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Illinois athletics stuck in another time and another small-town place

If there were a metaphor for University of Illinois athletics, it would be a ghastly orange sport coat.

It’s the kind of blazer that Illini basketball coaches have periodically worn since Lou Henson made one famous in the 1970s and 1980s.

It looks so gooberish now, so Hebron High School circa 1952, that it’s a wonder Illinois can attract athletes who don’t track cow manure into locker rooms.

The coat does seem to play well downstate, however.

Sports-wise, U. of I. has always struck me as stubbornly, adamantly country in the face of so many Chicago-area students, causing the same sort of divide athletically that we see between Chicago and Springfield politically.

Many of the school’s hires are cut from the same orange cloth. Can someone tell me the difference between athletic director Mike Thomas, men’s basketball coach John Groce and former head football coach Tim Beckman, fired Friday?

You could see any of them working at a small high school in farm country.

You could see none of them working at a high school in Chicago.

This is a different world from the one Henson worked in, but Illinois continues to carry on as if it isn’t. Beckman’s dismissal for allegedly pressuring players to ignore medical advice and play with injuries is the most obvious example that times need to change in Champaign.

Having a big-time track record or – gasp! – having a familiarity with big-city ways should not be seen as a negative, but that seems to be the case when Illinois goes looking for coaches or administrators. I’m not talking skin color here. I’m talking worldview.

Maybe hiring someone who doesn’t play well in Peoria is the answer.