CHAMPAIGN - Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit went to dinner with a recruit following Saturday’s 14-13 last-minute win over Nebraska and ran into an elderly couple wearing Illinois gear.
Cubit asked if they went to the game. They had.
Cubit asked if they stayed until the end -- to witness the Illini (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) score a game-winning touchdown with 0:10 remaining. They hadn’t.
“I said, ‘Well,I’m Coach Cubit,’” Cubit recalled on Monday. “‘Don’t ever leave the game again.’”
Some may have left Saturday’s game early due to the cold and rain. But some Illini fans likely were preconditioned to fear the worst once Nebraska took a 13-0 lead into the fourth quarter or when Nebraska took the ball with 4:28 left with a six-point lead.
Cubit wants to break that pessimism -- built over a decade-plus of struggles -- in and around the Illini program. The Illini's third straight Big Ten victory, dating back to last season, is a good start.
“When a lot has not been positive then it drains you,” Cubit said. “It drains everybody. It drains coaches, players, fans, coaches, alumni, students. Then when you have something like that where people are hoping it happens but not really sure, don’t want to jump on the bandwagon quite yet because ‘I’ll get let down.’ Kids are the same way now. All we’ve had to do is keep convincing them that if you follow a plan, you follow a process, you give yourself a chance.”
Cubit is trying to buy some believers, first within the team.
“The biggest thing is the kids. They believe in what we’re doing. If you believe what you’re doing and everybody’s in the same mindest, then you give yourself a chance.
“They’re buying in. When you buy in, there’s a lot of good things that can happen. There’s a lot of talented teams that can’t win. There’s a reasons. And there’s a lot of teams that have just average talent and they win. There’s a reason.”
Then he’s trying to buy believers outside the team: fans, alumni and recruits. Following Saturday’s win -- the Illini have won four of their last six Big Ten games after winning just 1 of the previous 25 -- that group is gradually growing.
Cubit said he had 94 text messages and 35 e-mails by the time he reached his phone at 8 p.m. Saturday.
“I think a lot of people are pretty excited about what’s going on,” Cubit said. “There’s a lot of people that I don’t know that are just proud for the orange and blue.”
Yet, paid attendance was only 40,138 for a Big Ten opener -- almost 20,000 short of capacity -- and about an estimated 5,000 of those in the seats were Nebraska fans. The student section still can't find enough attendees to complete its halftime card stunts.
So while Cubit's team has caught some attention with a signature win over a traditional power, the Illini likely will have to keep convincing the doubters. Maybe notching their first win at Iowa (5-0, 1-0) since 1999 on Saturday will coax a larger homecoming crowd for the Oct. 24 game against Wisconsin.
“We got the opportunity to go up there and play a really good Iowa team, so that’s exciting,” Cubit said. “It’s not the gloom and doom. Normally, after that first Big Ten game where we haven’t played very well and all of a sudden, everybody just gets down, just gets negative. Now, it’s been pretty positive.”