EVANSTON, Ill. - The departing Illinois senior class has such a story to tell that they could write a book.
“Oh my, you have no idea,” Illini senior quarterback Wes Lunt said with a laugh following his final game, a 42-21 loss at Northwestern on Saturday. “My family and I talk about it all the time. You might see it someday.”
Added senior center Joe Spencer: “We’re going to write it all together, I think. I think Ted Karras (now with the New England Patriots) wants a chapter in there.”
Though, would anyone buy that book?
It’s not exactly a happy story. The Illini experienced unprecedented turmoil with three head coaches (Tim Beckman, Bill Cubit and Lovie Smith) during the last three seasons -- and a few fifth-year seniors, like Spencer, were recruited by a fourth (Ron Zook).
It’s not exactly a tragic story, either -- unless you consider it a tragedy to lose (a lot) in sports, which it really isn’t in the grand scheme of things.
Twenty-four Illini seniors played their final game on Saturday. It was the 31st loss (to 18 wins) for the fourth-year players. It was the 41st loss (to 20 wins) for the fifth-year seniors. The Illini -- which finished 3-9 overall and 2-7 during Big Ten play in Smith's first season -- have gone 8-25 in the Big Ten the last four years and 8-33 the last five years.
But few senior classes will be as tight-knit as that one. While so many faces (coaches, staffers and athletic directors) changed around them, they only could count on each other. And they fought together -- something they'll take with them throughout their post-Illini lives.
“I think (I’ll most remember) the people, like Joe Spencer,” Lunt said. "So many people from so many different backgrounds. How everyone reacted in tough times and good times. The players are the one thing who didn’t change throughout the program here.”
Said Spencer: “It’s not what you imagine coming in as an 18-year-old and all the ups and downs, different o-line coaches, different head coaches. But it’s made me a stronger man. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. There were down moments, but there were so many sweet moments and so many memories and best friends. I’m just so thankful for that.”
'You build a foundation first'
When everyone thought Beckman was a dead man walking by mid-October 2014, Illinois won three of its final five games to make a bowl bid -- and save Beckman’s job.
When Beckman was fired the week before the season, the team rallied around Cubit and each other and played a competitive 5-7 season -- and helped earn Cubit an odd two-year contract from interim university leadership.
It’s a bit ironic then that first-year A.D. Josh Whitman’s bold move to bring Illinois what it didn’t have under these seniors -- stability -- caused so much instability this season that it damaged the senior class’ chances of final-year success.
Instead of perfecting plays during spring ball, Smith’s staff was teaching all 85 scholarship players the basics of their schemes and playbooks. Instead of tweaking the schemes to fit the players based on what they’d seen the previous season, the coaching staff needed three nonconference games to get enough of a read on its team to overhaul its approach (especially on offense) to fit its players.
Most Illini fans understandably want to quickly skip ahead to the next, hopefully sunnier, chapter. But don’t forget the tortured characters left behind. Their senior season -- and most of their careers -- were collateral damage.
Lunt said he hopes 2016 is remembered as the “stepping stone into the future for Illinois football.”
Though Smith said, “When you win three games, you’re not talking about a lot of things you’ve done.”
So what was gained from the 2016 season, one in which Smith bluntly admits his team “did a lot of things that losing teams do”?
“We have an idea of what we need to do and what direction we need to go in all areas,” Smith said. “This is a start.
“It’s a process. You build a foundation first, and then you start working from there.”
'You feel it'
Count the seniors as believers. Spencer was sold on the pitch from Zook and stayed on with Beckman. He bought into an Illinois head coach fired by a MAC program (Cubit), but now thinks Illinois is in its best spot led by someone who coached a team to a Super Bowl.
“It’s going in the right direction,” Spencer said. “You guys can look at the record, but a culture is being built and values are being instilled in young players. Recruiting’s getting done. Facilities are going where they need to be. The whole school is bought in. The excitement this year was bigger here than any of my other four years. I mean, I’m fully confident this thing’s going in the right direction. I couldn’t be more excited ... as an alumni.”
Asked for specifics anecdotes of a culture change, Spencer said: “It’s kind of hard to describe, but it’s there and you feel it. You feel it across campus. You feel it in the building where guys are bought in and excited to go.”
Most of all, the seniors just want the next generation of Illini players to have something they were never given.
“Stability,” Lunt said. “I think Josh Whitman has set a precedent that (Lovie) is staying a while with a six-year contract. I think that’s going to be huge. Just for recruiting too because I know some recruits probably shy away because of how many coaching changes we’ve had. But to have Coach Smith here, he’s established and on a six-year contract. As a recruit, I’d definitely feel more comfortable with that.”
Smith and most of his staff stayed in Chicago on Saturday night to making a huge recruiting push before the Feb. 1 signing day, when Smith will sign his first recruiting class. And while some Illini seniors -- including Dawuane Smoot, Carroll Philips and Hardy Nickerson -- will play at the next level, Smith’s biggest task is to recruit a class that will be more talented than this senior class, and the next few senior classes.
Lunt and Spencer know they were part of a dark chapter of Illinois football. But they think they’re better men for being central characters in it -- and hope Illinois football will be better for their contributions as Smith earnestly starts his attempt to write the next chapter.
“For seniors, once it’s down to your last game you want it to end a certain way ... but it didn’t work that way," Smith said. "They’re invested in our program.
"It’s disappointing, our record. But this is where we are this year. But we’ll have our day.”