CHAMPAIGN — When Tim Beckman’s incompetence brought Illini football to its knees, it was the program equivalent of a double ACL tear.
The road back would not be measured in a single new coaching hire, a single recruiting class or a single marketing campaign. It would be an arduous rehabilitation measured in years.
As a difficult Illini football season came to a close Saturday, some will measure the rehabilitation by what’s happened most recently. That would be 10 straight defeats capped off by Saturday’s 42-7 loss to Northwestern.
Nationally, the view of the program is that two seasons into Lovie Smith’s tenure and no progress is visible. Some have already studied Lovie’s buyout, assuming another change is coming.
That is not the view of the program by the one person whose opinion actually matters.
AD Josh Whitman, who was handed this broken football program when he was hired in February of 2016, has never publicly detailed just how much of a mess he inherited. Spelling it out would terrify fans, and alarm potential donors. After he’d been on the job long enough to really dig into the issues, it probably scared the hell out of Whitman, too.
Only this past week did he offer an analogy that he feels summarizes where the program was, where it is and where he believes it is going.
Whitman, an Illini football alum and a four-year veteran of the National Football League, is a recreational runner. So he pulled from his hat a race analogy to explain to Illini fans who may be wondering how to assess a program that seems stuck in the mud.
“The message from me is, don’t waver,” Whitman said when asked what he’d say to those fans. “Don’t falter in your belief. We have to continue to believe in what’s happening here. Building a major college Power 5 football program is a test of wills, a test of internal fortitude. So often people fail to cross the finish line because they stop running.
“We can’t stop running. We have to continue to feed what’s happening here.”
Whitman explained that on occasion he enters a race with a huge field of runners. In that setting he has learned a valuable lesson.
“Before I’d ever run one of those races I never realized that it may take you two, three, four minutes just to get to the start line.
“When you make a coaching change, the gun sounds, the clock starts but everyone starts at a different pace. Some programs start five seconds behind the start line, some 30 seconds behind.
“Our challenge over the last two years is to get back to the start line. We’ve had a lot of work to do, a lot of heavy lifting, creating a culture, upgrading the roster, facilities challenges.
“There have been a lot of hurdles in front of us and it’s been about knocking down those hurdles the last two years to put us in place to run the race.”
Whitman is 100 percent convinced that with the strong freshman recruiting class Lovie Smith heavily tapped into this year, the race is now on.
“I’m confident we are building something that’s going to be incredibly powerful and exciting,” Whitman said. “The last thing we need people to do is stop running.”
So that’s what Whitman thinks. The tough part is deciding whether you believe where Whitman says this will eventually lead.
He’s right about it being a test of wills. It’s a test of patience, too.
A second half like Illinois played Saturday, when it was outscored 28-0, tests that patience to the breaking point. And unlike when Ron Turner struggled mightily in his Illini coaching start, or when Ron Zook did the same when he took over, the missing ingredient is the lack of an answer at quarterback.
Turner had Kurt Kittner. Zook had Juice Williams. Kittner took Illinois to the Sugar Bowl. Williams went to the Rose Bowl.
But Lovie Smith has no clear answer there. Only a still-green freshman Cam Thomas, a wonderful athlete who has so much to learn reading defenses, as well as freshmen who will arrive this summer.
I won’t be surprised to see Jeff George Jr. transfer because Lovie & Co. have made a clear decision to find dual-threat quarterbacks.
There are so many elements to factor in. A total of 16 true freshmen started, more than any program in the country. And one can’t overlook the burden of inheriting disastrous senior and junior classes (hello, Tim Beckman). Illinois played this season with far less than the allotment of 85 scholarship players the NCAA allows.
What matters is that Whitman and Lovie Smith have a shared understanding of what’s going on. And Whitman, who knows Illinois football has struggled for many years, is 100 percent behind a plan that includes no shortcuts.
At some point the wins have to come. Next season would be a good time to start. Saturday’s paltry crowd (much fewer than the 30,456 tickets sold actually showed up) shows that the losing is wearing on even the most loyal fans.
The key will be stacking another strong recruiting class on top of the group of freshmen on the current roster. Then another. Then another.
If that happens, Illinois will finally be running the race Whitman dreams about. The patience to keep running has never seemed more difficult.