The Illini Nation is in turmoil. A bitter division has arisen regarding the direction of the football team and who best to lead. Bitter partisanship reins on both sides of the Zook question. Many put the failures of the Nation on his head solely, while others fervently believe the problems arise not from the top, but from the bottom, specifically the players and their execution or lack thereof. On this question, the words of the greatest Illinoisan ring true:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. …Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
The words of Abraham Lincoln, directed to the nation in the midst of the Civil War at the time of his second inauguration, provide both illumination and perspective. On the perspective front, anyone who considers the current state of the Illinois football program to be of even semi-serious concern to the University at large needs to (sorry, mom) get their head out of their ass. It is worth noting that The University of Illinois was established a scant three years after the assassination of the aforementioned Illinoisan. It has survived, and will survive, far greater challenges. Its primary mission, and its primary successes and failures, will forever lie far from athletic fields.
Following the Senior Day loss to Wisconsin, some in the locker room turned their thoughts to the larger questions as well.
In the post-game interviews following the loss to Wisconsin, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning spoke poignantly to this point. Though it doesn’t frequently make the papers, Mr. Koenning often invokes Biblical guidance in discussing the football game, and not in a distasteful “I want to thank Jesus for the win” kind of way. Koenning’s references are always in the vein of “we need to make sure we are doing the right thing as people, not just football players, and keeping things in perspective.” To anyone who has ever participated in these colloquies, there is no question that Mr. Koenning’s is a deep and abiding faith, and one that provides much-needed perspective for a man who makes his living helping college students to play a game.
So, in discussing Senior Day and the makeup of the Illlinois coaching staff, Koenning referenced the most humbling passages of the Good Book: “The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11) Mr. Koenning spoke of how he felt that his job, his calling, was service to his players, to inspire and lead in humility, and to hopefully teach those young men to become humble sevants and leaders themselves. He spoke at length of the pride he had in the number of players that had gone on, not to become professional players, but to become coaches themselves at the high school and college levels. He spoke also of how proud he was of the development and maturation of Trulon Henry over the course of the time after Henry joined the Illinois roster, and even over the last year, after his serious legal troubles were behind him. Koenning explicitly noted that, while successes and failures on the football field were important, these larger goals were the true measures of success, for the coaches and the players.
Make no mistake: Illinois football is presently a house divided, separate and apart from the divisive issue of the tenure of the coaching staff. After the disappointing loss to Wisconsin, Ron Zook described the game as “a tale of two halves.” Despite his rampant unpopularity, there can be no serious dispute on Zook’s contention. In an odd reversal of the previous four games, the Illini came out and showed a lot of offensive rhythm in the first half, taking a 17 to 7 lead into halftime. Illinois played with fire and had their feet under them immediately. This was the team that we all remembered from the “six” portion of the “six and four” that made up our team’s record prior to this game.
As the game turned out, this was a curse.
The game was merely an inversion, not a reversal. The offense sputtered in the second half. The defense did an outstanding job with what they were given against an outstanding Wisconsin offense, but turnovers and special teams lapses left the defense ultimately unable to hold their opponent to few enough points. The story is out of order, but the ending is ultimately the same.
The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself …. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
The reason this game was a bitter tonic was the fact that before we saw what was to be, we saw what might have been. Had Illinois never truly got going at any point in the game, never contended, never led, this game would have been much more palatable for the faithful. It would have been easy to chalk the loss up as a genuine defeat at the hands of a superior foe. There is no question that Wisconsin is an excellent football team composed of stellar athletes. Truly, there is no shame in losing to Wisconsin.
But Illinois went out in the first half and showed us all that they could beat Wisconsin. And then lost to them anyway. In this way, the game provided a pretty tidy encapsulation of the season. A great start, a display of aptitude that surprised all but the most hardcore of doubters, and then a heatbreaking fall.
It stung not because it was unexpected, but because it was.
And the game provided an encapsulation of Zook’s tenure. Far from a one sided question, there was much fodder for both sides. And so, the fight in and amongst the Illini Nation regarding the future of its leader rages on.
Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.
Please don’t misunderstand. In no way do I mean to imply that those who call for Mr. Zook’s ouster are supporters of slavery, or analogous thereto. Nor do I, in any way, wish to imply that the questions presently facing the Illinois football program are in any way even comparable in magnitude to the questions implicated by the Civil War. Quite the opposite. I mean only to encourage us all, as we deal with the small questions of the present, to look to the great questions of the past for perspective, for guidance in our grappling. With that said: take us out, Mr. Lincoln.
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have born the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.