So, how was your summer?
I can venture a guess that it was somewhat better than what the University of Illinois experienced over the past few months, most notably the athletic program.
It has been a tumultuous summer for Illinois and several of its programs, and the hits just, as they say, keep on comin'.
Let's rewind back to early June where the Fighting Illini baseball team was making history by advancing to the Super Regional of the NCAA Tournament and a series win over defending champion Vanderbilt would have given the Illini their first ever trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
But instead of taking pride in that accomplishment, which they did, the word began to break about mistreatment of injuries within the Illinois football program, stemming from former Illini lineman Simon Cvijanovic. In Cvijanovic's claims, he stated that the medical staff misdiagnosed an injury, and actually went in and did something that they were not instructed to do, or so he claims. When news of this broke, suddenly several former teammates of Cvijanovic's came forward to issue similar claims.
This is not the news that Illinois football coach Tim Beckman needed for his program, which begins its fourth season with Beckman in command. Illinois is already dealing with several injuries to key players as it is, especially sophomore sensation Mikey Dudek, who sustained an ACL injury during spring workouts. Dudek, who garnered all-Big Ten freshmen honors last season, set the freshman record at Illinois for receiving yards, and was expected to be a key component for Beckman and the Illini as they looked to capitalizing on last year's bowl appearance in Dallas.
Beckman has seen the Illini win total increase from 2 to 4 to 6 in his 3 years in Champaign, but to make that jump on the scale to the next level, which is 8, will take some major undertaking, and also a whole lot of luck. With the likes of Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State coming to Champaign this season, the Illini need to get out to a quick start in the non-conference portion of the schedule before the Big Ten season starts in earnest with the Cornhuskers visit.
As if the football allegations were not enough, about a week or so later, news broke regarding alleged racial bias and verbal abuse within the Fighting Illini women's basketball program. These claims led to assistant coach Mike Divilbiss being terminated, apparently a mutual agreement between he and the university, and raised even more questions into the program and their head coach Matt Bollant.
Bollant, who had a very successful run at Wisconsin-Green Bay before coming to Illinois 3 years ago, has not seen the success that he envisioned in coming to Champaign, and apparently, it was Divilbiss that may have been the wedge into this problem. The claims led to several current and former players getting together and filing a lawsuit, which this past week was found to not be credible by the attorney handling the case. The players still remaining on the team leave for an overseas trip this week and will look for some time away to regroup as a team and get back to basics.
The news continued to get worse for the Illinois sports landscape a couple weeks ago when it was announced that senior-to-be Tracy Abrams sustained an achilles injury in a non-contact drill in practice preparing for their overseas trip and will miss yet another season for the Illini. Head coach John Groce seems beside himself over several injuries to key players, and Groce, who will enter his fourth season as coach of Illinois, begins a pivotal season that could either make or break his future at Illinois.
It has been no secret that Groce has had some difficulty landing a point guard for the 2015-16 season, and the loss of Abrams magnifies that void tenfold. Also dealing with injuries are freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands, who was one of Groce's marquee recruiting gets since he has been at Illinois, and Darius Paul, who has had issues of his own since he has been an Illini. However, a bit of good news on that front happened Saturday, when Groce received word that fifth-year transfer Khalid Lewis announced that he will play at Illinois this upcoming season. Lewis, who last played at LaSalle, is not a flashy player, but he is a another body, and a point guard that Groce sorely needs right now.
As if all of this wasn't enough for a summer, earlier this week came perhaps the most shocking announcement of them all. University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise announced that she is resigning from her position, effective Wednesday, August 12th. This came as a complete shock to many at the university, and with the recent scandals within the athletic department and also around campus with various hiring practices, Wise seems to have had enough. More information is still coming out regarding this latest debacle, and this may not bode well for athletic director Mike Thomas, who reports to the Chancellor.
New university president Timothy Killeen, who accepted Wise's resignation, may have had some factor into the decision, and who knows where this will lead in the next couple of months. Killeen has said that he could have an interim chancellor named within the week, and if that person doesn't have strong athletic ties or a keen interest in sports, things could get very interesting around campus in the next few months, especially with the major revenue sports. Stay tuned.
Back to football for a minute if I may. The Fighting Illini have begun fall training camp with the first three days closed to the public in Champaign. The Illini will move to Rantoul for the next two weeks of training camp on the former Chanute Air Force Base, where all of the practices will be open to the public. So, if you are wanting to check out Tim Beckman and the Illini, Camp Rantoul will be the place to be starting Sunday, August 9th. A full schedule of practices can be found at www.fightingillini.com and clicking on the football link. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be previewing the Illinois season by groups, culminating with an expanded look at the season leading up to the home opener, which is set for 8:00 pm CT on Friday, September 4th against Kent State.
Yes folks, Fighting Illini football is back, and if anyone needs some good news right now, it is coach Beckman and the Illini.