadium is being renovated (or has been renovated?) is big, looks pretty cool, IME, it's a big school with solid academics, and is also a fun school supposedly. The comments about shitty facilities are just, frankly, wrong. And the comments about it being in a corn field, see: Purdue, MSU.

I think the problem, as others have put it, is coaching. It has to be. They also haven't been any good consistently for at least 40 years. If they ever got a good young coach there, they'd be a force to deal with. They just have had inept coaches. I mean, Lou Tepper and Ron Turner were abject failures. One 10-2 season does not make up for multiple winless or 1-win seasons or whatever other shit Turner turned out during his tenure.

Robbie Moore

September 22nd, 2009 at 4:19 PM ^

I know. I've driven all over it for business over the years. There are as many people in metro Chicago (Chicagoland for the uninitiated) as in the entire state of Michigan. And they do play high school football there. And some of it is very good.

As for the cornfield issue it is true, Champaign is in the middle of corn country. If being in the rural sticks is an issue, explain Nebraska (which BTW, used to get a few top players from Illinois every year during the Osborne era). Or Iowa. Ever been to Boise? Or College Station? Or State College?? That issue doesn't fly.

I guess it must be coaching. Though it's hard to imagine a streak of awfulness quite so long.


September 22nd, 2009 at 4:33 PM ^

you know you are going to desolate wasteland of corn and produce where they happen to have good football. When you decide you're going to stop by Illinois most people think "Illinois? I know its not in Chicago but its probably pretty close". And in their mind they think it will be fun to go to the city on weekends.

Then reality sets in after they land at O'Hare and the city gets smaller and smaller in their rearview mirror on the 200 miles down I-55 to Champaign-Urbana.

Its that feeling of disappointment that hurts them. It'd be like putting the University of Michigan in the UP and then wondering why they don't pull more Detroit talent.


September 22nd, 2009 at 2:50 PM ^

Chicago is a fringe hoops hot bed of talent. It is not a football hotbed at all.

I would echo mjv's comments above about coaching.

The program was pretty solid in the 1980s and 1990s. The Ron Turner era did not end well. Bare cupboard.

Want to talk about a ceiling? Thats what you have when the Zooker is your coach. Eventually, he will get canned for underperforming and an actual coach will enter a plush situation with a good amount of talent.


September 22nd, 2009 at 3:26 PM ^

It doesn't speak well of our conference when our schools are content to hire SEC castaways (Zook at Illinois, and DiNardo at Indiana a few years ago). Big Ten schools need to be bolder in their hiring decisions. Fortunately, we were an exception.

03 Blue 07

September 22nd, 2009 at 3:31 PM ^

"Fringe" hoops hotbed? time frame? Post- Lew Alcindor? Off the top of my head: Dwyane Wade, Isiah Thomas, Kevin Garnett (yeah, I'm claiming him. He played h.s. ball with Ronnie Fields and Michael Wright for Farragut Academy, which is a Chicago Public School), Maurice Cheeks, Michael Finley, Juwan Howard, Tim Hardaway, (pre-Alcindor): George Mikan, Kendall Gill, Quinn Buckner, Terry Cummings, Mark Aguirre, Steven Hunter, Bobby Simmons...

I don't think "fringe" is proper, really, at all. In fact, I'd put Chicago up against NYC and L.A. for homegrown basketball players.


September 22nd, 2009 at 4:54 PM ^

I know the comment only referred to Chicago, but downstate Illinois has produced some solid hoops talent as well: Frankie Williams, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston were all NBA first round picks who played downstate within the last ten years.

I think the difference is that Illinois is more of a basketball state. Bruce Weber almost gets fired for one bad year, whereas the Zooker is going on three bad years out of four and everyone only remembers the good year.

03 Blue 07

September 23rd, 2009 at 1:50 PM ^

To add to your list- Doug Collins, Jerry Sloan, Troy Hudson, Darius Miles, Brian Cook (former Illinois player) and some others.

Chicago: I also left out Sherron Collins, Evan Turner, along with John Scheyer, Eddy Curry, Johnny "Red" Kerr, CAZZIE RUSSELL, Doc Rivers, Dan Issel, Corey Maggette, Antoine Walker, Iman Shumpert (Georgia Tech frosh)...

I'll say it again: I'd put Chicago- either city limits or including suburbs- up against any municipality in the country for HS hoops talent.


September 22nd, 2009 at 2:51 PM ^

It all goes back to Red Grange scoring four touchdowns in one quarter against Michigan. Doing that to such a high prestige team--even if Michigan hadn't yet adopted the legendary winged helmet--has doomed Illinois to hover between failure and mediocrity.
You reap what you sow.
Not even Dick Butkus could save them.


September 22nd, 2009 at 3:22 PM ^

I don't think this refutes the poster's idea that Illinois should dominate the recruiting area that he thinks is a hotbed of talent. Also of those school listed either do not come from a big recruiting area or have other schools who dominate the recruiting areas they are located in.


September 22nd, 2009 at 9:27 PM ^

I've done the GR to (well through) Champaign on my way to Memphis. The worst part about that drive is that the state of Illinois spent what must have been hundreds of thousands of dollars posting major city mileage updates every 3 miles on I-55 starting right outside Chicago. So even when you try to shut your brain off and drive those damned signs remind you "Champaign 177"... "Champaign 174"... "Champaign 171"...

hopefully the excitement of going to the game will offset that part of the trip.


September 22nd, 2009 at 3:28 PM ^

Illinois is completely batshit schizoid in the modern era. From 2003-2006 - that's four seasons - they won two Big Ten games. Total. Averaged half a conference win a season. At the end of the 2007 season, a year after they went 2-10, the Illini went to the Rose Bowl. In 2001 they went 10-2 and to the Sugar Bowl; the year before and the year after they didn't even have winning seasons. This goes back through the 90's as well. They went to bowl games, they went 0-11.

This comes back to coaching, surely. The state doesn't lack talent, although Illinois can't lock it down. But generally there are playmakers in Cham-Bana. It's trouble at the top that causes these kinds of swings.


September 22nd, 2009 at 3:30 PM ^

I did a quick search of Rivals' ranking for Illinois, and noticed that they did not have an abnormally large number of top-flight recruits. Here is a breakdown for Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and for giggles Florida, for 2007-2009. I listed only 4* and 5* recruits because that represents the top-level talent best, though the distribution of 3* talent in each state mirrored the percentages of upper-echelon recruits. Also, don't kill me for using only Rivals - I'm sure there is some discrepancy across the services, but I doubt to such a degree that would drastically alter the results.

2007 2008 2009
4* 5* 4* 5* 4* 5*
Illinois 5 1 6 0 9 0
Ohio 13 1 14 3 16 0
Michigan 12 1 8 0 10 1
Florida 38 3 43 5 56 5

So that's only 21 4*+ recruits over a 3 year period, and only 1 5*, in Illinois. By comparison, Ohio has 37 top recruits, including 4 5* kids. Heck, Michigan, usually not considered a hotbed of football, has produced 32 recruits, including 2 5*. Of course, Florida blows the whole region away, but I expected nothing less. Still, I think the general sentiment on this board that Illinois may not be as great of a football factory as some expected rings true.


September 22nd, 2009 at 4:18 PM ^

Illinois is usually deceivingly bad, but sometimes deceivingly good. They are almost never a team that is just good, bad, or decent. They fluctuate like a wave.

I can never get a read on them, ever. I truly have no idea what the hell will happen when they play. Hence, I never bet on their games.


September 22nd, 2009 at 4:38 PM ^

I live in Springfield, IL and am roomates with a big U of I donor/ season ticket holder. U of I fans are as frustrated as you are confused about why they are no good.

Zook is an above average recruiter- but apparently a terrible coach. He is recruiting speed and athletes only and these players do not have defined positions. When they try to place them in those positions, they are not suceeding.

Many Ill-annoy (as we non-Illini fans call them down here) want Zook and their AD Guenther (sp??) fired. They have a ridiculously hard non-conference schedule this year- neutral site vs. Mizzou- (first game of the year none-the-less), Fresno St at home (no pushover), and @ Cincinatti (they will be huge underdogs) and Illiois State (there one and only cup-cake). Plus they go TO Fresno St. next year and scheduled and awful trap game last year playing WMU in Detroit- and lost.

I am really glad they are bad again this year because it was really annoying listening to them talk about how they beat Michigan last year... They have AVERAGED beating UM once a decade since 1950. They think they are a real football school but clearly are not.

the_big_house 500th

September 22nd, 2009 at 4:50 PM ^

Illinois seems to figure out what it takes for a Big Ten team to upset OSU. They did it back in 2007 and absolutelty shocked the Bucks. And don't forget Williams, ca never underestimate this guy plus we have to go to Ilinois to play them this year.

Bando Calrissian

September 22nd, 2009 at 4:55 PM ^

They would do well if they had a major rival to add excitement to their program.

Instead, they've got nothing but MUCK FICHIGAN t-shirts and a campus in the middle of nowhere in a state almost devoid of football talent. And Ron Zook.

Bando Calrissian

September 22nd, 2009 at 9:38 PM ^

Missouri? Nah. That's just as much of a "rivalry" as PSU-MSU for their high school trophy.

I remember when I went to Champaign for the UM-UofI game in 2004, their student newspaper's gameday edition featured all of the Big Ten logos with the title "Who is our rival?" They really don't have a natural rival to revolve their season around.


September 22nd, 2009 at 10:02 PM ^

They really don't have a natural rival to revolve their season around.
Then why the hell do they have to settle on us?

It's bad enough that Sparty's whole season revolves around us (because we ALREADY have rivalries with TWO more storied programs!) now we have to have Illinois hanging around too?

They are worse than stalkers or little brothers. I'm reminded of the 80's movie Better Off Dead
"I want my two dollars" says the zombie-like paper boy on his bike.

Leave us alone and go find someone else; I hear South Florida's pretty classless, why don't you give them a call.


September 23rd, 2009 at 1:13 AM ^

I think low expectations really help. I know saying "they're a basketball school" doesn't really fly as much as it used to, but well, they're a basketball school. Most of my friends at U of I had zero clue who Juice Williams was before last year and I know none of them could name the starter before him. Can you imagine that at Michigan?


September 23rd, 2009 at 2:01 AM ^

Weren't they in the Rose Bowl 2 years ago? Anyway, I thought Zook may have turned that program around until he cursed them to death when he allowed that reality TV show to come in a film the kids 24/7.

Terrible, terrible idea. I had to laugh at Jabberwock's comment. After visiting other B10 team's message boards you would think we have a rivalry game every week of the season. Penn State, Minnesota, Wisconsin (yes, seriously), and Illinois all consider us "rivals". Alrighty then.....


May 2nd, 2010 at 2:28 PM ^

Something about alpha-male status being a prerequisite to coaching D1 football, and the fact that Ron Zook isn't one.