Smile Politely

F this team: Middle Tennessee

Steve Layman is like many of us reading this: born into Illini fandom by geography. However, Layman might be a little crazier than the rest of us, because he still follows Illinois football passionately despite living nearly 400 miles away. Layman is currently a sports anchor at Nashville’s Newschannel 5 WTVF, where he gets the opportunity to cover real football — the Tennessee Titans and the SEC, in particular. After getting his start as a co-host of Sports Talk on WDWS and doing play-by-play beginning his freshman year of college, we can’t really blame Layman for keeping up with the Illini, though. We’re thankful he took time from reporting on teams that matter to answer our serious questions.

Smile Politely: You began your career closely following Illinois football, and now you’re paid to watch Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee and the Tennessee Titans; has the pervasive mediocrity of these teams seeped into your everyday life?

Steve Layman: I think mediocre football seeped into my life sometime early in the Lou Tepper era, so nothing I’ve seen in Tennessee has made me any more mediocre as a sportscaster or a man. That said, mediocrity leaves a mark. Last season, the Titans, Tennessee Vols, and Vanderbilt combined to start 10 different quarterbacks. It was apparently so bad that each team’s initial starting QB (Jake Locker, Justin Worley, and Patton Robinette) retired at the end of the year. Brent Stockstill beat out Austin Grammer for Middle Tennessee’s starting job this season, so God bless that poor kid’s future.

SP: You were able to view the entire Tim Beckman era from a distance, did that allow you to feel better about following Illini football or did you feel a sense of loss that you couldn’t experience the gallows humor of Beckman’s tenure up close? 

Layman: I didn’t know you had to be in close proximity to appreciate a good dip or your coach getting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for being run over by a ref on the sideline. Honestly, the best part about living in the south is all people know or respect is SEC football. People just think of Illinois as the place Ron Zook was banished to after Florida. Just last year I was talking to someone who said, “Illinois? Ron Zook! That Rose Bowl team was so good. I knew he’d be good for you guys for a long time.” By the way, can we have Zook back?

SP: The word “free” in the middle of Murfreesboro seems suspicious, like something a bunch of Russian spies would use to name their town full of sleeper cells to throw off any suspicious neighbors. Can you assure us that Murfreesboro is not actually trying to turn us all into communists?

Layman: I’m not aware of any sleeper cells. Murfreesboro is named for Revolutionary War hero Hardy Murfree, so it seems at least initially it was pro-America. Although, Money Magazine named it the 84th best place to live in America, which makes it exactly the type of place they could stage the next season of “The Americans”. So, I guess you never know.

SP: Why “Blue” Raiders? Were decision makers at Middle Tennessee really into that Eiffel 65 song in the ‘90s?

Layman: I don’t know much about Eiffel 65, but I do know Blue Raiders is an upgrade. Up until 1934, Middle Tennessee teams went by the nicknames “Normalites” or “Teachers.” Can you imagine the in-game trash talk? “Who’s the teacher now?” or, “I’m about to learn you some stuff, Normalite.” Not surprisingly, one of Middle Tennessee’s own players coined the nickname Blue Raiders after that, and we continue to oblige them by using it in sportscasts and printing it in independent community magazines nationwide.

SP: Rick Stockstill’s record across 9+ seasons is 58-56. Why hasn’t Illinois hired him? We’d kill for that kind of winning.

Layman: Well, he’s never been in the MAC, so I can’t imagine Mike Thomas would even consider him as coach. Stockstill is a fine man, with a good record for a non-power five school, and even has a son that can play quarterback. That makes him exactly the type of guy that would be a perfect candidate for a job somewhere else.

SP: Brent Stockstill had a career game last week against Charlotte, but since he’s the coach’s son can we just chalk that up to dad drawing up plays designed to boost his stats?

Layman: I think that audibled pass play in the second half makes your assumption safe. Frankly, I think the real plan to pad Brent’s stats started when Conference USA invited Charlotte into the league in football. They make Kent State and Western Illinois look like ferocious competition. Which, by the way, why is Illinois playing teams like North Carolina, Washington, and Arizona State in its non-conference schedule? If you’re trying to build a program, you start by winning the non-conference schedule to build confidence and make it easier to make a bowl. Illinois brags about how hard it’s non-conference strength of schedule over the past decade has been. With only one regular season with more than six wins in that time, I don’t view that as a badge of honor exactly.

SP: Running backs Jordan Park and Desmond Anderson also had big games against Charlotte, but the Blue Raiders running game was basically shut out against ‘Bama. So how long into the game this week before Mason Monehim and Jihad Ward literally eat a running back?

Layman: I’m sorry, did you just put Alabama and Mason Monheim in the same question to me? Okay, I haven’t seen where Monheim and Ward rank on Mel Kiper’s Big Board this week [Ed. note: Kiper’s board requires some money, but CBS has Ward #269 and Monheim #415], but I would imagine if either one of them actually eats a running back they will be first rounders by next week.

SP: Better barbecue: Black Dog or any place in Nashville? Follow-up: Why does Black Dog being the best mean Illinois will win this football game?

Layman: Nashville is loaded with good barbecue like Martin’s, Peg Leg Porker, and Edley’s. But, if I could only have one meal, I’m going burnt ends from Black Dog. I would think that type of smokey, high-quality protein would give Illinois a considerable advantage on gameday. However, the last mid-Tennessee team I covered to play at Illinois was the Vanderbilt baseball team. They followed my tips and only dined on Black Dog and Papa Del’s, and we all know how that series turned out [Ed. note: sad face]. Although, I like to think that’s because Vandy had three of the top 20 picks in the Major League Baseball Draft on their team and not because I’m some sort of a C-U food traitor.

SP: The 73 points MTSU scored last week are second highest in school history. What are the odds Illinois holds them to second fewest this week?

Layman: I would set odds at about 1:2 that Middle Tennessee will score between those two numbers. The Blue Raiders are not as good as North Carolina, but they are considerably better than Illinois’ first two home opponents. It’s a bit of a scary sandwich game–you got me thinking Black Dog–between a loss and the start of Big Ten play, but if the Illini avoid the costly mistakes they had in Chapel Hill, they shouldn’t have an issue getting to 3-1. Cube-It. Is that a t-shirt yet at Gameday Spirit? Chris, you’ve got to get this done for me if not.

Illinois hosts Middle Tennessee this Saturday, with kick-off scheduled for 3 pm. If you can’t get out to Memorial Stadium, the game will be televised on ESPN News. You can also follow our guest on Twitter, @stevelayman. Top photo credit: Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images. Stockstill image: AP Photo/Rich Addicks. 

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