While social media is full of people condemning 2016 as a terrible year, Illinois sports fans surely enjoyed it more than 2015. (Editor's note: Take a look back at the top-10 stories of 2015 here.)
Last year was the darkest in recent memory for Illini athletics. This year seemed to be the dawn of a new day -- which Illinois hopes is a long, sunny one.
Yet, the light is just breaking on the horizon. Because while 2016 provided new hope, it also provided some reminders that past mistakes left Illinois in a hole from which it will take a while to dig out.
Before we get into the top-10 Illini sports stories of 2016 (and the stories that just miss the cut), here's a little on how the list is compiled. This isn't the "best stories of 2016" list or the "best accomplishments of 2016" list. This is the top stories, the stories that had the most interest and impact on the 2016 list. I took into account how much the stories drove conversation and traffic and the lasting impact each will have on the athletic department.
Without further ado...
Others receiving votes
- DaMonte Williams commits to Illini: The legacy recruit has been inconsistent but is undeniably talented. He was a must-get recruit for the Illini, and they got him. But just when he started to break out, he suffered a torn ACL that could dampen early expectations at Illinois.
- Football scores a sellout: The Lovie buzz culminated in a capacity crowd (60,670) during the Week 2 primetime game against North Carolina, the first sell out of an Illinois football game since 2011. Though the result (48-23 loss to the Tar Heels) followed by a 34-10 loss to Western Michigan, muted attendance the rest of the season with the Michigan State game on Nov. 5 the only home game after September to draw more than 43,000 paid attendance.
- Lovie's football recruiting: Currrently, Smith has the No. 33 recruiting class in the country, but this will be a bigger story in 2017 when it is official in February -- and the most talented class at Illinois since 2008 arrives on campus this fall.
- Memorial Stadium Renovation / Hall of Fame: First-year Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman in October announced plans for a $132 million renovation of the south end of Memorial Stadium. It will include a newly constructed football operations facility, which will include coaches offices, team meeting rooms, a locker room, a new weight room and recruiting venues. The plan is the latest big investment in Illinois football to help it climb the ladder in the Big Ten. Whitman also announced plans for a new Illini athletics Hall of Fame with Dick Butkus as the first announced inductee. Whitman said it is time for Illinois to puff out its chest and celebrate its rich history. Amen.
- Women's basketball continues struggles: Of all the Mike Thomas hires, Matt Bollant seemed like the no-doubt home run given his unbelievable success at Wisconsin-Green Bay. But five years later, Bollant is 57-81 overall with a 19-44 Big Ten record. Worse yet, he's lost most of the talented players he recruited including McDonald's All-American Chatrice White, who left for Florida State after a mass exodus the spring prior. The Illini have just eight conference victories over the last three seasons, but they did win their Big Ten opener this season against Iowa. I asked Bollant what he would ask of Whitman. He responded: "Time."
- Brandon Ngai wins pommel horse championship: The 17-year-old Illini sophomore became the youngest champion in NCAA history, leading Illinois to a fourth-place team finish.
- Three Illini drafted to NFL: The Illini football team ended a two-year NFL Draft drought with the Oakland Raiders' selection of Jihad Ward with the 44th overall selection (2nd round). Two more Illini were selected in later rounds: Ted Karras (6th round to the Patriots) and Clayton Fejedelem (7th round to the Bengals). The Illini hope it starts a long streak of NFL Draft picks, the sign of a healthy program.
- Cody Sedlock drafted in first round: For the second straight year, Illinois baseball produced a first round draft pick. The Orioles selected Cody Sedlock with the 27th overall pick, becoming Illinois' third ever first-round draft pick and the second in as many years (Tyler Jay, 6th overall to Twins in 2015).
10. Dee Brown leaves Illini
The surprise of Dee Brown's resignation from his position on the Illini basketball recruiting staff was only surpassed by the mystery surrounding it. Brown was paid well to basically serve as an ambassador for the program and a mentor for the current players. He was one step away from becoming a high-level college basketball assistant. So what happened? In a statement released this fall, Whitman that Brown's resignation was due to "reasons that are personal to him," while Brown said on Twitter that it was due to "some personal issues that have weighed heavily on me." Brown joined the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics in July 2015 as special assistant to the director of athletics before moving to the basketball staff in April. One of the most iconic players in Illini basketball history, Brown brought needed positivity to Illini athletics, especially the basketball program. His departure leaves a lot of questions about his basketball coaching future, which many assumed would soon be on the sideline coaching the orange and blue. Unfortunately, that currently seems unlikely.
9. Jordan Goodwin commits to SLU
Recruiting misses happen everywhere. They always sting -- and Illinois certainly has had many painful stabs to the heart in basketball recruiting under John Groce. But missing on Belleville Althoff wing Jordan Goodwin might have hurt as much as any. First, Illinois invested more time and energy into Goodwin than any staff. It was the first power-five program to offer. Groce was the only head coach at his state championship-winning game in March. Illinois recruits Jeremiah Tilmon and Javon Pickett are close with Goodwin and often were in his ear. Secondly, Illinois lost to St. Louis University. Now, SLU has a respectable mid-major history, but losing recruitments to the Billikens should never go down easily for Illinois. Thirdly, Goodwin is exactly what Illinois has lacked in its program. He could've been a culture-changer. The high school football player brings a gridiron toughness and physicality to the court. He's skilled. He's athletic. Most importantly, though, he's a winner. He makes winning plays and lifts those around him. Illinois signed a great 2017 recruiting class. But it may have missed on its program-changer.
8. Illini land a point guard!
The list of point guards who have left Groce at the altar is long, painful and talented. Groce's failures to land a Demetrius Jackson, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Jalen Brunson, Jawun Evans, Tyler Ulis, Glynn Watson (no scholarship offer) or Quentin Snider (had a commitment but not the signature) to run his ball-screen offense has repressed his program. But he's now landed Big Ten-quality point guards in back-to-back classes, including this year's signing of his most dynamic lead guard yet in Florida point guard Trent Frazier. The Wellington (Fla.) state title winner didn't receive much interest since he didn't play on the big AAU circuits. And once Florida took another point guard in the class, he didn't have many options. But the Illinois staff -- helped by staffer Darren Hertz -- identified him, assistant Dustin Ford pursued him hard and they landed him. This was a no-drama recruitment. Frazier said Illinois was his leader in the spring and summer, and he committed in August and signed in November. He's what Groce wanted to land three years ago, a high-level bucket-getter who can score from anywhere on the court and can create for others.
7. Injuries, and more injuries
Injuries are a part of sports. We all know that. Every program will have its share of injuries that impact seasons and career. But it sure seems like Illinois has had a lopsided share the past few years, including 2016. On the basketball side, the 2015-16 team never had much of a chance with three starters (Tracy Abrams, Leron Black and Mike Thorne) combining to play 15 games. A stress fracture (Jalen Coleman-Lands' offseason), a broken finger (Kendrick Nunn), a dislocated finger (Jaylon Tate) and even the mumps (Khalid Lewis) cost Illinois games too. On the football side, more agony. Mike Dudek and Dre Brown again missed the season, again with torn ACLs suffered during spring practice. The top two quarterbacks (Wes Lunt and Chayce Crouch) missed multiple games with injuries, Crouch with a shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery. Hopefully, new strength and conditioning coaches can help decrease the frequency of injuries. So far, so good on that front for basketball -- wait, I might want to cross my fingers there.
6. I-Mar goes back-to-back
Few athletes in Illinois history will be more decorated than Illini wrestler Isaiah Martinez. With two more years to rack up championships, it's a matter of where he'll rank among Illini greats. Martinez's sophomore follow-up to a sensational debut was one of the best stories of the year. Martinez lost his father, Alfred, to cancer just before the start of the season. He told me in January, 'I'm trying to be the best ever.' In the wrestling world, that's Cael Sanderson, who went undefeated in his four years at Iowa State. Later that month though, Martinez (157 pounds) lost his first collegiate match to Penn State freshman Jason Nolf, who is coached by -- dun, dun, dun -- Cael Sanderson. But Martinez got his revenge, defeating Nolf for his second straight Big Ten championship and again for the national title, leading Illinois to a top-10 finish. No Illini wrestler has ever won more than two individual NCAA Championships. Martinez, now wrestling at 165, looks like a good bet to make history in 2017.
5. Another Final Four for golf
I'm running out of ways to say it, so I'll just repeat it because Mike Small's program continues to prove it: Illinois is a golf school. A loaded Illini team won its seventh Big Ten title in eight years and advanced to the NCAA Championship Match Play Semifinals (golf's Final Four) for the fourth straight season. Though they lost to eventual national champion Oregon -- in Eugene, Ore. -- the Illini continue to prove they no longer are some cute story from the north. They are a golf powerhouse. And while Illinois loses two All-Americans (Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry), it is loaded yet again for another run at that elusive title. Juniors Nick Hardy and Dylan Meyer are among the best players in the nation, while top-20 recruits Michael Feagles and Bryan Baumgarten made strong initial impressions this fall. With the 2017 national championships at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill., Mike Small's program may be the top Illini story of 2017.
4. On- and in-court issues
Injuries certainly derailed most hopes of a competitive Illini men's basketball season in 2015-16. Yet, as if losing -- Illinois finished 15-19 overall -- wasn't enough bad publicity, three Illini players were arrested within a month during the spring. While charges of domestic battery were dropped against Jaylon Tate, both Kendrick Nunn (domestic battery) and Leron Black (aggravated assault) plead down to misdemeanor charges. Nunn, the team's second leading scorer, was dismissed from the program and transferred to Oakland. Black served a six-game suspension, which included two exhibition games. Despite increasing calls for John Groce's job, Whitman stuck by the basketball coach he inherited -- citing that Illinois could have a successful 2016-17 and had increasing recruiting momentum. The jury is still out on Groce's long-term status as we enter 2017, but bad showings on the court and too many appearances in court in 2016 certainly didn't help his case.
3. Jeremiah Tilmon signs with Illini
But Groce did land the big fish -- the biggest catch of his tenure. Five-star center Jeremiah Tilmon's commitment and signing each came a little later than expected -- providing plenty of summer and fall drama -- but his national letter of intent gives Illinois its best talent in a long while, likely since Brown signed with Bill Self in 2002. While Goodwin may have been the culture-changer, Tilmon is a potential perception-changer. He is the cog of the Big Ten's top recruiting class and a Day One starter in 2017-18. Illinois rarely features a talent with his mix of elite size, developing skill and athleticism. He's the kind of talent that is needed to contend for Big Ten titles. The hope is that he helps attract more talent like him, and he's the biggest reason Groce can sell hope for the future.
2. Josh Whitman hired
Mike Thomas fired Tim Beckman a week before the season. Illinois waited until early November to fire Thomas, who objectively failed terribly in his time as Illinois athletic director. That seemingly left Illinois in a time crunch to hire its next athletic director in time for him/her to hire the next football coach -- or so we thought. The search for a new athletic director -- led by a search committee and interim chancellor Phyllis Wise -- dragged on, so much so that the interim leadership gave interim football coach Bill Cubit a two-year contract. Other former Illini, including Colorado AD Rick George, were candidates, but Illinois nabbed a young, hungry Division III administrator. While there were/are doubts about his huge leap from Wash U to Big Ten athletics director, Josh Whitman has shown the potential to be the right man at the right time. He's bold (fired Cubit on his first full day on the job) and swift (officially announced the hire of Lovie Smith two days later). He's confident (his slogan "We Will Win" adds much needed swagger to a defeated program) and charismatic (his passionate speeches strike the right tone with fellow Illinois grads and fans). He inherited a mess and a tall task. But for the first time in a long while, Illinois seems equipped with a capable leader who inspires hope and excitement.
1. Lovie Smith hired
And Whitman hired the guy who gives a new hope to Illinois football. Smith's hire gave Illinois football immediate credibility and stability. The former NFL head coach has the biggest Q rating of any previous Illinois athletics hire ever -- especially in Chicago, where he coached the Bears for nine years. In 2016, Smith created immediate excitement for Illini football fans. Attendance spiked by 10 percent, one of the largest increases in the country. Season ticket sales rose 30 percent. While the Illini struggled on the field (3-9), his success on the recruiting trail (Illinois currently has a top-35 recruiting class built mostly on in-state and St. Louis area prospects) is really encouraging for a program that has had a huge talent gap the past four seasons. Smith still hasn't signed that first recruiting class. The roster he inherited still has many issues. His staff still has a lot to prove. But for the first time in a while, Illinois fans feel like they have the coach who can gradually lead them up the Big Ten ladder and help stabilize the program as a legit player in the Big Ten West division -- and that's the biggest change from last year.