Illinois: team of the 2020s? Lovie Smith says Illini have ‘caught’ Wisconsin, all others in West

Smith: “We feel like we’re there now. We plan on beating everyone and eventually being the champion of this league.”

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Wisconsin v Illinois

Josh Imatorbhebhe (9) and the Illini celebrate a fourth-quarter touchdown during their 24-23 upset of Wisconsin.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

When Illinois fired Ron Zook with only a bottom-rung bowl game left on the schedule in 2011, it made decent enough sense. The Illini had gone 6-10 in Big Ten play and hovered around .500 overall during the first two years of the new decade. That wasn’t really cutting it.

What then-athletic director Mike Thomas failed to foresee was, of course, that Illini football would tumble into utter darkness from there. Thomas’ own misguided leadership was just the beginning of that tragic story. The man he tabbed to replace Zook, sitcom PE coach Tim Beckman, was a colossal disaster.

By the time Beckman finished embarrassing himself in Champaign, the Illini were well on their way to their worst decade, by Big Ten record, in their long history in the conference. They finished the woeful 2010s at 20-64 (.313). Only impossibly terrible Rutgers (7-45, .135) envies that sorry success rate.

Lovie Smith must wear his share of the dubious mark; the Illini are 8-28 (.222) on the fourth-year coach’s watch. But at least the arrow is pointed up, with the team at 6-6 heading into the Dec. 30 Redbox Bowl against California.

After that? A new decade beckons. Call it something of a clean slate.

“We finished off one decade with the program trending in the right direction,” Smith said. “How do we see the next decade? There’s a different day here with Illinois football.”

And let there be no mistaking where Smith believes his program is at right now. Still chasing Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue in the West division? Nope.

“We’ve caught them,” he said.

As in, as strong as any of them heading into 2020?

“Absolutely,” he said. “Now, it’s about us competing. We’re not running from what our record was the last decade. Illinois had been down a long period of time. But as far as catching teams in our division that have traditionally been very good, we feel like we’re there now. We plan on beating everyone and eventually being the champion of this league.”

If the Illini really have gained that much ground in the West, they had a funny way of showing it when they were trounced at home on the last Saturday of November by the worst Northwestern team of the Pat Fitzgerald era.

But back to that clean slate: The Illini will get the chance to back up Smith’s claims no matter how premature they might sound. With Smith, 61, under contract through 2023, he could have his hands on a good bit of what the Illini accomplish in the decade to come. Maybe, with a bit of sustained success and another contract extension, he’ll be around for most of it.

“All our good football is ahead of us,” Smith said.

Illini Nation will eagerly hold him to it.

JUST SAYIN’

We can’t talk dark decades at Illinois without a nod to the basketball program, can we? The Illini haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013. The 2010s give the 1970s a real run for their money in terms of Illini irrelevance.

On the other hand:Kofi Cockburn.

That should be Illini fans’ answer to pretty much every question.

How goes it?

“Kofi Cockburn.”

Where’ve you been the past several Marches?

“Kofi Cockburn.”

Can you point me to the nearest post office?

“Kofi Cockburn.”

The freshman 7-footer rolls out of bed with 15 points and 10 rebounds. He’s easily the best Illini post man sinceDeon Thomascame on the scene nearly 30 years ago. Only Coburn’s ceiling is higher — much higher — than the 6-9 Thomas’ was.

Any chance Cockburn graces the Illini with his presence for more than one season?

Now there’s a question that’s going to require a real answer.

Mitch Trubisky-led Chiefs vs.Patrick Mahomes-led Bears:

Discuss.

Unless imagining that scenario makes you want to sob in your latte, in which case: Never mind.

• Since we’re beating this whole “decade” thing to a pulp and all …

Just think of how exciting the Blackhawks were this time in 2010. They were young, spectacularly talented, bursting with mojo and on an odd-man rush to their first of three Stanley Cup titles.

Now they’re the most hopeless team in town, aren’t they? DefensemanBrent Seabrookis past the point of no return.Jonathan Toewsis searching for an acceptable level of production. CoachJeremy Colliton is busy figuring out his next wave of sweeping, inconsequential line changes. The young guys are drowning in responsibilities they can’t handle.

The Hawks will end the decade out of the playoff mix again and without a single postseason series win since they last hoisted the Cup in 2015.

So they’ve got that going for them, which is, well, not so nice. But we’d all sign up for a decade like this one a million times over.

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