The Illinois football team played so poorly last year it almost cost coach Ron Zook his job. It did require changing several assistant coaches, and it has produced a fandom pessimistic about the future.
It is easy to think the worst, especially when memories of the last two seasons dominate. But Zook has no such luxury. He must keep his players thinking positively about the future to play their best.
Zook is unwilling to let the past create the future. He can best produce a winning attitude on the team by thinking of the positives and not the negatives.
"I care about winning. This program deserves to be as good as any program. One, there's the best AD there is in the country. Does he make every decision people like, probably not.
"But that's what makes sports the great thing it is. People can express their opinion. I want people to walk around and be proud of the university. I don't want them walking around whipping the university.
"I've put a lot of blood and sweat into this program, and I'm gonna continue to. And I'm gonna get it to where it's supposed to be. That's my job. And if I can't, then the next guy will.
"It's our job as a football staff to put people on the field to make them proud. When they don't, then that's my job. If we can't do it, they'll make a change. But we're doing everything in our power to get where we need to get to.
"I know what I have to do. I have to win games. So does Jim Tressel, so does Joe Paterno and everybody else. People forget five years ago they were after Joe Paterno."
Some Illini fans have let negative thoughts dominate their thinking this past year, to the exclusion of all else. While it would be nice to rebalance everyone, Zook realizes some may not be able to recover from past traumas.
"I can't please everybody. I can't please those people. If I try to coach, if I try to make decisions, if I try to recruit to please those people, I ain't gonna be here.
"I may not be here anyway, but I guarantee I'm not gonna be here. Those people don't know. They don't know. Because if they did know, they wouldn't be so negative."
Zook is doing his best to eliminate all the negativity surrounding the program. He knows it can only limit his players and coaches.
"I can't stand negative people around me. I can't stand that tone of thought. You know what, that's what we're getting rid of. I don't want those people around my players."
He knows they are doing the jobs for which they were hired, but Zook realizes the media can sometimes condition a negative fandom by listing all the problems without considering the positives.
"It's easy to write negative. Hell, I could write negative stuff. Stand up and say, by God we're gonna be good. We're gonna do what we have to do."
The 2009 schedule was brutal, and 2010 appears similar. For those with ears to hear, Zook reminds of the opportunity that awaits.
"It's a tough schedule? Don't be negative. It's a great schedule! It's a great opportunity to show people that we're pretty darned good. It's a great opportunity.
"Quit thinking about the way it's happened in the past 20 years. We've got an opportunity to get up in the polls quick because of who we're playing. We've just got to go win."
Some fans went farther to express their anger last season than ever before. A usually tolerant and forgiving fandom became mired in a whirlpool of bitterness and irrationality. Whether the expectations were too high or the results on the field too shoddy, some sought to destroy the very program they claimed to support.
A few threw objects at recruits in the stands and encouraged them to go elsewhere to school. One star commitment took the brunt of their anger and switched to Iowa. Zook knows he can't turn those people around. But with friends like that, the UI needs no enemies.
"People tell recruits in the stands why they should go somewhere else? You want people to be proud of their university. It's easy to be negative when things aren't going well. Instead of being negative, what can you do to help it?
"President (John) Kennedy said it 50 years ago. Don't ask what we can do for you, ask what you can do for us. That's when we get everybody in this university, everyone on this football team pushing for the same thing.
"We all want to win. You think the players and coaches don't want to win? And everybody deserves to win."
Zook is tired of responding to all the criticisms. He put up with it for awhile, but he refuses to live in the past when he has a new team to coach and a new season to enjoy.
"I'm not gonna defend myself all the time. I'm not gonna try to rehash what happened last year. Believe me, there's no one that hurt last year like I hurt. No one. That's a year of my life I'll never regain."
No article, no interview can reignite the spark that once allowed the most irate fans to cheer for their university on the football field. Zook understands that.
"The only way to turn them around is for us to go and win games."
Many of the worst offenders sought to force changes in the program by staying home from the Fresno State game to end the 2009 season. The game ended tragically when a deflected pass was caught by a Fresno State lineman for a two-point game-winning conversion.
But the fans who attended were the best crowd of the year.
"It's just like in the Fresno State game. It wasn't a full house, but it was the loudest game of the year. We don't need a full house, we just need those people."
All teams need fan support to play their best. If Illini fans want their team to be successful, they will forget last year and focus on helping the team win this year.
Even if they think a change in the head coach is the only solution, they cannot rule out their own contribution to failure if they refuse to support the team. Illini players and coaches will give everything they have to the effort, so the fans need to do likewise to know without doubt the aren't part of the problem.
Zook is doing exactly what a good coach should do. Rather than coasting into the sunset, he is working tirelessly to transform his 2010 team into an exciting, fighting team that will make Illini Nation proud. With reasonable fan support and a little bit of good fortune for a change, that is a definite possibility.