During my first year studying at the University of Illinois in Champaign — or at least being enrolled in classes — the Fighting Illini football team won the Rose Bowl.
Celebrate! Dick Butkus. Celebrate! Jim Grabowski. Dance to the music!
Then the Illini succumbed to scandal, and the football program hasn’t ever been the same except for an occasional spasm of success.
Over time the realization became that Illinois is a basketball school rather than a football school and a basketball state rather than a football state.
Reminders arrive every time the Illini suffer a 2-10 football season like last fall and enjoy an NCAA basketball tournament appearance like this spring.
Illinois extended this season as far as its talent would allow in the transition from Bruce Weber to John Groce at head coach, Sunday night’s 63-59 loss to favored Miami leaving the Illini with a 23-13 record.
Now the work begins to determine just how far Groce can take this program.
At the Big Ten preseason media sessions I sat next to Groce at a table with about a half-dozen other newshounds. I tried to explain to him what he had gotten himself into.
Illinois fans were in the process of ranting and raving at football coach Tim Beckman. Not only did he have it coming because of his first-year record at the school but he did some awfully dumb things that made you wonder about his qualifications for coaching in the Big Ten.
Beckman is irrelevant, however, because Illinois football is irrelevant. Let him do what he wants short of being caught with his pants down on the sideline or elsewhere on campus.
The real pressure, I blurted to Groce, is on him because the Illini should be a national power in basketball. That’s what every alum thinks about his or her alma mater, but in this case it’s true.
Maybe that impression is the consequence of too many dead brain cells from too many cold beers on too many visits to Kam’s back in the day, but it’s the belief I have carried around my entire adult life, right up there with the notion that I could have passed geology if my academic adviser didn‘t insist I drop the course to avert further embarrassment.
Uh, where was I?
Oh, yeah, Illinois being a national power in basketball.
That doesn’t mean the lllini should be in a bracket with UCLA, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Indiana and Duke. Those programs are in league of their own.
But there is no reason Illinois shouldn’t be on the next level, among the top three or four teams in the Big Ten every year and consistent qualifiers for the NCAA Tournament.
Illinois has just enough tradition in this sport. More important, it has a nearby recruiting base that produces quality high school players from Chicago to Peoria to Indianapolis to St. Louis to many points in between.
Social climbing won’t be easy. Others at the table emphasized how important Chicago is to the Illinois basketball program, and Groce agreed, but I wondered out loud how he would navigate the recruiting risks up here.
The Illini basketball potential is intriguing but historically something happened every time the program approached elite status. There was the slush fund of the 1960s, the NCAA probation of the early 1990s, and head coach Bill Self bolting for Kansas in 2003.
Now it’s John Groce’s assignment to make Illini basketball everything it should be.
If for no other reason than to take an Illinois alum’s mind off of football.
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