Through the Trifocals

It has been a glorious winter for Illini basketball, but a difficult winter for Illini football. The basketball season has helped us renew our enthusiasm for the University of Illinois and helped us to forget the catastrophic football season that preceded it. But now we must deal with the past and face the future.<br><br>The Illini football team is busily working to improve during its spring practice sessions. But the team can't do everything alone. It needs our help NOW.

We are still basking in the afterglow of a wonderful basketball season, so this may not be the best time to bring this up. But I was over on campus the other day, and guess what I saw. Eighty or so young men, Illini all, were working hard at spring football practice, trying to put last season behind them and prepare for the 2004 football season. Frankly, it brought a sadness to my heart.

Think about it. To a person, everyone of these fine young men believed they were going to have a winning season this past fall and go to a bowl game. They worked the previous winter, spring and summer to accomplish their goals, and they thought they were prepared. Unfortunately, they could never have been prepared for what actually happened.

They lost some close games early. Once they began to realize their fondest dreams would not be met, their confidence dropped. Then injuries to key players began to mount. The offense lost confidence in the defense when it struggled. After losing our starting quarterback and wide receivers, the defense lost all hope of being rescued by the offense.

Everything snowballed in the face of intense competition from one good team after another, to the point that any little bad thing was like another dagger in the heart. At that point, even the chance to play lower ranked teams like Indiana and Northwestern failed to help them rebuild the confidence so necessary for success. They were in a deeply twisting whirlpool from which no one could escape.

And what happened after the season ended may have been even harder for them to endure. For that is when their friends and fans began to turn on them. After all, every Illini fan was hurt by the failures of last season. Some fans began a campaign to fire head coach Ron Turner, the man who recruited all our players. And in the absence of that, they demanded that athletic director Ron Guenther be fired. Suddenly, Illini players' entire support system was under attack.

There is not one player or coach on the Illini football team who tried to lose or did anything intentionally to sabotage the program. And yet they were suddenly treated just like Vietnam veterans when they returned from a war they were not allowed to win. They had to face the daily barrage of complaints from fans who, as armchair quarterbacks, questioned everything about the program. Some of these fans simply said we needed the exact opposite of what we had, whether it made sense or not.

If anyone doubts this, just read any Illini football fan forum. You will quickly find them all dominated by bullies who are demanding changes they are powerless to make themselves. They ridicule anyone who shows any optimism for the future. They attack anyone who finds anything good about Ron Turner. They state ad nauseum that we must get rid of Turner NOW! Of course, this is the absolute worst time to fire a coach, but logic is hard for them because they are still so hurt by the events of last season.

It is quite understandable why some fans act this way. After all, their expectations were at least as high as the team to begin the 2003 season. While they now blame others for building up the optimism for the team beyond its true level, they willingly jumped on the bandwagon because they wanted the Illini to win so badly.

I understand how easy that is to do because I have done it also. But their expecations were beyond what was reasonable under the circumstances. As a direct result, they crashed and burned just like the players when it became obvious that a winning season was out of the question. These fans demanded that players perform with a confidence that they themselves could not muster due to their own depression. At the least, these fans were embarrassed by a lack of pride shown by the team in late season games even though they themselves no longer had any pride.

Now, these fans find themselves in a deep well of depression from where no light can shine. They are confused and in much pain, as can be seen clearly from hearing some of their comments. One demands that we be as good a program as the Oklahoma $ooners without realizing how low a place we found ourselves when Lou Tepper was fired seven years ago. He wants everyone to be as miserable as he and repeatedly attacks anyone with a more positive perspective.

Another demands that we hire a big-name coach and then refuses to buy season tickets or offer any funding to help pay for the large Turner buyout and the massive salary such a coach would require. He doesn't realize that no big-time coach wants to leave a good program for a major rebuilding job. And he doesn't realize that the state of Illinois is not as fertile a recruiting territory as some wish to believe, so that extra work would be required to create the kind of excellence that everyone wants.

Still another would accept an up and coming coach without realizing he would be part of the negative environment the less experienced coach would have to overcome when moving to Illinois. Someone else says if a prospective football recruit is turned off by his negativity on a fan forum, then he doesn't want the recruit anyway. And then he wonders why we lose so many recruits.

I know these negative fans really want us to be a good program. But they are trying in their co-dependent way to force it to happen even though they are outsiders to the process and have no access to decision-makers. This frustrates them further, so they are left trying to gain power over their fellow fans.

A few of the most confused fans state that anyone who isn't anti-Illini is our enemy. In other words, they have completely reversed the truth to rationalize their position. Instead of the already self-limiting notion, "If you are not with us, you are against us", they have disintegrated into "If you are not against us, you are worthless."

And this is the environment in which our Illini football players must toil. If they had the attitude of some of these fans, there is no way they could be expected to get in top shape, increase their speed and strength, learn the system better and then perform well enough to win. In fact, they would either quit or transfer. Interestingly enough, there have been few if any defections, so fortunately the team has not yet given up on themselves or their coaches.

Of course, they have found some solace in each other's company, helping each other to heal the wounds of last season. They have interacted with the coaches who have worked to help them put last season in the past and look forward to a better future. The defensive players have been given a new coordinator who brings much optimism and enthusiasm to his role. And the players still have a sense they can be winners if given enough time.

Realizing what Illini football players have endured and how much they are trying to overcome, I could not help but feel something for them as I saw them practice. Can I promise victories? No. Can I promise they will give all their opponents enough of a challenge to excite our imagination and hope for the future? No. But I can guarantee that we want all these football players to be Illini for life. There is no way they should be treated poorly just because they don't measure up to our expectations. They are working their tails off, for themselves and for us.

This, folks, is the bottom line. We have a football team that has a 2004 schedule that includes seven home games. We have a coach by the name of Ron Turner who has won a Big 10 Championship and will remain our coach at least until the end of this next season. And we will have in excess of 105 young men (counting freshmen) who will work from now through November to try to make us proud again to be Illini football fans.

If, as an individual fan with a right to your own ideas and the freedom to express them, you desire that we change coaches, then the results of this next season will make that decision for you. If 2004 is as bad as 2003, Ron Guenther will pay the buyout and demand Turner's resignation. Guaranteed! You can relax your demands for now with full confidence you have been heard. But that decision has not already been made, so there is always the chance our team might surprise. If so, you will have to accept that as well.

What the Illini players and coaches need right now is a few courageous fans who are willing to stand up to the bullies and be counted. They are not asking for false optimism, and they are not asking you to ignore their mistakes, but they truly need your support through thick or thin.

The Illini players and coaches must put last season behind them, learning from their mistakes but forgetting the misery, frustration and pain. They must believe they can succeed in order to provide the relaxed, confident effort needed to play well again.

Likewise, we as fans must somehow stop acting like those poor people on shows like "Jerry Springer" who are trapped in negative feedback loops. Tapes remembering their misery keep running in their heads, and they are full of anger and blame with no outlet for their pent-up energy. With enough encouragement, many of them lash out to attack their perceived tormentors right on TV. All the frustration just poors out uncontrollably.

To heal our wounds, we must try our best to let our bad memories flow out of us as constructively as we can. Perhaps hitting a pillow while yelling loudly can help. Maybe running a few miles to exhaustion will make you less volatile. Try to find some way of letting this negative energy out because truly last season is over, never to return again. There is no valuable reason to hold onto it any more. It has more than served its purpose.

Think of last season as a brother. You love your brother, and you know you always will, but last year he did some dumb things and got himself in trouble. Do you disown him, or do you allow him another chance to get back into the family's good graces? Most of us want our brother to return to the fold because we love him. The Illini are our family, and the upcoming season is a new season, so we must find a way to heal the wounds so we can love again.

If we are Illini for life, then we must accept our players as Illini for life and treat them accordingly, win or lose. We have already lost contact with some of the players from the post-Slush Fund years because their losing ways made them feel unwanted, and it would be a terrible waste to lose these players the same way just because we don't show our support for them during the tough times. Courageous fans cheer their team unconditionally...they don't demand victories in exchange for their money or cheers.

I really believe that each basketball team is really six players, and each football team is really 12 players. That is how close a relationship there is between a team and its fans. How a fan treats his team is as important as how a team responds to an opponent. Quality fans provide the extra confidence and energy needed for victory when enthusiastic and supportive, while ambivalent fans drain a team's energy, and booing fans destroy a team's confidence and therefore chance to win.

So, are we going to give ourselves completely to helping the team play well, just because it is the Illini? We expect the team to give its best effort, so shouldn't we as well? Or, are we going to withhold our support in protest of situations beyond our control?

If we give everything we have, and the team still loses, we will know for certain that we did our best and cannot be partly blamed for the failure. If we arrogantly withhold our support and then see the team lose, can we ever say with certainty that we did not contribute to the failure? If you ask me, in that case it might be appropriate to fire some fans as well as coaches.

I am not asking for anyone reading this column to attend any game. And you are not obligated to like the coaches or players. That is your choice alone. But I just purchased season tickets. In my case, until last fall I had to work Saturdays for many years. So my first chance to get season tickets in all that time was this last fall. Wow, what a homecoming! Still, it was fun to get back finally to an activity that I used to cherish on fall Saturdays. All the pomp and pagaentry are fun by themselves, but the game is always the highlight. It brings back many good memories, and I hope to have some more in the future.

Will we ever have a winning team again? You bet your life we will! Will we have a winning team this season? No one can say at this point. Are we the kind of fans who deserve a quality team? That also remains to be seen.

One way or the other, you might consider attending the Spring Game April 17, 2004, to decide for yourself whether our Illini football team is worthy of your support. But if the only energy you can provide is negative, if there is nothing that will help soften your hardened heart, then I am reminded of the first line of the Jethro Tull musical epic "Thick As A Brick": "I really don't mind if you sit this one out."

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