CHAMPAIGN – While we anxiously wait to see how John Groce spends a new cache of basketball scholarships and while fans choke on the considerable expense premium seating will cost at the refurbished Assembly Hall, the engine that is supposed to drive the University of Illinois athletic machine sputters along quietly across the street.
There is a warm and fuzzy feeling as people happily cajole about basketball. Groce completed a very successful first season as head coach by doing the one thing fans longed for: He has given them a real sense of hope.
Meanwhile, football talk is hush-hush, an awkward whisper that threatens to spoil the basketball vibe.
While at spring football practice on Friday, I asked several people to point me in the direction of a positive story. I might as well have asked for a map to Tibet.
I’m a glass-half-full guy, so I do see a few football angles that could pass for optimism. I’m a fan of new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, a former head coach and long-time play-caller who will have a fighting chance to generate some excitement if he can find lemonade in a basket full of wide receiver lemons.
I like what he’s doing with running back Donovonn Young, recognizing a north-south runner without needlessly stretching him from sideline-to-sideline.
Once Jonathan Brown is back on the field this fall (he’s sitting out spring drills while protecting his shoulder), linebacker should be a strength.
And I was delighted to see former Illini linebacker Matt Sinclair back at the university as the new director of alumni and high school relations. Sinclair, who went on to play for the Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins, wants to get into coaching and loves his alma mater. This is a step toward that goal.
So you see, there’s optimism everywhere.
But the truth is, people grit their teeth and tip-toe around the uncomfortable chance that Tim Beckman can somehow reverse what was an abysmal first season as head coach.
Illinois was 2-10 in 2012 and while Beckman may have been dealt a weak hand with little depth and too many injuries, he never gave fans reason for hope.
Now, with a schedule that turns wicked and a defense that looks destined to be mauled, all signs point toward another very rough fall in Memorial Stadium.
To avoid disaster, the football gods will have to produce unexpected surprises up and down the Illini roster.
Don’t get hung up on quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase’s arm strength or an unproven offensive line. In fact, don’t start by talking about offense.
Start by worrying how this defense will stop anyone. As Akeem Spence, Michael Buchanan and perhaps Glenn Foster move onto NFL auditions, new defensive line coach Greg Colby has his hands full. I think he knows it.
“We’re not tough enough,” Colby said. “Not tough enough physically or mentally and we’ve got to get there. That’s our only chance.
“I don’t care about talent. All I care about is our work ethic and it doesn’t come naturally. I like the guys we have. I like their attitudes, but they have to push a little bit harder and learn how to get past that barrier most people have.
“A lot of people can’t get past that barrier but to play at this level you have to.”
The secondary is a frightening proposition, too. So miracles are needed on defense.
Offensively, Scheelhaase seems to have moved past the disappointment of dealing with his fourth offensive coordinator in five years. And in Cubit, he has a 59-year-old father figure who understands that disappointment.
“He’s very coachable,” Cubit said. “The thing I like is that the kid has a smile on his face again.
“When I first got here he saw me as a fourth guy and he thought, ‘I have to build another relationship now.’ But we’ve gotten fairly close. I think he likes what’s going on.
“I keep asking him to give me the pulse because he knows what’s going on with the players better than we do sometimes. He looks excited again and I think he’s having fun. When you’re having fun you’ll put a lot more effort into it.
“Now, we just have to find play-makers at wideout.”
The spring game will be played at 8 p.m., Friday, a Big Ten Network-related decision that is sure to hold attendance down. I’m thinking 1,500, if the weather cooperates.
At Illinois, football is quietly crawling through the shadows, the dreary counterpunch to high hopes in basketball.
A spring game few care about seems just about right.