Bye Week Mailbag I

Oct 13, 2021

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Bye week feels like a good time for a mailbag. I think I'll maybe do four mailbag posts. For this mailbag, the questions come from our Slack channel (kind of our private message board for upper tier subscribers). This one will be football - maybe number two will be all basketball and then three is football and then four is basketball. We shall see.

To the questions:

Is there any way that BP can regain any semblance of confidence and competence? Do we ride Art the rest of the way or give the other kids a shot?

Also, any great new CU restaurants that you've discovered since moving back to town?


Confidence is the thing, right? Let me start with those 2020 stats I keep talking about.

After testing positive for Covid, Brandon Peters missed the Purdue and Minnesota games last season. Isaiah Williams also missed those games due to contact tracing. Williams could return for Rutgers (I believe he had to sit 14 days for contact tracing) while Peters could not return until Nebraska (I think the number was 21 days? Don't quote me on this). The point: Brandon Peters didn't return until the Nebraska game last season.

And when he returned he was as locked-in as we've ever seen him. 18-25 for 205 yards and a touchdown (plus a rushing touchdown) in that Nebraska game. He then started the next game against Iowa on the same heater. He was 8 for his first 8, two of them touchdown passes, and Illinois led Iowa 14-0. Yes, last season. Brandon Peters returns from Covid and hits on 26 of his first 33 passes with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Those 80 minutes of football included beating Nebraska 41-23 and then leading Iowa 14-0.

Then someone flipped the light switch off. 2-10 the remainder of the Iowa game (Iowa won 35-21). 3-14 for 21 yards in the Northwestern game. 0-4 in the Penn State game. He gets back from Covid, starts 26 for 33, and then finishes the season completing only 5 of his final 28 passes.

So yes, that would suggest that confidence might be an issue. It's not that he can't do it. We've seen him do it. We watched the four-game Big Ten winning streak in 2019. I was there for his 369 passing yards at Michigan State. We know it's in there.

He has simply been hot and cold his entire Illini career. And I'm not sure I've ever seen as crazy as 26 for 33 followed by 5 for 28. That's scalding and then freezing.

To me, that's the #1 goal for this bye week. Two weeks for him to find it. Because we need it.

As far as restaurants go, Covid has obviously made it extremely difficult. I don't think we even went out to eat for the first four months we were here. And then, obviously, last winter, we didn't go out to eat a single time. We have ordered in a fair bit, but that's not really "discovering a great new restaurant".

Maybe I'll answer this way. A few random discoveries.

  • There's a new Mexican restaurant next to Menards out by Marketplace. It used to be Niro's Gyros and now it's a Mexican restaurant. We've gone four times since it opened, not for the food (although it's solid) but for the guac. It's so freaking good. I don't know why I even order food. I should just have chips and guac for my entire meal.
  • For breakfast I have a new Favorite Breakfast Food In Town: the southwestern breakfast burrito at Aroma Cafe downtown Champaign. Aroma cafe moved inside Cowboy Monkey (it's Aroma Cafe for breakfast and lunch and then Cowboy Monkey starting at 4:00), so it was a little confusing at first ("am I eating Aroma Cafe food or Cowboy Monkey food?"). Wherever it comes from, that burrito is the goods.
  • Other than that, I don't think I've tried anything "new". Discoveries since I got here: Watson's Shack & Rail (Watson's White Chicken), Sun Singer for brunch (the Sun Singer Breakfast w/ hanger steak), and this sandwich shop in Urbana that a friend told me about called Baldarotta's (I had the porketta and if I can use my son's terminology... it was fire.)

Enough about food. Back to foodball. I accidentally typed "foodball" but I'm going to leave it.

Can Beilema pull an Underwood and make the necessary adjustments year to year to coaching/personal/development to see success?


I think so. Basketball and football are completely different animals but the framework you're suggesting is mostly all the same. Turn the coaching knob, the personnel knob, and the player development knob until everything looks right.

For Underwood, the Year Two overhaul was the key moment, I think. After one season, a complete and total overhaul. Gone were Mark Smith, Leron Black, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Michael Finke, Greg Eboigbodin, Matic Vesel, and Te'Jon Lucas. The only players returning for Year Two: Trent Frazier, Da'Monte Williams, Kipper Nichols, and Aaron Jordan. He then took that core, added the players he wanted, and built a one-seed by the end of Year Four.

And it all hinged on that win at Wisconsin in early 2020. Underwood's record at Illinois before that game: 36-44. Brad Underwood's record since that win at Wisconsin: 35-12.

Which reminds me of something I wrote at the time. Remember my "Illinois football coaches should get 5 full years to turn it around while Illinois basketball coaches should get 2.5 years to turn it around" thing? I wrote about that a lot when we were 9-5 in early January of 2020, losing at Michigan State by 20. Let's go dig that up, shall we?

Oooh boy, it's juicer than I thought. I wrote this after the MSU loss to move Underwood to 35-44 in 2.5 seasons at Illinois:

After giving John Groce the injury excuses for the 2015/16 season, I swore I would never stray from my original statement. Because of the history of the programs, football coaches at Illinois should be given five full years to see what they can produce and, also because of the history of the program and the resources available, Illinois basketball coaches should be given 2.5 years. See what the third recruiting class looks like, see what the third team looks like mid-January of their third season.

It's January of the third season, we have Kofi, we have Ayo, we have Giorgi, we have Trent, we have Andres, and we have Alan Griffin.... and we're 9-5 and didn't win any of our important non-conference games. Teams that should be well below us given where they were last year and the players they lost - Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State, Indiana - look better than us so far. If we lose on Sunday, we'll be 9-6 and will probably need an 11-5 finish to dance. Half of those games will be on the road, and we only won once on the road last year and once on the road the year before, so... can you really see us winning 3-4 road games?

This is a crisis. We're in big, big trouble. We can't shoot - THREE HUNDRED THIRTY FIRST NATIONALLY - and if we don't start at least hitting an average number of threes, there's absolutely no chance we roll off 11 more Big Ten wins. Which means we will miss the Tournament for the seventh straight year.

I haven't checked KenPom's projections yet (his prediction for our record). Let's do that together, shall we? KenPom says we will finish the season... 17-14. I don't think that's even in the NIT. How is this even happening? We're really going to sit home in March again?

I guess there's always a chance for a Wisconsin moment. I said these same things after the Eastern Michigan loss for the football team. I went on the radio and talked about how I was like that guy pinning everything on the wall and running red strings from page to page, trying to figure out what he missed at training camp. I was certain there was 7-5 talent on that team, and I couldn't understand how that talent lost to Eastern Michigan. Well, that talent then went on a run, beat #6, drilled Purdue, thumped Rutgers, and put together the largest comeback in school history at Michigan State. So it's possible we'll see the basketball team do the same. The Illinois basketball equivalent of Illini football rolling off four consecutive Big Ten wins is something like 9 straight wins, right? Maybe this basketball team wins nine straight some time soon?

I mean, it has to, right? For our sanity? We're all going to break soon, right? I think I'm going to break soon.

From my keyboard to God's ears. Immediately after that post we won seven straight (including that big win at Wisconsin and the Ayo game-winner at Michigan). We all, uh, didn't "break".

So now let's apply that to football. I don't think it will happen as quickly (although with the transfer portal I probably no longer believe in "five full years" - more like four), but it's probably going to be somewhat similar. There are 52 players on this team who are either super seniors, fourth-year juniors, or fourth-year sophomores. We might see... 40 of them depart? This football offseason will feel a lot like that Mark Smith to Missouri/Michael Finke to Grand Canyon/Leron Black leaving early to turn professional/Te'Jon Lucas to Milwaukee offseason back in the spring of 2018. There's a massive overhaul coming.

Perhaps, with the portal, Bret Bielema will be able to do exactly what Underwood did. Keep the players he wants to build a culture around. Bring in a maximum number of newcomers (32 players, which might be something like 20 high-schoolers and 12 transfers). Suffer through a season of trying to put it all together. And then, maybe mid-2023, I'll write a post about nearing a breaking point and then we'll roll off seven straight.


If there was one decision made about the football program that might have changed the course of the last 30 years (coach/AD hires, recruiting, facilities, etc) what was it and how would things be different today?

~Illini Fan Dan

I don't think there's any way to point to anything other than the hire of Lou Tepper. I mean, give this data to a classroom of fourth graders and ask them to find the moment where things start to go wrong:

Mike White: 47-41-3
John Mackovic: 30-16-1
Lou Tepper: 25-31-2
Ron Turner: 35-57
Ron Zook: 34-51
Tim Beckman: 12-25
Lovie Smith: 17-39

And even though the fourth graders landed on the right answer, that still doesn't tell the story. Mackovic left Tepper with a machine. A defensive roster with Howard, Holocek, and Hardy plus Simeon Rice in the signing class. At the end of five years, Illinois was mired in the middle of an 18-game losing streak. Third or fourth-best roster in the Big Ten when Tepper took over, worst roster in the Big Ten when Tepper left.

I think it has to be that simple. I think I need to show the AP Poll heading into November in 1990 again:

Yes, that's the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. #5 in the polls on October 30th, 1990. We would then lose to #13 Iowa and drop, finishing with a bowl loss and a #25 ranking in the final poll, but the point is that John Mackovic had the program finishing 10th in the final 1989 poll and then 25th in the final 1990 poll (after climbing as high as 5th, beating eventual national champion Colorado).

That poll was October 30, 1990. Lou Tepper took over the program 13 months later. From the 1996 season (Tepper's last) to the 1998 season, Illinois lost 18 consecutive games.

I just don't think there can be any answer other than that.


accy88 on October 13, 2021 @ 05:09 PM

Robert, you absolutely nailed it. Lou Tepper was the worst coach in the history of Illinois football. And that is beating out Moeller, who I thought could never be challenged for worst coach ever. And that is why Tepper is called Coach Death Penalty.

Joe Edge on October 14, 2021 @ 02:38 PM

Not sure I could EVER get on board with Moeller NOT being THE worst... But Tepper is certainly comes in a solid second....

larue on October 13, 2021 @ 06:15 PM

Yes, that was a huge missed opportunity. We were losing a coach to a better program, we were winning, we had no NCAA issues, perfectly positioned to make a great hire and keep it rolling. Unfortunately, Mackovic was also the AD, so we had nobody to make the hire when he left.

dee4three on October 13, 2021 @ 06:50 PM

Anyone remember who the other candidates were when Tepper was hired? Did they interview coaches who turned out to be great and pass on them, or did they not even manage to interview the best candidates at the time?

IlliNYC on October 13, 2021 @ 08:20 PM

I’d love to know this.

Dman68 on October 13, 2021 @ 11:34 PM

I can be corrected if I am wrong, but since we had no permanent AD at the time, Chancellor Morton Weir made the decision to promote from within and named Tepper the head coach.

Illinimac68 on October 14, 2021 @ 08:16 AM

I can't say positively from my recollection of 30+ years but I'm pretty sure there was no search. Remember that Tepper was head coach for the Sun Bowl, not just interim.

Dan Allen on October 13, 2021 @ 07:03 PM

Great answer, Robert, and thanks for doing the mailbag. My first game with a mini-season ticket (which I upgraded to full season tix the next season) was Tepper’s first as head coach. I remember how excited everyone was that first game as Lou led the team in a sprint out of the tunnel onto the field. The 1994 Penn State game was one of the all-time great college football environments I have been in. By the end of Lou’s last season we were awful, the stands were empty, and we’ve never really recovered in any sustainable way. Totally agree with your answer. I also had forgotten Mackovic was also the AD-thanks to Larue for that good point!

Nabor568 on October 13, 2021 @ 08:06 PM

Trying to imaging the scenario where we are playing Auburn and it’s competitive……..can’t do it….

The Olaf Rules on October 13, 2021 @ 11:30 PM

I’ll go one better with the decision that commenced Tepper’s fall into the abyss: firing his OC Greg Landry the day after Chris Redman, the top QB prospect in the country, signed his LOI to the Illini.

Lou “Let them score” Tepper is the worst Illini hire of my lifetime, and second place is not remotely close.

Douglascountyillinifan on October 14, 2021 @ 09:09 AM

Tepper cut Landry loose because there was smoke that Landry had applied for the Louisville gig and promised his dad a job if Redman came with him, as I recall. Any O.G.'s around that can verify?

Dan Allen on October 14, 2021 @ 07:21 PM

I recall the same rumor but no idea if it is true.

learningandlabor on October 14, 2021 @ 10:33 AM

To pile on Tepper... The thing for me that made it the most frustrating of all was that we were an offensive minded QB school. That was our brand. Our identity. 4 QBs in the NFL through White and Mac. And Tepper consciously destroyed that. He said nope that won't be us any more, and overhauled the offensive scheme and identity of what at that time was a very successful program. Inexcusable. And the rest is history.

Duce20 on October 18, 2021 @ 01:36 AM

If you haven’t been to Huraches in Urbana I don’t know what to tell you.

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