It turns out, Tuesday was a day that will live in infamy. That’s sort of surprising considering that I can’t even remember what I had for dinner that night.
But Illinois athletic director John Whitman wrote an open letter Tuesday to scream out that the Big Ten had robbed the Illini of the men’s basketball conference championship. He didn’t actually use the word “robbed.’’ It was much more bloviated than that:
“Every time we are slighted, every time we are disrespected, use each instance as an excuse to sharpen your axe. And when we accomplish our goals, we’ll use that razor-sharp axe to cut down the nets.’’
He also said the thing about the day and infamy. My first thought was to wonder how many of the student-athletes know what historical moment he’s referring to when he says the decision will live in infamy.
Whitman’s letter sounded like John Belushi’s speech as frat guy John “Bluto” Blutarsky in the movie Animal House: “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!’’
So it doesn’t really matter who knows what. Belushi’s speech was motivational, as was Whitman’s letter. And that stuff works in sports.
The Illini finished the Big Ten season at 16-4 and Michigan 14-3. Michigan was declared the champ because it had an .824 winning percentage to Illinois’ .800. But the Illini had two more wins and only one more loss, putting them half a game ahead.
The one thing Whitman didn’t mention was that the conference voted in November that they would determine the champion based on winning percentage, in case games were missed because of COVID. Michigan did miss games because of COVID issues on campus.
In all probability, Whitman voted in favor of doing it by winning percentage at the time. And if he didn’t, then he certainly never went public with his outrage about it until now, as the Illini go into the Big Ten Tournament.
Today, Chicago’s major papers, the Sun-Times (where I used to be a columnist) and the Tribune wrote harsh columns critical of Whitman, calling him whiny, saying that it’s time to turn the page and that he was over the top.
Yes, he was. That was the point. Sharpen your axe? Live in infamy? It was clearly tongue-in-cheek. At least I hope it was.
The Illini are going to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, behind Gonzaga, which will be the overall No. 1 seed. Illinois, which I’ve been saying for weeks is going to win the national championship, has developed incredible momentum at the end of the season.
They have come together over hard feelings toward Michigan. The Wolverines had to shut down their team temporarily when several students on campus — though no basketball players — tested positive COVID.
The Illini seemed to rally around that, as if it were an excuse not to play them. Eventually, they did play each other at Michigan — with Illini star Ayo Dosunmu sitting out with a broken face from a hard hit against Michigan State — and Illinois won in a blowout.
Afterward, the Illini were declaring themselves conference champs.
But I don’t blame Whitman for his letter. He’s trying to rally his fans and fire up his team. This is the best you can do in COVID times. The only surprise is that he didn’t do it on Zoom.
This is the kind of thing sports fans, and particularly college sports fans, eat up.
And athletes, too. I’ve never really understood why athletes are motivated by showing other people that they’re wrong.
Isn’t making the most of yourself and winning motivation enough? In any sport I’ve played or coached (I’m the head tennis coach at Roosevelt University in Chicago), I haven’t needed an artificial boost for incentive.
But you can’t deny that it does work in sports. Tom Brady was already known as the Greatest of All Time, but he still felt he had to prove something to others this season — and he won another Super Bowl. Michael Jordan was always upset about people not believing in him even though it would be hard to find one person who didn’t.
But whatever. Whitman’s letter will fire up everyone and even improve Illinois’ odds of winning the championship.
Whitman wrote this: “This is a decision that will resonate with our program for generations.’’ And this: “It stands counter to the very foundations of competition and sport.’’
Haha. Don’t get too worked up over this. Whitman’s letter is funny, assuming he meant for it to be. If not, well, he wasn’t playing to the most intellectual part of an athlete, anyway.
It will work on the Illini. If it doesn’t, then, as Bluto said in Animal House when his frat was banned:
“Oh no! Seven years of college down the drain!’’