CHICAGO - Pat Fitzgerald hoisted the Land of Lincoln Trophy with his 10-2 team, celebrating what could be the culmination and apex of his 10 seasons as Northwestern head coach.
Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, an Illinois native, high-fived players on their way into the Soldier Field locker room, a satisfying victory (24-14 over Illinois) for a program Phillips’ marketing initiative calls “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.”
One of college football’s brightest coaches and one of college football’s brightest athletic directors are achieving great things at a Big Ten program in Illinois once known for ineptitude.
In the other locker room, Illinois (5-7, 2-6 Big Ten) players gave a standing ovation before the game to interim coach, Bill Cubit, who received a two-year deal from an interim athletic director, Paul Kowalczyk, who takes orders from an interim chancellor, Barbara Wilson, who answers to a first-year president, Timothy Killen.
None of the leadership seems to have any plan or long-term vision for how to dig Illinois out of this mess, a mess it created.
Northwestern football is everything Illinois should be, proof of what a program can do when it finds the right coach who can build the right identity and has the right athletic director who can build and market a program once known as a laughing stock into one highly-regarded nationally.
Meanwhile, the Illinois athletics program continues its downward spiral from mid-2000s national relevance. Saturday's decision hinted that the spiral may not have reached its bottom.
Dragging their feet
Illinois leadership fired athletic director Mike Thomas three weeks ago for what Wilson called “distractions” from which the university needed to move on. The problem is that the dismissal came months too late because Wilson and Killeen know little about athletics, something Wilson -- who was Dean of the College of LAS just four months ago -- admitted at Thomas’ dismissal press conference.
Wilson and Kowalczyk were out in unenviable positions, dealt bad cards. But Wilson, Killeen and the board of trustees didn't play their hands well.
If firing Thomas always going to the ultimate decision -- after all, Illinois did not suddenly decide to dismiss Thomas that day -- Illinois should have done it months, days or hours after it dismissed football coach Tim Beckman in August for abuse allegations. Instead, Illinois dragged its feet for nine weeks.
In that time, it could’ve hired an athletic director with a vision, with a plan. Instead, it sat around, deliberated the decision and created a vacuum of leadership just when Illinois needed to make a decision on one of the most prestigious hires in the university, let alone the athletic department.
Their plan apparently was Rick George or bust. And when George, the Colorado athletic director and Illinois alum, spurned the Illini -- though some still seem to think that pursuit isn’t completely dead -- the administration was caught with its pants down, needing to make a quick decision.
It was left with two bad options: 1) Let their interim AD start a coaching search; or 2) Extend Cubit with a long-term deal.
The Illini chose a worse option. They punted -- just like Cubit’s offense punted so often in Saturday’s loss -- and gave Cubit a two-year deal. While the deal might allow Illinois to compete in 2016, it may doom the 2017 and 2018 seasons due to more difficulties selling an unstable program to recruits who want to know who their coach will be in two to four years.
Cubit knows he has a huge challenge to stop that decline. If they were going to extend Cubit, at least give him the arsenal with which to best succeeed. Illinois could've given Cubit a four-year deal with a buyout of the same grand total. Yes, optics matter in recruiting.
Kowalczyk was forced to try to explain the decision on Saturday, even if he wasn’t the ultimate decision-maker. And his answer, while honest, was humiliating.
"Obviously, it's not ideal," Kowalczyk said, "but for now, I don't think it'll put a dagger in the heart of the program. The program's too strong.”
But the program isn’t “too strong” that it can survive a “not ideal decision.” It’s shown in the past that it’s capable of being one of the worst power-five football programs in the country, let alone the Big Ten. Following another two-win Big Ten season, it seems perilously close to falling to Purdue’s rock-bottom level -- where Illinois was just three seasons ago.
This isn’t about Bill Cubit. He did his job -- interim coach -- admirably. He kept the program from completely bottoming out during a season in which Illinois fired its head coach seven days before the season opener and its athletic director 10 weeks later. Cubit is an actual leader, who doesn’t embarrass the university when he speaks. The players like him. He kept together an OK recruiting class with an interim label and even added four commitments.
Is he the long-term solution, though? The offense he calls was the worst in the Big Ten during conference play this season and his team lost six of seven to end the year. Western Michigan fired him after eight seasons (36-27 during MAC play) of mostly mediocrity.
“My job is to convert the naysayers,” Cubit said after the game.
There are more of them after losing six of seven and likely missing out on a bowl game.
Cubit -- who may have had other opportunities, but none as prestigious or well-paying as Illinois -- didn't receive much support from Illinois, which signed him to a two-year deal, an open invitation for the next athletic director to buy out a year from now.
"Obviously, the university is in the situation with interim tags on a lot of people," Kowalczyk said. "The feeling is that it'd be best for a permanent AD to make a decision that they can live with, somebody of their choosing, whether that be Bill or somebody else.”
This isn’t about the players -- though Illinois needs bigger, stronger, faster ones -- who give their all for the program and university.
This is about the embarrassing leadership -- wait, what leadership? -- above them.
The Illini players deserve better. They deserve a university administration with a vision and follow-through to surround them with the best teachers and mentors.
The coaches deserve better. They deserve an administration and a faculty that understands a strong athletics program only strengthen a university. Athletics should be an ally, not a competitor.
The Illini fans deserve better. They want to support the program and players, but why else should they invest in an administration that doesn’t repay them?
They're all awaiting reasons for a brighter future.
Made their own bed
The Illinois football team has leaders: players and Cubit.
Those leaders deserve a leader, an athletic director who can pave the way for future players and coaches to have success.
But university leadership is just starting its process to being that search. A search committee is just now being formed, and Wilson will likely settle on a search firm in the coming weeks. Then the process will start.
“That position right now is important to fill,” said Kowalczyk of his eventual successor. “Right now, this will get us to where we need to be in order to make that decision."
But the process should have been over by now.
Illinois’ decision on Saturday may have been a rational one -- outside the two-year deal -- given the current circumstances: an athletic department not ready to conduct a national search for its next head coach.
But Wilson, Killeen and the board of trustees made that bed months ago. Now they, the football program, the fan base and donors lie in the mess. It didn’t have to be that way.
But Illinois leadership’s lack of knowledge of athletics and vision for the athletic department may have just set its football program back a few years -- needlessly.
Fitzgerald and Phillips likely will have a few more celebrations at the Illini’s expense.