I have a friend named Robert. Robert is a normal fellow, most of the time, cheerful, a good husband and dad, with a regular human being job with regular human being hours. Robert's the sort of guy you wave to while you're both mowing your lawns. Nice guy, Robert. Good fella.
But beneath Robert's pleasant façade runs something deeper, something insane.
Monday afternoon, Robert, on the site Illiniboard.com -- a site he co-founded and has built a successful subscription model around, with a staff and everything, all in his spare time -- posted his third annual Illini Football Preview. Included in this preview are depth charts, personnel reports, scouting write-ups based off his repeated trips to attend spring practice -- it's a two-plus hour drive; he doesn't even live in Champaign -- and even a recruiting breakdown. It is a deeper dive into the world of Illinois football than any beat reporter has dug into any team in any sport; it is a data download the likes of which would rattle even the most well-pored-over presidential candidate. It is everything you could possibly want to know about any sports team, and quite a bit more.
And it is 22,004 words. That is half as long as "Slaughterhouse-Five" or "Fahrenheit 451." It is only 5,000 words shorter than "The Old Man and the Sea." That is 22,004 words about the 2016 Illinois football team.
In case you were wondering: The Illinois football team finished 5-7 last year. The Illini -- my Illini, if you were wondering -- have been the laughingstock of college football for nearly two decades. The best coach they've had in 25 years is Ron Zook. They have been plagued by scandal, rife with turnover, institutionally inept and nearly impossible to watch. Over a stretch of 208 days last year, they had three different full-time head coaches. They are the team the rest of the world laughs at.
Yeah, Illinois football fans drinking beer out of a coffin is about right.- SPENCER HALL (@edsbs) October 25, 2014
Illinois firing its head coach a week before the season creates an entirely new degree of Illinoisness science previously thought impossible- SPENCER HALL (@edsbs) August 28, 2015
And Robert just wrote 22,004 words previewing their season. And this is the third time he has done this.
It is staggering what we will do in the name of love.
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All we alums really want from Illinois football is competency. We don't want scandals, we don't want crazy hardcore recruiting pushes that inevitably end in some sort of investigation, we don't want to have to start over every three years. This is not a school like Georgia or Tennessee or Michigan where we're going to start popping blood vessels if we don't win a national title. We don't even need to push too hard to win our division in the Big Ten. We just want a program that makes it to a bowl game more often than it does not, occasionally puts a scare into a traditional powerhouse, doesn't do anything to embarrass and every Thanksgiving weekend makes Pat Fitzgerald look like the doofus we downstaters all secretly think he is. This is the program of George Halas and Red Grange and Dick Butkus and J.C. Caroline and David Williams. We just want to be proud of it. We just don't want to be laughed at.
This was the mindset new athletic director Josh Whitman -- brought in to replace Mike Thomas, who had been fired in the player abuse scandal that also took out former coach Tim Beckman -- brought in when he took over in March. Whitman played football at Illinois from 1997-2000 (which should make you feel as old as it makes me feel) and understood something that Illinois, considered by some to be more of a basketball school, seemed to have failed to understand in the past: You can't fix anything in an athletic department until you fix football. So he let go interim-turned-permanent-but-really-still-interim coach Bill Cubit and went out and hired … oh, one of the 50 winningest coaches in NFL history.
Lovie Smith, fresh off being fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (just a couple of years after infamously receiving a 32,000-word longread of his own when he was hired; come on, Robert, you're slacking), was eager to get back to the state where he's most beloved, where he led the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl a decade ago. Illinois was eager to finally provide some stability to the most chaotic and inept program in FBS. And perhaps most important, Illinois was willing to spend: Smith instantly became the highest-paid public employee in the state of Illinois, though he's still making less than the Buccaneers paid him.
The goal is just not to make us embarrassed. The Illini do not need to go out and win the Big Ten this year, or next year, or even the year after that. They just need to be competent, and fundamental, and, you know, normal. Smith was an underrated NFL coach, and once he adjusts to the college game he's been away from for a few decades, it's difficult to imagine him not making a difference at Illinois. He's beloved by his former players, a respect that can only help him in recruiting. He already brought in former NFL star Hardy Nickerson as his defensive coordinator, who, helpfully, has an all-conference linebacker son transferring from California for his senior year. What was perhaps most noteworthy about Smith's hire was that, for the first time any of us Illini fans could remember, people were talking about Illinois football without making fun of it. Last week, "SportsCenter" did a "Conversation" with Lovie Smith. Illinois' football coach! In conversation on "SportsCenter!" Suffice it to say, that never happened to Tim Beckman.
And there's a fan base there, desperate to re-emerge. Illinois is a potential Midwestern sleeping giant; taking over from Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State might be asking a lot, but there's no excuse for Illinois, with its Chicago and St. Louis ties, to be falling behind Iowa and Wisconsin and, jeez, freaking Northwestern. (Northwestern is Chicago's Big Ten team the way that Fordham is New York's college team. Northwestern claiming reign of Chicago is like a barnacle claiming reign of a boat, or a dust mite claiming reign of your living room. Shoot, Northwestern is barely Evanston's Big Ten team.) The Illini are even in the right side of the Big Ten, the one that doesn't have Michigan and Ohio State and Penn State and Michigan State in it. There's a lane here.
The hope is that Lovie can be the one to finally steer into it. It will be a long process. But Illinois fans have waited plenty for coaches with no plan stumble around. They'll be happy to wait for someone who actually has one.
And when it happens, I think I'll be happiest for Robert. It takes a profound, abiding love to trudge out to practices many newspaper reporters don't bother coming out for, to self-fund a trip to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (and honestly consider it the best Illini fan experience he's had, which might be the saddest thing I've ever heard), to analyze Illinois football depth charts for 2019 in 2015, to write more than 20,000 words on a football team no one else outside his world cares about for three consecutive years. That kind of love can make a man crazy. But that's a pure love. That's a love I can get behind. Go Illini! (Please.)