I began listening to heartbreak songs in order to get in the mental head space to write about Illini Football, but none of them felt right.
The closest thing I came to was “Take Care” by Drake.
As Rihanna croons, “I know you’ve been hurt by someone else. I can tell by the way you carry yourself. If you let me, here’s what I’ll do. I’ll take care of you.” I imagine Bret Bielema preparing to take me, and the rest of the Illinois football fanbase, into his arms and sweet-talking us into trusting him, despite our past hurts.
We’ve loved, and we’ve lost.
Honestly, that’s the Illinois Football I know.
But that idea doesn’t quite fit because Illinois football has never broken my heart. Not because I don’t love it, but because I’ve never expected anything out of it.
Ron Zook, Tim Beckman, Bill Cubit and Lovie Smith aren’t my spurned lovers. I never really expected that much out of them. In my life, Illinois football has never been all that good. When I was 14, we lucked into the Rose Bowl at 9-3. As an 8-year-old, I vaguely remember watching the Sugar Bowl in our rental house that we were living in after our house got hit by a tornado.
I wanted to write this because heading into the Bret Bielema era, I wanted to explain what my expectations were. In my head, I entitled this piece “Hope Springs Eternal for Illini Football.”
Because every August, I work to convince myself that maybe, just maybe, this is the year we can go 6-6 or 7-5. Then, if we do that, we can build off that momentum to do it again.
Instead, Illinois football is encapsulated by the cyclical nature of hype, then frustration, then embarrassment.
But this year, I can’t seem to do that. Bret Bielema, to me, was an exciting hire. An established college football veteran who has won the Big Ten multiple times. Who knows how to recruit to a massive Big Ten school and how to compete against the Big Ten West. It’s a nice change from Lovie Smith, a professional coach who couldn’t quite capitalize on the passion needed for college football recruiting. Which was a nice change from Tim Beckman, an up-and-comer in the MAC who turned out to be a bumbling fool. Which was a nice change from Ron Zook, an established college football coach who was able to recruit but not necessarily turn that into winning on the field.
I honestly really liked Ron Zook and Lovie Smith and with both, I felt like they weren’t that far from turning the corner. Maybe another season would’ve done it.
Maybe that’s why hope springs eternal. I feel like if we could just do a bit more, if we could just get one more recruit, if we could just throw one fewer interception, we’re not that far from going .500, which is really all I ask.
As I’ve written before on this page, my greatest desire for Illinois football is to get to a point where it can go 8-4 at least once every five years and go to a bowl 3 out of 5 years, and my overarching theory on college football coaches is that most will likely meet this low standard if you simply give them the time.
So far, losses have been the expectation. Because of that, I remember the victories more than the losses. Thinking back on my undergraduate career, two games stand out: Freshman year, a night game against Arizona State. We won 17-14 at a night game that was packed. It felt like Illinois football was inevitable that year, and this is what it was like to be a football fan at a Big Ten school.
But as we know, Illinois started 6-0, then finished 0-6, resulting in Zook being fired.
The other game I remember was the last home game of my senior year, against Penn State. About 250 students in Block I. It was cold. It felt lonely and Illinois football felt the opposite of inevitable. Almost like we would never win again. I wore my giant orange puff jacket that my mom got at a garage sale. Reilly O’Toole led a comeback, and we won on a last-second field goal – 16-14. It was a joyful celebration. We won the next week and went to the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, where we got stomped by Louisiana Tech. Months later, Tim Beckman was fired.
It’s with those highlights in my Illini fandom that I’m approaching the Bret Bielema era.
When he takes the field, Coach Bielema doesn’t carry a significant burden of expectations, at least from a fan like me.
This season, I feel like 4-8 would be good. Anything more than that would be a bonus.
If I still lived in Champaign, I would absolutely be at Memorial Stadium, ready to listen to the Marching Illini and yell and shout and ride the roller coaster of the game, saying Illinois Football will never lose again if we score first, or saying we may never win again if we end up losing.
I’m willing to get hurt by Illini football. But first, that would require me to feel something.
Please make me feel something.