Werner: Looking for light in dark Illini days

Illini need to turn page on bleak 2015, but where is the hope for the future?

MINNEAPOLIS - If it is always darkest before the dawn, Illinois fans are wondering just how dark it gets.

The light is faint to nonexistent as 2015 crawls to a painful, merciful end. No time has seemed bleaker than now.

Expensive independent investigations of abuse claimed the careers of a women's basketball assistant in April (Mike Divilbiss), the head football coach (Tim Beckman) in August and the athletic director (Mike Thomas) earlier this month. The football team is floundering to finish the season, losing five of six, and the basketball team is floundering to start, losing thee of its first four for the first time in 50 years.

And most Illini observers thought it couldn't get worse than 2011-12, Thomas' first academic year at the helm. Deserved firings of football coach Ron Zook, who went 18-38 during Big Ten play, and Bruce Weber, who missed the NCAA Tournament in three of his past five seasons, were supposed to lead to brighter times.

But it's difficult to make a strong case that either program is out of the dark. In some ways, they are further from the light, further from the glory days of 2000-2005 for hoops or the short-lived, shooting stars of success that led Illini football to BCS games following the 2001 and 2007 seasons.

With a 32-24 loss at Minnesota, Illinois football is now 6-25 during Big Ten play following Thomas' hire of Beckman. Zook was 10-22 during conference play following his fourth season and had a Rose Bowl to his credit (even if that berth was a bit fortunate).

Following Saturday's 81-77 loss to Chattanooga, Illini basketball -- once the respite from Illini football -- looks even bleaker. The Illini are 1-3 to start a season for the first time since 1965 and already look destined down a path to miss the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season. Weber finished below .500 in the Big Ten twice in nine seasons at Illinois.

Unless this team plays better against the Big Ten than it plays banged up against good mid-major teams, John Groce looks on his way to finishing under .500 in the conference for the third time in four seasons. And he hasn't finished over .500 in conference once at Illinois. Other programs already were negatively recruiting Illini basketball targets with the athletics instability at Illinois. Results aren't helping Groce on that front either.

Results-based business

Groce and interim football coach Bill Cubit had earned points from fans due to their confidence-inspiring eloquence. But their results on the court and on the field haven't converted many into believers.

Granted, few coaches in Illini history have been as snakebitten. An extensive injury list cost Cubit most of his top playmaking depth, which severely limited his chances at keeping the job longterm. Groce has suffered a rash of injuries rarely seen in college basketball, let alone Illinois basketball.

But even ardent acknowledgers of the tough luck have to admit that Groce and Cubit haven't helped themselves.

Groce has brought in talent on the wings -- Malcolm HillKendrick Nunn and Jalen Coleman-Lands are all players who should have great Big Ten careers -- but is left to praise other teams' point guards (after failing to land his lead guard difference maker) and fill his post with transfers (due to struggles to land and keep talented big men). And a reliance on transfers early on to try to bridge the gap to his prep prospects proved costly to building his roster and culture.

Cubit should never pay for a drink or meal in this campustown based on how he helped manage a vulnerable team amid unprecedented turmoil and adversity. He has helped this team at least have a chance heading into its final week to reach its bowl goal. But the offense he runs has missed too many opportunities during his 12-week campaign cycle. Cubit has support but, after losing five of six thanks in large part to a meager offense that ranks last in the Big Ten scoring offense during conference play (17.3 ppg), even he knows he's lost the early campaign momentum from a 4-1 start.

Discussion will focus on the futures of both coaches. Cubit is a long shot. Groce has plenty of time, the rest of the season, to win back fans by winning games but that will be difficult in the brutal Big Ten.

Uncertainty abounds

Yet that future discussion is a bit futile without knowing who will be making personnel decisions for the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics.

Illinois fans -- and major donors -- were hoping that Colorado AD Rick George would be their white knight, an Illinois alum who has a cushy job but returns home to serve as savior. But he publicly rejected his alma mater.

Another gut punch for Illinois for a 2015 year and a five-year run that have left many mad, sad or apathetic.

Illinois donors still will try to convince George to renege on his public comments, but he likely will stay at Colorado, forcing Illinois to start an open national search which may stretch into mid-December. That may push back Illinois' search for a football coach or, more likely, force interim AD Paul Kowalczyk to lead the search.

Kowalczyk and a rowdy group of supporters, including associate AD Jason Lener, cheered wildly for Cubit's team on Saturday from a suite in the Minnesota press box. You get the feeling that he wanted Cubit to make his job easy and allow him to extend Cubit for three to four years, much like Minneosta interim AD Beth Goetz extended interim coach Tracy Claeys for three more years.

Would a win next week against Northwestern, and a subsequent bowl, give Cubit hope? We'll know in a week, when Illinois must finally decide on Cubit's fate.

Kowalczyk is qualified to lead a coacing search. He landed a good football coach (Jerry Kill at Southern Illinois) and a good basketball coach (Tim Miles at Colorado State) in his previous runs as an athletic director. But that interim tag makes his sell a bit tougher.

Just as interim chancellor Barbara Wilson's interim tag makes the Illinois athletic director role a tougher one for her to sell. 

And Illinois athletics and Illinois football already were tough sells, as Mike Thomas quickly discovered.

Hope is never lost. But Illini football and basketball fans are looking for someone to give them reason for hope, beyond just a fool's hope.

They certainly deserve better.


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