DECATUR — Shocking.
That’s what John Groce called the enthusiastic reception that has washed over him at a handful of Illini Caravan goodwill stops this last week including one in Decatur Thursday.
Whether it was at St. Mary’s Hospital, where Groce met with about 30 members of the Decatur Junior Fire Cadets, at the Decatur Memorial Hospital Sports Enhancement Center for a glimpse of the cross-fit training regimen, at the Decatur Family YMCA to see a family camp in progress or at a public reception at the Country Club of Decatur, the University of Illinois’ new men’s basketball coach is figuring out the lay of the land.
And what he has figured out — whether it’s been in Peoria or Danville or Decatur — is that Illini fans are hungry for excitement, wanting to believe better times are coming and hoping they won’t have to wait long to see the results.
“The turnout and enthusiasm have been unbelievable,” Groce said. “It’s shocking, really.”
Not really. Not if you’ve lived through the past seven disappointing seasons of Illini basketball, the past 20 mostly mediocre years of Illini football or the recent forgettable past of Illini women’s basketball.
Those kinds of patterns produce wholesale change and that’s what Illinois has bounced through over these past nine or 10 months, a rocky road that brought about the hiring of new athletics director Mike Thomas, new football coach Tim Beckman, Groce as the new men’s basketball coach and new women’s basketball coach Matt Bollant, all of whom descended upon Decatur on Thursday.
Some 200 people packed into the Country Club of Decatur, and many of them were there to get their first face-to-face glimpse of these people they hope can change fortunes that have left too many Illini fans feeling empty lately.
John Skeffington, president of Skeff Distributing Co., which supplies much of Central Illinois with its Anheuser-Busch products, has been a long-time Illini fan, donor and ticket buyer and leases a suite at Memorial Stadium. So he’s fully invested.
He viewed Thursday’s Caravan stop with a sensible combination of emotions.
“This is a great event because it shows if you’re an Illini fan, you’re an Illini fan,” he said. “These new coaches bring a ton of energy and I like that. But we want to see a winner.
“What I like is seeing them over here connecting with the fans.”
Thomas is dealing with a mixed-bag athletics department right now with some sparkling success stories as well as some programs that have needed new vigor and are getting new leadership.
Mike Small, the men’s golf coach, was also visitor Thursday. He’s won the Big Ten Coach of the Year award five times in a row. On Saturday, his team leaves for California to compete in the NCAA Championships for the fifth consecutive year. Small is getting it done.
The men’s gymnastics team won the national championship, a splendid achievement for coach John Spring.
The volleyball team played for the national title and Kevin Hambly is recognized as one of the brightest young coaches in America.
But football can’t seem to gain meaningful traction, men’s basketball is no longer thought of as a top-tier Big Ten team and the women’s basketball program has become irrelevant.
So as I looked around the country club Thursday and watched these resilient fans size up the new coaches, I’ll stick to something I’ve always believed about the Illini faithful: They give beyond what they get, they long to be loyal and they will drop to their knees and worship a coach who can bring them exciting fun-to-watch teams that play hard, win consistently and transport them to bowl games and NCAA Tournaments.
But until it happens, you’ll have to forgive those in the crowd who remain a little skeptical, including me.
I told Thomas that I consider myself to be a “glass half-full” person but when it comes to his edict of “consistently competing for Big Ten titles” in football, I’ll have to see it to believe it.
It’s not that I don’t believe in Thomas or Beckman. It’s that history has convinced me the job of winning consistently in football is so daunting it might be like asking the offensive line to run wind sprints to the top of Mount Everest.
“I hope to prove skeptics like you wrong,” Thomas said, and I hope he does, too.
Pat Dawson, the Decatur automobile mogul, blitzed Beckman with a great observation during the Q & A portion of the program.
“I’ve got gray hair from watching the special teams,” Dawson said, hitting the bullseye directly.
Beckman, of course, has only heard that complaint about 10,000 times, so he’s well aware of issue at hand.
As people could see Thursday, the enthusiasm from Groce, Beckman and Bollant is real. I’d encourage fans to hitch your hopes to these coaches.
But whatever enthusiasm the coaches are seeing on these Caravan stops will blossom more than they can imagine if positive results start showing up on the football field and on the basketball court.
The generosity of Illini fans is undeniable. They really do give more than they get.
But with this new group leading the way with higher standards, fearlessness and boundless enthusiasm, it’s time to give the fans what they’ve been waiting for.
It’s time to give them some winners.