General

Illini show they still have fight – but how much?

Illinois kicker James McCourt celebrates with teammates after kicking the game-winning field goal against Wisconsin at Memorial Stadium. (Photo: Patrick Gorski, USA TODAY Sports)

From the Saturday, Oct. 26, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

Sometimes success happens when you’re expecting, well, disaster.

Like, back on Oct. 23, 1999, for example.

On that crisp fall day, I was at The Big House in Ann Arbor to cover the Illinois-Michigan football game, and things couldn’t have looked bleaker for Ron Turner’s Fighting Illini. At 3-3, Illinois was in the midst of a three-game losing streak and fresh off a humiliating 37-7 loss to Minnesota on Homecoming in Champaign. The 5-1 Wolverines, meanwhile, were ranked No. 9, led by the quarterback tandem of Tom Brady and Drew Henson, and eager to vent their frustrations after a 34-31 loss at bitter rival Michigan State the week prior.

For the Illini, it looked like a disaster waiting to happen. Before kickoff, I even recall chatting with a former colleague about how Turner – then in his third season at Illinois with a meager record of 6-22 overall and 2-17 in the Big Ten – was in jeopardy of being fired. A few hours later, however, the Illini had turned a 27-7 third-quarter deficit into a 35-29 win that shocked the nation. The victory that nobody saw coming sparked an 8-4 season that saved Turner’s job.

Flash forward two decades later to Lovie Smith, whose seat this month has been at least as hot as Turner’s was in ’99 ­– and perhaps hotter two weeks ago when Illinois fell behind Michigan 28-0 at Memorial Stadium. Then the Illini rattled off 25 straight points against the Wolverines to nearly pull off a comeback, before ultimately losing.

As that rally against Michigan was unfolding, I couldn’t help but think back to the ’99 game in Arbor, and how it turned around Turner’s Illini program. Then last Saturday happened, with Illinois actually finishing off a jaw-dropping 24-23 upset of undefeated, sixth-ranked Wisconsin that shocked the entire planet.

Now, I can’t help but wonder if that win over the Badgers could be the game that turns around Lovie Smith’s Illini program. Regarding Lovie, I’ve long preached patience for his rebuilding operation, asking fans to give him proper time to show us one way or the other if he’s the right man for the job.

When he was down 28-0 to Michigan, I had become convinced that Lovie wasn’t. But up 24-23 over Wisconsin, I now think I’d come to that conclusion too soon. I still don’t know for certain what Lovie is or isn’t. But with a bowl game now suddenly back in the potential picture for the 3-4 Illini, today’s tilt against 2-5 Purdue (11 a.m., BTN) is a huge opportunity for the embattled coach to show us.

Grandpa Rossy Returns

David Ross wasn’t my first choice for Cubs manager. But I’m not against welcoming “Grandpa” (back) aboard. He could turn out to be great.

My preference would have been to err on the side of experience by hiring current Astros bench coach Joe Espada or former Yankees skipper Joe Girardi. I think Ross’ lack of any coaching background is a sizable gamble and I do have concerns that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are hiring their best buddy more than they’re hiring the best candidate.

But I hope that isn’t true, and similar inexperienced hires have recently worked well for the Red Sox (Alex Cora) and the Yankees (Aaron Boone). I also have always believed that the Cubs were planning to move on from Joe Maddon in 2020 after they didn’t extend him last winter. So, Epstein and Hoyer have been grooming Ross for this job for the past year. It’s not an uniformed hire.

Besides, what matters most with Ross is his roster. It needs an upgrade.

Illini, Sports

Waters still choppy as 2019 Illini Football sets sail

Jul 18, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith speaks during the Big Ten Football Media Days event at Hilton Chicago. Mandatory Credit: Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

From the Saturday, Aug. 31, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

Illini Nation is restless.

As the 2019 football season dawns in Champaign with Illinois’ opener against Akron (11 a.m., BTN), head coach Lovie Smith’s program has generated only nine wins in his first three years, and some fans are fed up.

Especially some fans on Twitter.

In recent weeks, I’ve had one guy angrily tweet at me that Lovie should have already won 14 games (he didn’t explain how exactly; just that he should have). Others have declared that if the Illini don’t make a bowl game this season, Smith should be fired (“And athletic director Josh Whitman should go with him!”). One friend of mine, who’s usually quite rational, even went so far as to call Lovie “the worst Illini football coach of his lifetime” (Tim Beckman surely likes that one).

Like I said, they’re restless. But the Illini masses need to learn how to take it easy, because anyone hoping that Lovie Smith will be fired after this season is likely to be sorely disappointed. Barring a complete disaster (e.g., two or three wins and scads of Big Ten blowouts), Smith will almost certainly get a fifth season in 2020. And he almost certainly should.

The reality is that too many fans still don’t appreciate the scope and scale of the rebuilding job that Smith inherited when he was hired by Whitman in March 2016.
Five years earlier, mind you, Illini football was already in a bad way when Ron Zook was fired by former athletic director Mike Thomas after the 2011 season. Thomas then proceeded to drop an atomic bomb on the program when he hired Beckman, who spent the next three-plus years reducing the program – and the Illini brand – to rubble with terrible coaching, terrible recruiting and terrible press conferences before finally being fired just a week before the 2015 opener amidst allegations of player mistreatment.

It takes time to clean up from that. It just does. And coming from the NFL, Smith, not all that surprisingly, has had a college learning curve. His initial offensive and defensive coordinator hires in Garrick McGee and Hardy Nickerson were poor. Part of that was probably due to Smith’s unfamiliarity with what was needed for college coaching and recruiting, and part may have been because he had to put his staff together in March, an awkward time for hiring.

That late hiring date also put Smith behind the 8-ball with recruiting as he wasn’t able to build a class of his own that first season. So, while this is now Smith’s fourth full season at Illinois, in terms of his own classes it’s still his third.

Acknowledging all of that isn’t a defense of Smith, it’s just stating reality. Lovie absolutely has to prove himself over the next two seasons.

Baseball, Chicago, Cubs, General, Illini, Politics, Sports

Wisch Lists are for New Year’s

PCHFrom the Saturday, Dec. 29, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

Wish lists are for Christmas.

But Wisch Lists? Well, just like every year, they’re for New Year’s.

As you read today’s column, I’m with my wife out in Los Angeles for the first leg of what will be a weeklong drive up the (it better be) sunny California coast along U.S. Route 1. Along the way, we’ll be staying in Santa Barbara (for New Year’s Eve), Big Sur (pretending like we’re in an episode of “Big Little Lies”) and Carmel-by-the-Sea (where Clint Eastwood served as mayor from 1986-88), before ending the trip in San Francisco.

Hopefully I’ll return home without a California accent.

In the meantime, though, I, like, totally want to share with you my thoughts for the New Year, as we prepare to dive headlong into 2019. So, away we go …

I Wisch that every Christmas could be a white one, but also that every Christmas could be as warm as the one we just celebrated. I know that doesn’t make any sense. But, hey, these are my Wisches, so just roll with it.

I Wisch to see Bryce Harper wearing Cubs pinstripes in 2019 – and until the free-agent slugger is standing at a press conference wearing a different team’s jersey, I still believe that he’s coming to Chicago (the North Side, that is).

I Wisch that White Sox fans wouldn’t get angry when you tell them that a marquee free agent simply isn’t likely to sign with a team coming off a 100-loss season – no matter how many top prospects the franchise might have. The Sox are definitely trending up, but that doesn’t mean they’re on a rocket trajectory.

I Wisch that Illinois hadn’t lost population for the fifth year in a row – the only state in the country to have experienced such a drain.

I Wisch I believed that the state’s newly elected officials were going to help stem that tide – but, rather, I fear that they’re only going to accelerate it.

I Wisch I liked any of Chicago’s mayoral candidates.

I Wisch to see the Bears hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February as Super Bowl champs – and Bourbonnais packed for Training Camp in Summer 2019.

Baseball, Chicago, Cubs, Sports

Winter Meetings over, but Harper sweepstakes just heating up

HarperFrom the Saturday, Dec. 15, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

With the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings winding down last Wednesday afternoon, uber-agent Scott Boras held court beneath a Christmas tree in Las Vegas to discuss the sweepstakes surrounding his prized client – Bryce Harper.

Speaking largely in vagaries and analogies for an hour, Boras at one point said cryptically about the teams involved in the pursuit of the 26-year-old free-agent slugger, “This is not a race where every car is labeled.”

Now, what exactly that means is certainly open to interpretation. But my translation? It’s that the Chicago Cubs – and likely the Los Angeles Dodgers – are still figuring out their available vehicle numbers.

During the past week, the suitors for Harper most heavily discussed by the media have been the Philadelphia Phillies (as expected) and the Chicago White Sox (surprising enough). In a world where the league’s wealthiest, highest-spending teams are penalized for exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold, the Phillies and Sox have minimal current contract commitments. That gives both organizations lots of money to potentially spend on a player who is expected to command a megabucks deal worth between $300 and $400 million.

But I believe the Winter Meetings ending in Vegas without Harper having yet hit the jackpot on his contract actually bodes quite well for other organizations with payrolls already bumping up against the luxury tax threshold. Namely, the Cubs and Dodgers.

Baseball, Chicago, Cubs, Sports

The key for the Cubs in 2019? It might be simple

Maddon

From the Saturday, Oct. 13, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

On the second-to-last day of Major League Baseball’s regular season, the Chicago Cubs owned the best record in the National League.

Three days later, their season was over.

As much I wish the Cubs were still playing in the NLCS this week, I’ve also come to the realization in the past couple of weeks since the team’s premature demise in the Wild Card Game, that I really needed a break.

This Maddoning season had worn me out.

Now, anyone who knows me well knows I’m no big fan of Joe Maddon. I think the guy was the perfect manager to assume the young Cubs’ reins in 2015 and help pull the team together for the 2016 championship run.

General

The future of the Cubs’ rotation is a big ‘Q’

Q2From the Saturday, Aug. 18, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

When it comes to brilliant baseball trades, the Cubs have pulled off more than their fair share in recent years.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer turned Scott Feldman into Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. They took Ryan Dempster and flipped him for Kyle Hendricks. And they acquired beloved team leader Anthony Rizzo for just Andrew Cashner.

But with the trade for Jose Quintana, karma is biting back – big time.

Last July, with the Cubs trailing Milwaukee by 5½ games, Epstein and Hoyer moved to acquire Quintana from the crosstown White Sox. On face value, the deal made sense. The Cubs needed another starter, and Quintana – with solid career numbers and beloved by the advanced metrics crowd – was young (28), cheap ($10 million average salary) and controlled (for three seasons).

The rub, though, was Quintana was very costly in terms of personnel, requiring the Cubs had to yield their top TWO prospects in slugger Eloy Jimenez and fireballer Dylan Cease.

I thought at the time that seemed like a high price for a pitcher more solid than spectacular who currently owned a pedestrian 4.49 ERA. Quintana was indeed solid (but not spectacular) down the stretch as the Cubs caught the Brewers to win the NL Central. He then delivered a big relief outing in the NLDS clincher, before posting an ugly 10.29 ERA during the NLCS loss.

In sum, Quintana’s 2017 was a mixed bag.

Illini, Sports

The fix is in (progress) with Illini basketball

UnderwoodFrom the Saturday, March 10, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

Illini basketball needs a fix.

Much of Illini Nation finds itself in a fix.

And after dealing with both, well … could someone fix me a drink?

Last week, first-year Illinois coach Brad Underwood wrapped up his debut season in Champaign with an underwhelming 14-18 record and a first-round exit in the Big Ten Tournament that resulted in a fifth consecutive year without an NCAA Tournament appearance for the once-proud program. Five days later, once-ballyhooed freshman guard Mark Smith – the state’s 2017 Mr. Basketball winner, who Underwood once compared to Jason Kidd – announced that he would transfer,

For the most combustible of Illini fans, that one-two punch was too much, causing them to lose their minds on social media. While sharing my thoughts on Twitter this week about Illini hoops, I was bombarded with tweets that ranged from utter despair (“There’s no reason for hope”) to utter lunacy (“Underwood is the worst coach I’ve seen at Illinois”).

While plenty of Illini fans remain plenty rational about what it actually takes to rebuild a basketball program, there’s also an orchard of bad apples who were frothing so badly at the mouth that buddy who’s a die-hard Indiana basketball fan shot me a text. It read: “Your fan base on Twitter is insane. This Illinois team played hard than I can remember an Illinois team playing in the last I-don’t-know-how-many years.”

And, hey, if anyone knows insanity, it’s Hoosiers fans.

The truth is that some Illini fans simply don’t have the stomach for program overhauls (basketball or football). And that’s what we’re currently in the midst of in Champaign, where the triumvirate of former athletic director Mike Thomas, football coach Tim Beckman and basketball coach John Groce took programs already in a hole and created a crater. Digging out from that doesn’t happen overnight, and it can be messy.

Chicago

Celebrating Chicago’s starring role in filmmaking history

StoogesFrom the Saturday, March 3, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

With the 90th Academy Awards taking place on Sunday night, all eyes are on Hollywood this weekend – especially Hollywood’s own, as it rarely has eyes for any place else when it comes to celebrating contributions to film.

But did you know that Chicago has its own rich history when it comes to movie-making? It dates back to 1907 when a pair of aspiring movie moguls named George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson founded Essanay Studio and produced a film called “The Hobo on Rollers” starring their janitor.

In 1908, Essanay moved north to Uptown, where it become a silver screen powerhouse, launching the careers of a number of stars and even attracting the talents of perhaps the nation’s biggest one: Charlie Chaplin, with whom it produced 14 comedic shorts.But Chicago’s connections to movies hardly stop there.

The man behind the Man Behind the Curtain

Featuring ornate statues of the Tin Man, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, Dorothy and Toto, Oz Park is tucked in the heart (and, I suppose, the brains and courage) of Chicago’s bustling Lincoln Park neighborhood.

More than a century ago, though, L. Frank Baum – the author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” – lived just a few miles west of the area.

Baseball, Chicago, Cubs, Sports

Baseball is back to bury our Winter of Discontent

YuDarvishFrom the Saturday, Feb. 17, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

The Bulls are bad. The Blackhawks are bad. Illini basketball is bad. Northwestern’s is too. At 22-5, Loyola’s hoops are looking good – but, let’s be honest, the Ramblers are hardly going to get the average Illinois sports fan through this long, hard winter.

But, mercifully, there was a crack in our dark clouds this week.

Major League Baseball is back. Finally.

And with MLB teams breaking camp this week in Arizona and Florida, I thought I’d break open a few thoughts about baseball’s landscape in the Land of Lincoln – which hopefully won’t end up covered with much more snow this year.

A better Yu?

After a sluggish offseason during which the Hot Stove was more of an Ice Box, the Cubs thawed things out in a major way last weekend by signing coveted free agent pitcher Yu Darvish to a six-year deal.

Acquiring the 31-year-old Darvish is huge for the Cubs, but considering that he basically replaces 31-year-old Jake Arrieta in the rotation, just how big of a difference-maker might Darvish be? If you ask veteran backstop Chris Gimenez, who caught Darvish regularly for the Rangers, he could be quite big.

“I think we really haven’t seen the best Yu Darvish yet,” Gimenez told the media at Cubs camp in Mesa, Ariz., where’s he’s trying to make the roster. “He’s still evolving as a pitcher, as well. Coming back from second full season off Tommy John, physically he’s starting to really get in tune with his own body now and kind of knowing his limitations, what he can and can’t do. I think really, the sky is the limit for a guy like that.”

Gimenez also noted that Darvish’s average velocity was up in 2017. That’s significant considering there has been a noticeable dip in Arrieta’s velocity and control since his Cy Young season of 2015. And while I can’t say whether we’re yet to see the best Darvish, I am confident that the Cubs did get the best seasons of Jake Arrieta’s career – and, my how great they were.

Chicago, General

Last-Minute Valentine’s Day plans for you lazy lovebirds

Orchid-Show-at-Chicago-Botanic-Garden-CanopyFrom the Saturday, Feb. 10, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

It’s not quite Valentine’s Day, but let’s be honest. If you haven’t already made your plans for Feb. 14, well, then I’d say you’re liable to be left out in the cold.
Both by restaurants – and your special someone.

But to all you lazy lovebirds (and lovelorn) out there, fear not. If you’re still scrambling for creative ways to celebrate Hallmark’s second favorite holiday (behind only Mother’s Day), I’m here with some last-minute Valentine’s Day ideas happening this weekend and next week in Chicago.

Dances from the Heart
Today, 8 p.m.

If you’re looking to jazz things up, tonight at 8 p.m. a special Valentine’s Day dance performance will unfold at the Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N. Southport Ave.) in West Lakeview.

The event features 13 dynamic acts involving an array of dance styles, including aerial, tap, urban fusion, jazz, contemporary, stepping, Irish, Mexican folkloric, hip-hop, urban/performance art and more.

For more information, visit athenaeumtheatre.org.

Naked at the Art Museum Scavenger Hunt
Sunday, 1 p.m.

For those seeking something cheeky – quite literally – this weekend, the Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Ave.) is offering adults an unblushing look at nudity in art with its Naked at the Art Museum Scavenger Hunt.

At 1 p.m. on Sunday, participants will scour the museum while scrutinizing works of bathing beauties, peeping Toms, sultry sirens and more. As the museum says, “No previous experience with art, or nudity, is required.”

For more information, visit watsonadventures.com.