Entering into the 2020s, I am frustrated by the futility of the three sports teams that I actively follow and openly cheer for. The Dallas Cowboys and Illinois Fighting Illini Men’s Basketball and Football teams have literally wasted a decade of my life. No matter how you look at any of these three teams, the 2010s were a dismal failure. Sadly, the leadership of both the Cowboys front office and the Fighting Illini athletic department have been case studies for the negative things that happen when you hire poorly.
The Dallas Cowboys - Missing Decade
The Cowboys started 2010 with Wade Phillips in his fourth year as head coach of the Cowboys. Phillips followed coaching legend Bill Parcells, who left the club in 2006 after tiring of dealing with Jerry Jones in his role as Owner/General Manager (GM). Jason Garrett, the long-time Cowboys backup quarterback to Troy Aikman took over after a poor start in 2010. Garrett was the Cowboy Offensive Coordinator and was a very hot commodity at the time. The team responded to Garrett and finished 5-3 to close out a 6-10 season.
Garrett then proceeded lead the team to three straight finishes at 8-8. Not only was he was unable to get the team above .500, but they were unable to win the division during a very weak era in the traditionally powerful NFC East. To make matters worse, the Cowboys lost the last game of each season to a division rival. These losses prevented the Cowboys from winning the NFC East and the team missed the playoffs each year. Despite being the epitome of the nickname “Even Steven” – the term Kramer used to describe Jerry on the Seinfeld show (Season 5, Episode 22 – The Opposite). Jerry earned the moniker “Even Steven” because while everyone else’s life would go up or down, Jerry’s would always end up remaining the same. Over a decade later, Jerry Jones would hitch his coaching wagon to the coaching equivalent of “Even Steven” in head coach Jason Garrett. Garrett’s teams had only 3 double digit win seasons in 10 years and only managed a 2-3 record in a paltry 3 playoff appearances in the decade. Garrett isn’t a bad coach, he’s just not a good one, either. At the end of the decade, nothing has changed for the Cowboys. They’re still mediocre.
For historical perspective, let’s take a look at Cowboy performance by decade since the 70s. Full transparency alert: this decade was selected because I was born in 1967. Since the 1970s are the first decade that I can remember, that’s where we’re starting. I realize this is arbitrary and admittedly self-centered, but it’s one of the advantages of being the person writing the article.
This chart does nothing other than to clearly identify the fact that the Cowboys have been the picture of mediocrity since the end of the 1996. If one wants to pick one moment in time that the Cowboys have never recovered from, it was Michael Irvin’s injury in the 1996 playoffs. Since that upset loss to the Panthers, the team hasn’t been anything more than average.
Jerry Jones is the GM of the team and he has put his own ego in front of hiring and retaining great coaches. Jones appears to prefer claiming full “credit” for an 8-8 team as opposed to sharing credit for a Super Bowl Winner. He has hired two great coaches in his tenure as GM of the Cowboys since 1989. Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells were great coaches. Jerry ran off Johnson and Parcells got tired of Jerry’s personnel decisions, player relationship interference, and ego. Meanwhile, Jones has hired coaches like Chan Gailey and Dave Campo, who’ve done little in their post Cowboy head coaching careers. Until he gets another head coaching job, Garrett risks the fate of Wade Phillips and retreating back to his old coordinator position.
Inconsistent drafting success is the second area that Jerry struggles with as an Owner/GM. He has had draft classes with few selections making an impact for the team. This topic deserves its own column. The one ray of hope in Jerry’s draft pattern is he has rediscovered the importance of the offensive line. The Cowboys used its 2011, 13, and 14 first round picks to astutely select the offensive linemen that are fueling the current offensive success of the Cowboys. One wonders why it took him a decade and a half to remember to emphasize drafting the positions that were the foundations of the 90s Cowboy dynasty. Better late than never?
The Cowboys have had a decade of futility in the 2010s. What makes it so bad is this is the second full decade in a row of poor results. The 2000s were arguably worse. Add to that the rough close of the 1990s, and the Cowboys have proven that if a franchise cannot select the best person to be the head coach and the annual draft results are inconsistent, the franchise is bound to be mired in mediocrity.
Will Mike McCarthy be the right guy to lead the Cowboys? There's reasons to be hopeful and reasons to be fearful. Jerry has a chance to rehab his reputation in the area of hiring coaches, McCarthy will be a key in burying Jerry for good or resurrecting Jerry's reputation. No pressure, Mike.
Sadly, my two other favorite teams were mired in similar states in both college football and college basketball.
Fighting Illini Basketball – The Bottom Drops Out
The 2010-2011 Fighting Illini basketball program was led by Bruce Weber. Weber’s team had lost 15 games in the previous season. Two years prior, the Illini finished with a losing record. These two events - a losing record and 15 or more losses - had only happened twice (in 98-99 and 91-92) since the late 70s when Lou Henson resurrected the program. Storm clouds were on the horizon for Weber’s tenure as coach. Weber had never been able to recruit well enough to compete at a high level in the B1G conference. With excellent players, Weber was a coaching juggernaut. This was proven by his 89-16 record in his first three years at Illinois with many players on his roster being recruited by prior head coach Bill Self. But, Weber’s four straight years of double digit losses and one season with a losing record was hurting the program both in the recruiting wars and with the Illini fan base.
In August 2011, Mike Thomas was named the Athletic Director (AD) at the University of Illinois. Thomas was coming off of a great run at the University of Cincinnati where he had hired Mick Cronin as basketball coach and Brian Kelly and Butch Jones as football coaches. He was unable to match these hires at Illinois. He fired Bruce Weber, who needed to move on to new challenges. He then ran into challenges hiring Weber’s replacement and had to settle for John Groce. The team started 12-0 under Groce only to finish his first season at 23-13. The team finished 7th in the B1G and went to the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately for Illini fans, this was Groce’s high water mark.
Thomas made a horrible selection in Groce. He only had four years of head coaching experience in the Mid-American Conference. Worse, he hadn’t finished better than 3rd in the regular season standings. Groce was hired more because he was willing to say he would accept the job as opposed to being the “next big thing”. This stood in stark contrast to the hiring of Lou Henson and Lon Kruger who came to Champaign-Urbana with Final Four appearances on their resume. Even Bill Self, who later went on to a National Championship at Kansas, won the Western Athletic Conference twice in three years prior to coming to the University of Illinois. The swing and miss of hiring Groce effectively eliminated half of the decade for the Illini. He finished 20 games over .500 overall and was actually 16 games under .500 in the B1G over his five year tenure.
Thankfully for Illini fans, Mike Thomas was fired and Josh Whitman was hired to take over as AD. Brad Underwood was hired in Whitman’s second year after Whitman fired Groce. Underwood endured two back-to-back losing seasons and his second team lost an all-time Illini record 21 games. The fans were on edge before this season started. The ray of hope is that in this 2019-2020 season (the last in the decade the way I am calculating it), the Illini are bouncing back with a 12-5 record and ranked #24 for the first time in years.
Let’s take a look at the Illini’s wasted 2010s decade.
Illini basketball has been plagued by a bad AD (Mike Thomas) and two coaches (Weber and Groce) who proved to be unable to recruit at levels necessary to have the talent to compete at the top of the B1G conference. Weber essentially drove the Corvette into the ditch and Groce kept spinning the wheels to go deeper and deeper into the mud. Whitman’s basketball hire, Brad Underwood, may be the man to elevate the Illini basketball program back up to its accustomed level of prominence. He has been able to secure key recruiting wins at the University of Illinois. His next step is to turn this improved roster into a team with increased wins on the court. If he can do that, he’ll be the head coach of the Illini for a long time.
The bad hiring decisions that led to the hiring of Mike Thomas, who was a train wreck as the Illini AD and the hiring of John Groce by Mike Thomas were disastrous for Illini basketball. Brad Underwood took over a program that hadn’t been relevant nationally (or even in the conference) for 11 years. Underwood has figured out a way to land highly rated talent each year of his tenure, but he has to win and he has to continue to keep the talent coming to Champaign. The fans have 13 years of frustration that has been brewing. The players and coaches need to turn that frustration into relief and into cheers when the team hopefully makes the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2012-2013 season. For the first time in a long time, there is reason to be hopeful. But for Illini fans, that is when being a fan becomes very dangerous. Hopes have been shattered in the past and Illini fans are nervously waiting to see which direction this team will go.
Fighting Illini Football – At Least it isn’t the 70s?
The Illini football program has been bad for most of my life. The 80s were a beautiful time to grow up in Central IL. The Illini football program had its best decade of my lifetime. Mike White led an exciting team led by star quarterbacks Dave Wilson, Tony Eason, and Jack Trudeau. These heroes from my past made the early and mid 80s fun. John Mackovic and Jeff George led the Illini team that closed out a wonderful decade to be an Illini fan. Those days seem to be a past that seemingly cannot be replicated.
Let’s look at the Illini’s football program’s history during my memory. It’s not good. This is a much different picture than the Cowboys or Illini basketball.
I’m not going to go into as much detail here as I did above because the problem is easy to diagnose. But I will list the coaches. During the 80s, the Illini had Mike White and John Mackovic. Both men were respected coaches before they arrived in Champaign-Urbana and they had solid careers after they moved on.
Let’s contrast those two coaches with the men hired after them: Lou Tepper, Ron Turner, Ron Zook, Tim Beckman, Bill Cubit. None of these men have been a head coach at a P5 school since leaving Illinois. Either Illinois destroys head football coaching careers or Illinois hires folks who just aren’t good enough to be head coaches. I vote for the latter. And if one is not a good coach, running the Illini program and battling in the B1G might risk capsizing one’s career.
The Illini haven’t effectively hired a good coach since the 80s. Former AD Ron Guenther was abysmal at developing a football program. That has continued through the 2010s. The latest coach, Lovie Smith, recently broke the five year bowl drought. He has elevated the talent level of the team, but has he recruited well enough to have the depth necessary to win bigger than a 6-6 season? Has he recruited well enough to make sure that there are plenty of young players to step up when the upperclassmen graduate? These questions need to be answered. Another question that burns at Illini fans is has Lovie done enough to turn around the program in the time he’s been here? The answer to that question may depend on one’s interpretation of the program by the decades chart.
Next year should be a good year for the football program, so maybe the Illini are back on track. It’s still to be seen. A good season should help improve recruiting to a new level. Winning is so important and the Illini football program has been unable to win enough for decades.
Unfortunately for Illini fans, the most dangerous time is when we have hope. Coming off of a bowl season, many fans are hopeful. But, like so many times in the past, this is when fate twists and steals hope away from the Illini. Next season will tell us a lot about what Lovie will be able to do for the Illini program. Will he elevate the program? Will he set it up for long term success? If Lovie does, we can steal a slogan from the 80s and say “The 20s Belong to the Illini”. If not, will we have another decade mired in the sub .400 winning percentages?
Only time will tell. But, there is one silver lining - at least I didn't grow up a Cleveland Browns fan...