Welcome back, sports fans, to another fantastic year of Illinois football. Coachin' Timmy Beckman eked out enough wins to lead his ragtag gang of football men to a bowl game last season and made it through a summer of abuse allegations to coach another day. Record be damned, there's the proof right there that this man is a winner.
This season the Illini have their lightest nonconference schedule in recent history and still get to play Purdue in conference play, so there's hope yet! The offense is led by redshirt junior Wes Lunt at quarterback and senior running back Josh Ferguson, while the defense, anchored by senior linebacker Mason Monheim and senior lineman Jihad Ward, is already getting looks from NFL scouts. With the most upperclassmen in a decade, maybe Illinois won't suck again this year. Of course, with seemingly half the team injured (including Ward, wide receiver Mike Dudek, defensive lineman Teko Powell, running back Dre Brown, and on and on...) the worst is still a possibility, too.
To help us better understand this year's version of the Illini football team, Will Leitch agreed to answer a few inane questions. Leitch is a alumnus of the University of Illinois, the founding editor of Deadspin, author of multiple books, and currently senior editor at Sports on Earth, among other things. He will be one of the guest speakers at inaugural edition of Pygmalion Festival's Tech component, September 23-27 (Leitch's panel is on Friday, September 25th at Krannert Center). His love for Illinois athletics hindered his judgment when he agreed to answer our questions, and for that we are thankful.
Smile Politely: You call yourself an optimist about Illini football, is that a sign of mental illness?
Will Leitch: Almost certainly. I’m pretty much an optimist in general — which, for 14 years of living in New York, basically means people see you as this weird combination of hippie and infant — but I’ll confess, it requires more effort when it comes to the football team. But I still remember being a kid and going to the Colorado-Illinois game back in the early ‘90s, when the Illini beat the team that ended up winning the national championship, and Memorial Stadium just shook. It was my first real "holy shit" moment with seeing football in person. I know it has been a long, long time since then, and I know why it hasn’t shaken like that since then. But I, dumbly, believe it can again.
Leitch: Am I crazy, or is the football program actually on a better trajectory than the basketball team? It brings me no joy to say that — Illinois basketball is second only to Cardinals baseball in my heart, and I remain a believer in Groce — but the idea that the football program is slowly going down the drain is one I don’t quite understand. They have improved in wins every year since Tim Beckman took over, and while there have (obviously) been a ton of setbacks along the way, the team clearly has more depth and cohesion than it did at the end of the Zook era. (Honestly, Zook left him with nothing. It’s no wonder the guy is working at a bank now, or whatever he’s doing.) I know Beckman is a dork, and often embarrassing, and there’s a lot of off-field stuff swirling. But on the field? Things have gotten better every year since he got here. That’s a fact.
SP: What are the odds Wes Lunt is the starter in every game and how bad will Illinois be after he gets injured?
Leitch: Considering all my optimism about this team is reliant upon him not getting hurt — OK, not all of it, but most of it — I’m going to protect myself and say he’ll make it through the season without any serious injuries, other than the ones to his psyche and faith in his fellow man. Because if he goes down… yikes.
SP: If Mike Dudek had not injured his leg, how many times would he have been the only target worth throwing to this season?
Leitch: You know, I’m not that worried about this. Obviously Dudek will be missed — and all told, I think there’s a case for redshirting him no matter when if he returns in mid-to-late October — but I like Geronimo Allison (not just because of his name) and Justin Hardee (just because of his name). I like some of the recruits too. There are big flaming terrifying deficiencies on this time, but even without Dudek, I don’t think the receiver position is one of them.
SP: How long before Josh Ferguson is dropped from award watch lists?
Leitch: Well, half of football is on those lists. I bet he hangs on for a while, though, if just because I think he’s going to have a huge game against North Carolina (which the Illini will win) and get everybody too excited about him. So I say he makes it through the first update, but not the second.
SP: Are any of the defensive players half as good as their names (e.g., Jihad Ward, Dawaune Smoot, Chunky Clements, etc.)?
Leitch: Those are some terrific names, so no. But it is worth pointing out that those late wins, other than maybe Northwestern, and even that had some highlights, were won as much by the defense than the offense. I’m not sure about defensive coordinator Tim Banks either, but they finally have some continuity and depth on defense. That might not necessarily equate “talent,” but I firmly believe that in Year Three of Banks’ tenure you’ll see some of those gaping holes start to close a little bit. The last two years were the nightmare situation. It won’t be good this year, but it won’t be that.
SP: What’s more preferable: scraping out 6 wins and losing the Tucks Medicated Pads Bowl to Southwest New Mexico State, or paying Tim Beckman his base salary of $400,000 (at least) to not coach at Illinois next year?
Leitch: I know everyone’s tired of Beckman, but I’m curious why there’s this wide assumption that people will be dying to come here. This is a terrible job right now, and the main reason is that people have to keep starting over, like Beckman did, because of the person that came before. This is Beckman’s fourth year. He has improved every season. If he makes a Big Ten bowl this year, I consider that another improvement over last season, particularly since the schedule is tougher than last year. He will deserve it. (Assuming of course the accusations about setting players on fire and dousing them with hydochloric acid at practice aren’t true.) I want them to win and make a bowl because, you know, it’s more fun to root for your team than not to root for them. This isn’t hard. It feels sometimes like Illini fans would rather their team lose than win, like it would actually make them happier. It’s baffling to me.
SP: Which is more likely: Illinois gives Ohio State a good game or Simon Cvijanovic tweets "lol jk" and the athletic department is deemed not guilty of all accused transgressions?
Leitch: Let’s rank those:
- The athletic department is deemed not guilty.
- Donald Trump is elected President.
678,342,235,345. Illinois gives Ohio State a good game.
32,899,223,489,234. Cvijanovic tweet.
SP: Given their current proclivity for litigation, did the Illinois athletic department ever threaten you for copyright infringement for calling your column and book Life as a Loser?
Leitch: They’d have to find one of the six people who bought that book.
SP: In your travels covering sports have you ever come across anything as disgusting as the floor at Kam's? If so, did people continue to visit this spot without regard for their own personal hygiene as U of I students do?
Leitch: Here’s my dirty secret: I’ve never once stepped foot in Kam’s. I wasn’t in a fraternity in college, I spent most of my time working at the newspaper, and I was always far more comfortable smoking joints and hanging out in the basement with nitrous tanks and watching old Woody Allen movies than going to campus bars. I think I went to CO’s for a Time Warp Tuesday once but then got the hell out of there. Just wasn’t really my scene. I like my hats facing forwards.
SP: Would you rather never hear another person say the U of I is in southern Illinois or watch the Illini beat Wisconsin for homecoming this year?
Leitch: I am far too smug in my enjoyment of correcting people to not pick wanting Illinois to beat Wisconsin.
SP: What is the best lie you tell yourself to justify the university keeping the Chief around for so long (and presumably being a fan of the symbol as a kid)?
Leitch: Well, if you have no interest in the world outside what affects your life specifically — like I did as a kid, and many Chief supporters do now — then of course the Chief is fine. This isn’t something specific to Chief supporters: Everyone does this, from across the political spectrum. People claim they can look past themselves, but they can’t. Everyone just picks their little clique and sticks with it. If you disagree with me, you don’t have a point; you’re just wrong. It’s exhausting. Look around you. If you think the Chief is only about Champaign, Illinois, you are willfully living with blinders on. That’s something children do, not adults.
SP: Can I use this lie too?
Leitch: I wouldn’t recommend it.
SP: Finally, what’s your prediction for this season?
Leitch: Prediction: 7-5. And they win the bowl game. And I reserve the right to have Nick Denton delete this post when the season is over.
Illinois football kicks off the season on Friday, September 4, when the Illini host Kent State at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
Top image credit Bruce Thorson, USA TODAY Sports. Jihad Ward picture from FoxSports.com.