Illini fans deserve better basketball – and they’ll get it

University of Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman (left) will make his decision on the fate of fifth-year basketball coach John Groce at season’s end.

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


A Twitter friend of mine calls it BFS.

Battered Fan Syndrome.

And Illini Nation is suffering from it. Badly.

After watching Illinois football tumble from Rose Bowl heights to Tim Beckman and seeing the basketball program slide from national runner-up to perennial NIT candidate, Illini fans collectively have been so beaten down over the past dozen years that many have convinced themselves that they don’t even deserve actual coaching competency and sports success.

With Illini hoops coach John Groce slogging his way through yet another lost season, it’s gotten to the point on social media where almost daily I find myself giving pep talks to fans who are far more blue than orange. Despite the fact that Josh Whitman boldly fired football coach Bill Cubit – on his first day as Illinois athletic director, mind you – and stunned the nation by replacing him with Lovie Smith, many fans still don’t believe that Whitman will even fire Groce, let alone replace him with a top-level coach.

I find all of that to be absolute nonsense.

Because, throughout its history, Illinois never has had difficulty hiring a good basketball coach. But former athletic director Mike Thomas sure did.

I’ll just leave that at that.

This defeatist mindset has become so ingrained among many Illini fans that this week a student columnist for the Daily Illini campus newspaper wrote, “You can complain, boo and tweet all you want. Yell until your lungs get sore and type as fast you can to get #FireGroce trending. But it isn’t going to do anything because John Groce isn’t going anywhere.”


Time for Illini basketball to wake up or move on


From the Saturday, Jan. 14, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


I’m tired.

Tired of bubble teams. Tired of apathy towards a program – and a sport – that I love. And tired of once-demanding fans settling for mediocrity.

Basically, I’m tired of being tired about the tired state of Illini basketball.

As Illinois prepares for its game today vs. Maryland at State Farm Center, the program stands at a crossroads. Fifth-year coach John Groce wants to convince us (or perhaps himself) that it’s headed one way – “We took a step in the right direction,” he said on Wednesday after beating Michigan 85-69 – while much of Illini Nation sees a program that’s stuck in neutral at best.

Or at worst is headed further into the abyss or irrelevancy.

What I see is a team that at 12-5 overall, 2-2 in the Big Ten, may indeed be better this season than it was last year (15-19, 5-13), but is far from as good as it should be. Five years into any coach’s tenure at Illinois, the program should be fully established, not still scrapping just to be in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament, which Illinois inexcusably hasn’t even reached since 2013.

With a healthy, veteran roster this was supposed to be season that Groce proved himself. At least, that’s what his supporters told us. As the Illini have struggled, however, some have resorted to arguing that it’s next season when the Illini will really bust out once its highly ranked recruiting class arrives.

At this point, Illinois has stolen the Cubs’ “Wait ’til Next Year” refrain, and while many fans believe Groce simply needs to reach the NCAA Tournament to ensure his job status for 2018, I don’t.

Merely making the Big Dance as a bubble team wouldn’t be an achievement, it would be a disappointment. To earn another year, I think Groce needs to make the NCAA tournament comfortably ­– and win a game.


Wisch Lists are for New Year’s

2017From the Saturday, Dec. 31, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


Wish lists are for Christmas.

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

Here as we sit on the edge of 2017, I’m looking back at a calendar year that was marked by global instability, a deeply bitter presidential election and the deaths of enough stars to fill a Hollywood sidewalk, if not an entire block.

But, at the same time, I’m looking back at a year that in which I got a new full-time job, embarked upon an epic 40th birthday adventure to Ireland and London with my lovely wife, and relished neither last nor least a Chicago Cubs World Series championship that was truly the stuff that dreams are made of.

In other words, 2016 was a mixed bag, just like every year. And as we step off that edge to New Year’s Eve, here’s what I hope is in the mix for 2017.

I Wisch that Muhammad Ali, Prince, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Alan Thicke, David Bowie, John Glenn, Jose Fernandez, Nancy Reagan, Arnold Palmer, Gordie Howe, Florence Henderson, Garry Shandling, Gene Wilder, Harper Lee, Garry Marshall, Merle Haggard, Craig Sager, John Saunders, Alan Rickman, Anton Yelchin and several others could have stayed with us longer.

I Wisch that Fidel Castro could have left us sooner.

I Wisch for more patience from fans for University of Illinois football coach Lovie Smith, and less for basketball coach John Groce.

I Wisch that Illini hoops hadn’t sunk to the point where simply making the NCAA Tournament seems like an achievement. At Illinois, it isn’t. It’s a baseline.


Could Cubs and Sox be on a future October collision course?


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


This past spring, when both the Cubs and the White Sox were flying high atop their divisions with first-place records, I established myself in this column as Chicago’s official party pooper.

“Excuse me if I’m not rooting for a Cubs-Sox World Series this season,” I wrote on May 21. “Why? Well, as you might have heard, the Cubs haven’t won a World Series in a while. And if ever they’re to do so  – this season, or some day  –  the team will have to overcome enormous pressure.

“I’d rather not add the drama of playing the Sox on top of that. Nor do I wish to see Cubs fans suffer the humiliation of being denied a championship by the Sox, or Sox fans suffer the indignation of handing the Cubs their first crown in 108 years. I don’t think either would be great for Chicago.”

I then added, however, “What would be [great] is a Cubs-White Sox clash after both franchises have a recent title under their belt.”

Now that the Cubs did win their first championship in 108 years, I couldn’t agree more with, well, myself. Having seen both the North Side and South Side having enjoy titles in this century, I’m all for enjoying a future all-Chicago Fall Classic.

If the White Sox’s freshly launched youth movement pans out at all like the Cubs’ plan, who knows, we may end up seeing one in the not-too-distant future.


Holiday Cheers! Chicago’s best Christmastime drinks


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


There are tough tables in Chicago.

And then there’s the Walnut Room in December.

Located on the 7th floor of Macy’s (R.I.P. Marshall Field’s) at 111 N. State Street, the Walnut Room was the first-ever restaurant inside a department store and has served as a Chicago institution since 1905. Today, it’s as famous during the holiday season for its scarce reservations and long wait times for tables as it is for its wood-paneled walls and spectacular 45-foot-tall Christmas tree.

In lieu of a booth, you may be able to score a spot at the small bar (open only when the restaurant is) and grab a signature holiday drink, such as the “Cinnamon Toast” (apple cider, Amaretto, cinnamon, sugar and whipped cream) or the Eggnog Brandy Alexander (eggnog, brandy and crème de cacao).

Either could serve to keep you warm in Chicago’s holiday chill. But they’re far from the only ones, as the Windy City is filled with seasonal beverages. And here’s the best of the brew.

Glühwein at Christkindlmarket

At Daley Plaza, Christkindlmarket – the open-air market and festival inspired by the original in Nuremberg, Germany, that dates back to 1545 – is most famous for its glühwein. Roughly translated as “glow-wine,” from the hot irons once used for mulling, glühwein a traditional German holiday hot spiced wine and Christkindlmarket claims to have perfected it “to please the palate and warm the heart.”

I don’t disagree.

In Chicago, the annual beverage is considered so special that it comes in a souvenir cup shaped like a boot and decorated with the market’s signature log and year.


Cubs [W]in! [W]hat a time to be alive

cubswinFrom the Saturday, Nov. 5, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


I was wrong.

Last week, I wrote in this column that if the Cubs do win their “first championship since 1908, I don’t think it can possibly be more emotional for me than it was seeing them reach the World Series for the first time since 1945. It may be just as emotional, but I don’t think it can be more so.”

Yeah, I was dead wrong.

When Kris Bryant scooped up that ground ball and fired it to his pal Anthony Rizzo – Bryzzo! – for the final out of the soul-twisting, brain-bending, gut-wrenching Game 7 of the World Series to hand the Cubs their first championship since 1908, I erupted in pure joy and utter disbelief.

But in the moment, I really couldn’t process it all. And it wasn’t until a few hours later, when I sat alone in my condo a mile from Wrigley Field – long after my parents had left and my wife went to bed – that the enormity of what had just occurred began to truly settle in. Perched on my couch with the TV volume finally down, I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed and saw all of the giddy celebratory posts from my many Cubs fan friends. Immediately, it made me think about growing up as a die-hard Cubs fan and dreaming of this day as a little kid.

And with that, I broke down. And I absolutely bawled.

I’m not at all ashamed to admit that. In fact, I’m quite proud of it. Because after a lifetime of hearing stories about the Billy Goat and the Black Cat, after watching the grounder roll through Leon Durham’s legs, after sitting in Wrigley’s upper deck when “Bartman happened,” I knew that all the pain and heartbreak of the Cubs’ 108-year wait – and their 108-year weight – was completely worth it.

For all Cubs fans. And it was also so very emotional.

Even more than I could have ever imagined.


More Snapshots from a Blue October

img_1555From the Saturday, Oct. 29, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


My 100-degree temperature returned to normal long ago, but I’m still dealing with a lingering cough this week.

So, I’m pretty sure that my Cubs Fever remains intact.

And, really, how could it not be, what with the North Siders sending spirits soaring by playing in their first World Series since 1945 … at Wrigley Field … on Halloween Weekend.

Talk about a scary good time.

Since I last checked in with some snapshots from Wrigleyville after the Cubs clinched the National League Division Series, I’ve seen plenty more transpire in Chicago. And here a few more tidbits to satisfy your appetite.

After all, they do say to starve a cold, but feed a fever, right?

All the feels

As the World Series builds to a crescendo, the excitement is again continuing to mount throughout Cubs Nation. But if the team does win its first championship since 1908, I don’t think it can possibly be more emotional for me than it was seeing them reach the World Series for the first time since ‘45.

It may be just as emotional, but I don’t think it can be more so.

After all, I’ve spent my life watching the Cubs fail to reach the World Series, not fail in the World Series. While Boston fans suffered the heartbreak of seeing their Red Sox lose in the World Series in 1946, 1967, 1975 and 1986 after the Curse of the Bambino in 1918, Cubs fans were forced to watch the door slam in their faces before even reaching the Fall Classic.

In my 40 years, I saw the ground ball roll through Leon Durham’s legs in 1984, watched Greg Maddux’s and Andre Dawson’s vanishing act in 1989, and saw every tragic thing that unspooled during Games 6 and 7 of the 2003 NLCS, along with oodles of other painful postseason moments.

And that’s to say nothing about those who are old enough to have lived through the nightmare of 1969. No matter what happens in this World Series – and I’m feeling good about it – just reaching it was so incredibly special.


Cubs vs. Tribe: Something’s Gotta Give


My buddy Brian Pokorny over at Cleveland Sports Torture asked me to share my thoughts on the Cubs-Indians “Something’s Gotta Give” World Series for his blog.  So, here they are …

I like you, Cleveland.

Much like country music and going to the movies alone, I think you’re much better than your rep. In past years, I’ve gotten the opportunity to visit your ballpark (it’s quite nice), your Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame (ditto) and a sizable swath of your local drinking establishments (same deal).

This past June, I particularly enjoyed watching your Cavaliers knock the smug look off the faces of the Golden State Warriors faces and slap smiles on those across Ohio. In fact, back in 2010, just a week after LeBron infamously took his talents to South Beach, I was at my buddy’s condo in downtown Cleveland when I told him that I believed that once LBJ got Miami out of his system, he’d eventually return home to win a crown.

Without a doubt, after 68 years with anything to celebrate except perhaps the retirement of Michael Jordan, your city deserved that championship that LeBron finally earned.

But, I’m sorry, you’ve already filled your title quota for 2016.

Because here on North Side of Chicago, this one is ours.

Now, I know that my pal Brian of Cleveland Sports Torture – the biggest fan of The Land that I’ve ever met – doesn’t think that Chicagoans have truly suffered when it comes to sports, what with those six NBA titles, a Super Bowl right, a White Sox World Series trophy and all that recent Blackhawks bling collected over the past 30 years.

But, here’s the thing, while Brian may now be a Chicagoan, he isn’t a Cubs fan. And, trust me, for those of us who are we’ve suffered.

In spades.

I’m 40, and in my lifetime I’ve endured the ground ball through Leon Durham’s legs in 1984, Greg Maddux’s and Andre Dawson’s vanishing act in 1989, and every tragic thing that unspooled during Games 6 and 7 of the 2003 NLCS (both of which I attended at Wrigley Field), along with oodles of other painful moments. And I’m not even old enough to have been one of the Cubs fans that lived through 1969.

Those poor souls.


Snapshots from a feverish week in Wrigleyville


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


Early last week, my allergies started acting up. By the time the weekend rolled around, they had developed into something more severe that eventually required a visit to a clinic. The doctor I saw didn’t specifically diagnose the bug ailing me before writing a prescription, but I’m pretty sure that I know what it is.

Cubs Fever.

And, hey, if I have to battle the symptoms all month long, I’m good with that. After all, it’s the least I can do if it helps the Cubs win their first World Series since the Model-T was two weeks old.

As Chicago heads into its second week of postseason wackiness with the Cubs hosting the Nationals tonight in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, I wanted to share my personal highlights from the NLDS.

So, batter up.

Welcome to Chicago

During Game 1 of the NLDS, one lonely Giants fan clad in a Buster Posey jersey was in my section of the Wrigley Field bleachers. When the spunky Latina woman in a Cubs cap near me noticed she turned and said, “Man, you sat in the wrong city.”

Serious business

The feeling before the first game of the NLDS at Wrigley this year vs. the Giants was markedly different from last year vs. the Cardinals. Last October, the vibe was more electric and giddy. This time around, it was much more serious and business-like.
The 2015 Cubs were a revelation. The 2016 Cubs have a job to do.

Getting a grip

As the Game 1 pitcher’s duel between Jon Lester and Johnny Cueto remained locked in a scoreless tie, a Cubs fan in the bleachers row behind me clutched a baseball in his hand. When asked by the guy next to him if it was a “throwback ball” (in case he caught a home run), the fan shook his head.

“No,” he said, “It’s a stress ball.”


October’s pressure is on – time for the Cubs to pop it

cubs-celebrate-nl-central-title-inline-3From the Saturday, Oct. 8, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


It’s October. So, naturally, the monsters are out in Wrigleyville.

This time, they’ve emerged from the San Francisco mist in the form of Giants casting championship spells every other year and led by a MadBum.

For fans of the Chicago Cubs, it’s undeniable that that October never has been the kindest of months. The tricks usually start weeks before Halloween – and nobody ends up with any treats. It’s also true that the month did the Cubs no favors again this year by pitting them against the formidable Giants who boast championship experience – and bling – from 2010, 2012 and 2014, along with a deep starting rotation that includes postseason legend Madison Bumgarner.

The Giants are scary. But, then again, so are the 103-win Cubs.

And as a Facebook friend put it, the only team that can likely beat the Cubs this month is the Cubs. I largely agree with that sentiment, although as I’ve argued before, for the Cubs to win their first World Series since 1908, there is another obstacle they need to overcome. And it has little to do with the Giants, Nationals, Dodgers, or any team from the American League.

Ever since Oct. 14, 2003, when I sat in the upper deck at Wrigley Field watching the eighth inning tragically unfold during Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, I’ve been convinced that for the Cubs a “curse” does truly exist. But it isn’t in the form of an actual billy-goateed specter of evil that looms over the ballpark tugging on the Cubs’ marionette strings.

Rather, in the sense of the pressure that’s built up for a franchise during more than a century of futility – which can manifest itself in the postseason – there absolutely is a tangible entity that’s haunted the North Side ball club.

In the years since 2003, I’ve told people countless times about the sensation that crept around Wrigley after Steve Bartman reached for that fateful foul ball and Moises Alou flipped his lid. The murmur that spread among the fearful crowd was the eeriest feeling that I’ve experienced, and unless you were actually inside Wrigley that night it’s almost impossible to fully explain. But trust me when I say that you could literally feel the mood shift inside the ballpark.

It was palpable.