ST. LOUIS -- Missouri and Illinois open the football season against each other here Saturday (ESPN2, 3:30 p.m. ET), a neutral-field game called the Arch Rivalry.That's clever, given the most famous local landmark, and it's wise not to recycle the moniker of the annual basketball game between the two in the same border city. That one is called the Braggin' Rights game. There is very little braggin' to do at the football intersection of Missouri and Illinois. Laggin' behind their conference peers? Yes. Saggin' beneath the weight of unfulfilled promise? Definitely. Braggin'? Not so much. There is a temptation to boast on both sides of the Mississippi River this year. The two programs are flush with August optimism: Missouri picked to win its division of the Big 12; Illinois armed with one of the nation's most decorated freshman classes. But braggarts beware: History is full of lessons in humiliation. If you want to find the most disappointing programs in recent times, the Tigers and Illini are a great place to start. This weekend, St. Louis is the epicenter of underachievement, hosting the two schools that arguably have done less with their inherent gifts than any others.
|It's not easy to quantify underachievement but you know it when you see it. Which other schools are underachieving in Pat Forde's eyes? He looks at the Division I-A teams falling short of expectations -- from the "high-end" programs to the lost causes. Story|
It's Fan Day in Champaign, and the mid-August air is thick enough to chew. With rain threatening, Illinois has moved its annual meet-and-greet festivities out of Memorial Stadium and into its vast (but non-air-conditioned) indoor facility.The atmosphere is uncomfortable. The fans are undeterred. About 2,000 of them drip sweat while patiently waiting to get posters, shirts, hats, footballs and even shoes signed by the Illini players and coaches. Judging from the vibe in the place, you would estimate the distance between 2-10 and 10-2 is mere inches. "There's been a lot of highs and lows -- more lows than highs," says superfan Bill Pinkstaff, a practice regular who says he's missed only six Illinois football games in the last 40 years. "But right now, we're just so much more athletic than we have been in the past. I'd be very, very, very happy to go to any bowl game. And next year, I honestly believe, the sky's the limit." "Every client that comes in the door wants to talk Illinois football," says local State Farm insurance agent Kurt Lenschow. "There's more excitement now than in the six years I've been here. If the line comes through, we could be the surprise of the Big Ten. But I'm a Cubs fan, too. That might explain it." That's one explanation. Here's another: These are the hard-core fans, people willing to perspire for a couple hours just to get autographs from a group of guys who last year couldn't beat Ohio (U., not State). They always see greatness and glory lurking around every corner. But consider: Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber has been roasted in the wake of a 23-win season, largely for failing to recruit well off the Illini's 2005 Final Four run. Meanwhile, the Zooker -- 4-19 but killing it on the recruiting trail -- is bathing in praise. "They think he's the magic man," says Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate, who has covered the Illini for 40 years. Just goes to show the difference in popular perspective on the two programs -- and the power of futures trading. Illinois football has beaten the expectation level down so far that 6-6 might spark a parade, and everyone loves talking about the next wave of talent coming in. "Give Zook a chance and he'll out-recruit any of them," says longtime fan Ed Ross. And that's what it boils down to for a lot of these Illinois fans. There have been bad coaches at Illinois through the years, but mostly there has been bad recruiting. That's why Zook is here: to do what Turner failed to do, which is to bring in the talent. Specifically, the Chicago-area talent. For years, many of the top Chicago prospects have been poached by Notre Dame, Michigan, Wisconsin and even Iowa. The region was a veritable swinging gate, always open to outsiders. "It goes back to an inability to successfully recruit the Chicago area," Tate says. "We don't have an area we dominate. Every now and then Illinois drops out of the blue and wins, like 2001, and it doesn't pay off in recruiting." To some, that's less the Illini's fault than it is a fact of life. "There's not that sense in Chicago that Illinois is the state school," says Matt Snyder, uncle of Illinois linebacker Brit Miller. "You go up north of I-80, they look at Illinois as that cow-pasture school downstate." Zook was brought in to change all that. His first big breakthrough in the Chicago area is the current Illini starting quarterback, Isaiah "Juice" Williams, a gloriously athletic sophomore who is nowhere near his listed height of 6-foot-2. What Juice lacks in height he makes up for in arm strength, foot speed and confidence. And it took a healthy dose of self-confidence to believe going to Illinois wasn't a career dead end. "I got those questions [about going to Illinois] a lot," Juice says. "Illinois wasn't the winningest program at the time. People felt I should go to a program that's already established." But what Illinois had to offer was immediate playing time. Even while completing just 39.5 percent of his passes last year, Williams showed enough potential that he has become the one indispensable member of the Illini. But the real fireworks started when Zook followed up a strong first class with a dynamite second one. When he beat Notre Dame for the consensus No. 1 wide receiver in the nation out of Washington, D.C., Arrelious Benn, rivals began loudly wondering how that could be. Putting it bluntly, some schools suggested Illinois was cheating. Illinois, which has been cited for major NCAA rules violations five times in the football program since 1967, strongly objected to those suggestions last winter. "The negative recruiting, you know it's going to happen," Zook says. "I just chuckle, because you know you've got 'em on the run. It got a little out of hand last year, because people couldn't understand why. They don't see what we've got to offer here. "People asked these kids, 'Why would you go to Illinois?' As Martez [Wilson, a prep All-American defensive recruit] said, 'Well, why not?'" Which is what the current Illinois players want to know: Why not us, why not now? Fifth-year senior receiver Frank Lenti went to Champaign out of the Chicago area five years ago, the son of a hugely successful high school coach. When he was a high school junior, he watched Illinois go to the Sugar Bowl and figured those days would continue during his college career. "We thought we were going to four bowl games, and we're going to win the Big Ten at least once," Lenti says. "The guys here right now are sitting on eight wins in four years. We're just shocked at how it's turned out. Not what we envisioned. "When we came in, all the rivalry trophies were in this case [in the players' lounge]. The case isn't even the room anymore. Now they show us a Styrofoam replica of the trophy, because we don't have any of them." Almost plaintively, Lenti says, "We haven't even beaten Northwestern." That pretty well says it all about Illinois' recent fortunes. When you're 0-4 against Northwestern, and only one of those losses was by single digits, you've flagrantly underachieved.
It's 5 o'clock somewhere, but not quite yet in Columbia, Mo. Still, there are a few men leaning their forearms on the oak bar at Harpo's, drinking their Busch products (like dutiful Missourians do) and talking about the Tigers.The outlook is bullish, as it is most everywhere in August. But in no time at all, these 50-somethings have backpedaled from talking about the current team to rhapsodizing about the heyday Tigers of the 1960s. Those Dan Devine-coached teams racked up several Big Eight championships. Then Devine went pro to coach the Packers, and Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne entered into shared hegemony of the league. Missouri football might as well have been cryogenically frozen in time. A day later, you sit down with Mizzou athletic director Mike Alden and figure it out: The men at Harpo's are the sentimentalists who have helped make the modernization of Missouri sports such an arduous task. "For 20 years, people weren't on the same page," Alden says. "They thought you could roll out the ball and be successful, like this was the 1960s. While they were talking, they were doing nothing, and everyone else was doing something. "When we joined the Big 12 10 years ago, I don't think we had a clue at all what it would take to compete at this level." It's still fair to question how much of a competitive clue Missouri has. The school has won exactly one Big 12 team championship, in softball. It certainly has not come close to winning one in football. But part of that is attributable to a mind-set that the Devine days could be easily recaptured. That mind-set helped lead to the late 1970s firing of Al Onofrio, who shocked USC and Alabama and Nebraska and Notre Dame but couldn't beat hated rival Kansas. That mind-set helped lead to the 1984 firing of Warren Powers, who made the fatal mistake of following six straight winning seasons with a 3-7-1 stumble. And that mind-set led to an absolute quagmire post-Powers: 12 straight losing seasons under three different coaches, followed by a two-year burst of bowl eligibility under Larry Smith, then a relapse. (It should be noted that during this plague Missouri also was the unluckiest school in the country. Twice it was the victim of fluketastically enabled national title runs: the fifth-down play for Colorado in 1990, and the kicked pass for a touchdown by Nebraska in 1997. Combine those events with UCLA guard Tyus Edney's full-court drive in the 1995 NCAA Tournament versus the Tigers, and it was quite a decade for utterly inexplicable losses to future champions.) The new Mizzou began snapping itself out of its 1960s reverie under athletic director Joe Castiglione, but he left for Oklahoma before all the pieces were in place. Now it's up to Alden to finish the job -- and to drag the old guard into the present. Along the way he hired Pinkel, who took over a defeated program with outdated facilities and outdated fan expectations. "What Gary inherited was a program that had never really gotten any traction," Alden says. "He had to pretty much rebuild the program. That included shoring up the recruiting borders of the state, restoring discipline and improving academics. What we're seeing over the course of his six years, going into year seven, he's begun to gain traction in a consistent manner." The quality of the most recent facilities is unassailable -- the Tigers now have everything a coach can ask for to dazzle teenage recruits. But the quality of the traction gained under Pinkel remains debatable. There have been losses to Bowling Green (twice) and Troy. There is a current eight-game losing streak against ranked opponents. And there is the previously mentioned lack of a winning Big 12 record in any season. In four years of quarterbacking from record-smashing Brad Smith, the Tigers barely broke .500. Last year might have been the make-good year for Pinkel, as quarterback Chase Daniel took over for Smith and performed brilliantly on a surprise 8-5 team. Now Daniel is back, along with all the top rushers and receivers and three-fifths of the starting offensive line. The question is a defense that lost five of its top seven tacklers and is expected to face Illinois without its top cover corner, Hardy Ricks. But with Nebraska coming to Columbia in October, there is reason to believe that this will be the year Mizzou breaks through and wins the North. That was the preseason media pick, and that's OK with Pinkel. "I would love it if everyone picked us every year," he says. "That means they respect you. Maybe we're earning a little respect." Respect still seems to come in small doses at Missouri, even on the recruiting trail. Of Scouts Inc.'s top six committed players from Missouri for the Class of 2008, five are ticketed for out-of-state schools. Just as Illinois has had trouble shutting down Chicago to outside recruiters, Mizzou has struggled to lock up its biggest cities. At least Pinkel has compensated decently in other locales. "Half our team is from Texas," says Texan Daniel, who was under-recruited by the big schools in his home state. Daniel was snubbed by the Longhorns, Aggies and Red Raiders because he's not quite his listed 6 feet. Which means two dynamic quarterbacks will be engaging in small ball Saturday in St. Louis. Neither Williams nor Daniel measures up to his listed stature, which is fitting for their teams in general. Neither Missouri nor Illinois is as big and successful as you'd expect. Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
Photos credits: Scott Boehm/Getty Images; AP Photo; Jeff Gross/Getty Images; Ronald Martinez/Getty Images; Mark Cowan/Icon SMI; AP Photo/Red McLendon; L.G. Patterson/AP Photo; Travis Mathews/Icon SMI