The Spanish American War. The Kardashians. Two fucks. The metric system. The Federated States of Micronesia. Illinois football.
These are just some of the things in America that no sane person cares about. But we're neither historians, geographers, or Bruce Jenner's plastic surgeon, and we want to get to the bottom of the Black Hole that is Illinois football apathy. We want to know why it runs rampant in Champaign-Urbana and beyond. It's easy to not care about a program if you've been terrible forever, like Northwestern before 1995 or the Arizona Cardinals for pretty much ever, except the one year when they made the Super Bowl as a 9-7 team. No one would fault you for your apathy, but Illinois should be different, as we'll explain in a minute.
Joining me on this journey of apathy is Jesse Collins. We've done this a couple of times before, and we're never short on words. However, when we were kicking this idea around, we decided we needed a challenge. Sure, it's easy to talk about Bobby Petrino going after 20-something strange and lying about it, or Notre Dame hubris and arrogance.
But, as was pointed out in an email chain among the OTE staff that was as epic as Homer's Odyssey, if we write about a program that no one cares about, will we break the Internet? Will this be how the world will end? (H/T: Mike Jones).
We don't know, which is why we're doing this. If we break the Internet, it's Jesse's fault. I'll take the hit for the world ending.
Ted: It shouldn't be this way for Illinois football, at least to an outsider and a fan of college football. Illinois has a history that they can point to with a sense of pride that goes back almost to the founding of the game. Red Grange, the Galloping Ghost himself, helped put the sport of football, both college and professional, on the map. Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke are two of the most iconic football players in the history of the game, both at the collegiate and professional level. When The Football Gods built linebackers, the molds were those two guys. George 'Papa Bear' Halas, arguably the most iconic coach in football history, is an Illini grad.
The Illini have 5 national championships, 15 Big Ten Championships, 17 bowl games (8-9 record), a 3-2 record in the Rose Bowl, and were in Pasadena as late as the 2007 season. So Jesse, why is there so much shoulder shrugging and collective 'meh' regarding the Illini among the Illini fans? And why has it been this way for your whole life and most of mine?
Jesse Collins: I'm responsible for the end of the internet? To my generation (and each successive younger generation), that probably equates to the end of the world. We live in a sad world...
Okay, so let's get down to the basics here. For as long as I have been a College Football Fan and been cognizant of my surroundings outside of Nebraska, I cannot tell you a single moment in Illinois history that actually sparked my imagination long enough to embed it into my brain. While the Illini faithful will be quick to name hundreds of plays, players, and moments that make them relevant, the reality is that they just have not been all that important a team for a long time. And when I say, "important," I'm not even saying competitively. I mean that this school and team has not been legitimately and literally important to the college football landscape for my entire life. Yes, there have been some bouts of competitive relevancy both in 2007 and 2001, but those are far overshadowed by the fact that I cannot name a player on that team from longer than four years ago.
All this would be absolutely normal for a mid-level BCS program, though, except that there barely seem to be fans of the Illini clamoring for respect either. I do not expect a ton of participation by these fans on our site because we do realize as writers that you play to the strength of your writing team. We do not have an Illinois writer, so the fans won't come hang out and chat with us for long lengths of time. However, I do expect there to be a vibrant Illinois Football fanbase somewhere on the Internet. Outside of a couple smaller blogs, there just really does not seem to be any talk about the team - minus a few jabs at the haters like us who pointed out Beckman basically did the non-denial denial thing.
Since we started doing the whole Big Ten at Ten thing, I have been doing my best to come up with good material for each team. It has made me a better writer because I am reading just an incredible amount of opinions on each team, minus Illinois. They are by far the most difficult team to find articles about. Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue, and Northwestern are comparable (well, Indiana might not be, but we can get to them in a while) from a competition standpoint, but for some unknown reason, they all have better fanbases - even in this slow time. Indiana has been to 9 bowls and I promise I can find more Hoosier football fans than Illini fans out in the Interweb. This is not always the best measurement out there, but let's be real. The internet is an entirely fair way to judge the fervor of a fanbase, and it's not been good to Illinois.
I'm not sure that actually answers your question, though, and maybe we need to restructure it and start trying to figure out what the hell went wrong in Illinois that led us from, "Dick Butkus is going to murder you on the football field because he is just that awesome," to "Did you see that Derron Williams played on the Dream Team? ZOMG!" I mean, there had to be a turning point, right? What could cause such apathy in a fanbase when we're talking about a school that has a large alumni base, good set of traditions, and an understanding of the game of football? If we can answer that, maybe we can even figure out how to rally the Illinois troops and help them reclaim Chicago (you know, from Notre Dame).
Ted: It's tough to figure out where it went wrong and football became an afterthought, but what the heck, let's try. I mean, how can they call themselves a basketball school, when they're far less accomplished in that sport than they are in football?
Maybe it's just the recency of things. Like you said, football has been doormant for a long time. As in Rip Van Winkle could have fallen asleep in 1975 and just woken up now. He would be completely freaked out over things like the PC, Internet, satellite TV, flying cars...wait, where ARE the flying cars, anyway...free porn on said Internet, smart phones, Skype, etc. I mean, he'd be hyper-ventilating, right? Then he'd look at the B1G standings and see that Illinois was still mediocre and at or near the bottom, and he'd take a deep breath and go "WHEW. I really thought I was gonna lose my shit there for a minute."
Basketball has been on the ascent since the late 90's, roughly, and been a major player in the conference for most of the aughts. But I don't ever remember anyone ever giving a shit about Illini basketball in the 80's...probably because they were as mediocre in that sport then as they have been in football now. So maybe Illini fans are just clinging to a sports life raft to keep from sinking into an abyss of a sports black hole.
I mean look at sports in the state of Illinois, it's depressing on so many sports levels, but that should just help reinforce Illini fandom. Maybe it just beats them down further. The Cubs, BWAHAHAHAHAHA. The Bears, failing to live up to expectations of 1985 since 1986. No one outside the South Side even knows there is an American League baseball team, and Northwestern is Chicago's B1G team. The Black Hawks recently won the Stanley Cup, but there aren't too many casual hockey fans. You're one of a small percentage of hockey fans, or you just don't follow the sport.
But the recent performance of those teams doesn't match the fan base apathy, with the exception of the Black Hawks. The Cubs fans, God love 'em, are the most loyal in baseball. Bears fans? As passionate as any in the NFL, and Northwestern owns Chicago, as we already mentioned, heh heh. And come in to Comiskey Park as a senior citizen first base coach, and you'll get your ass beat--they protect their house. Maybe Illinois football fans are just a Cubs or a Bears fan that can't afford to spend any more sports emotion on a team.
The more I look in to this, the more convinced I am that once basketball begins their downward cycle, Assembly Hall attendance will drop, fans will sigh a collective 'meh', and hopefully Men's Lacrosse will be good, so they'll have something else to cling to.
Is that it? Are they just a bunch of fair weather fans that might be more loyal to other sports in the region, and just don't have time for their alma mater/state school unless they're good at something?
[ED Note: We took two days off at this point. We just didn't care, either. Carry on...]
Jesse: Well, I guess the best place to start is that most fans in large cities are fairweather fans. I guarantee that people in LA cared a whole lot more about USC football when Reggie Bush was running past defenders than when they were losing to mid-level Pac-12 teams. It's just the nature of the game, though. No longer do you just have the College team to enjoy, you have five professional outlets, countless semi-professional outlets, and only enough money to really get behind what you can routinely watch on TV. Still, that only speaks for the general public -- the ones who have zero affiliation with the University of Illinois. To them, I'll give them a break because honestly, if I had no affiliation with the school, I wouldn't exactly root for the home team so to speak.
Still, that does not explain the rest of the state and the alumni. It's a fairly large school, and outside of Chicago, there really is only so much to root for in Illinois. Similar to Indiana and Minnesota, you have major cities (Indianapolis and Minneapolis respectively) that matter to the state, but the state still seems to really embrace the University as the pinnacle defining trait of who the state tries/wants to be. For Illinois, it just seems like the state kind of checks the box score, shrugs its collective shoulders, and moves on. This, in fact, is in spite of the aforementioned history of the football team. For a state that is obsessed with football roots (Butkus? Grange? Payton? Ditka? Come on!!!) and has an incredible football IQ, the collective disinterest in what happens at Illinois disturbs me.
And it's not just a lack of interest on the Internet. I mean, we tend to judge fanbases by their relative sanity/involvement on sites like ours as well as some of their blogs/fansites across the entire interwe, but even when you turn on the TV and see Illinois on Saturdays, you can tell they just kind of don't care. For a state school with state dollars, doesn't that just seem... ridiculous? I guess what I'm saying is that interest can't just be based on a team being good or not. We can try and boil it down to that, but there are schools that have as much relative success as Illinois and do a whole hell of a lot better in the stands, on the screens, and in the stores. So if it isn't just being close to Chicago and if it isn't just the fact that they're not all that competitive right now, what is it?
I have a theory, and it is somewhat unfounded, but I'll let you take a swing at it. I believe that the University might not care all that much about it. Apathy in fans is usually proportional to the apathy of a department, right? Let's look at our schools for a moment. At Nebraska and Ohio State, we all know what runs the roost. Football culture jokes aside, there is definitely a marketing giant pushing the sport to the masses. We hire the best coaches, we build huge coliseums to play in, we give our players more paid, 'advisers' than Northwestern grads give themselves servants, and we have enough TV time to run a political campaign. Bottom line, our schools care a lot and while they will argue that it is directly in line with demand, I think that the demand is being sold as much as it is being bought.
At Illinois? Well, Tim Beckman might very well be a good coach, and for what they have to work with, he could have been the best thing out there. Still, don't you think you gotta go flashier than that? You kept Ron Zook for a season too long, your facilities are meh, and maybe the fans know that you care about as much as they do. That's not completely fair to blame the school. After all, maybe their priorities are in line, but in the case of the apathetic Illinois fanbase, maybe this is a trail we should explore. Thoughts?
Ted: Yeah, nice theory, but we could be getting into a 'chicken or the egg' argument here. Maybe the University doesn't put out the effort because of fan base apathy...or maybe fan base apathy is due to the relative shoulder shrug of the university when it comes to putting emphasis on football.
I really think it's a combination of the both--fan apathy and school indifference, but I don't know that one came from the other. Maybe they both evolved equally, because both the school and the fans, at least in regards to basketball, are very supportive. The school markets basketball, the fans respond, and there's a great following for them around here. It's waned a bit since the highpoint of their Final Four appearance here in the St. Louis area, but it's still strong. But in terms of football, it's much different.
In Illinois, everyone in Chicago refers to the rest of us as 'down staters', and really, when you get past Springfield, it's tough to call down state 'Illini Country'. I've lived here in down state country for almost a decade, or in other words, the entire Ron Zook era, and there's never been any buzz about Illinois football. Ever. Not once. Like you said, there are a lot of distractions--great recreational lakes that lend to a lot of outdoor activities like swimming, fishing, and camping, St. Louis Cardinals baseball, hunting, etc. There's also the fact that Chicagoans doesn't give a shit about what happens outside their city, but I've never seen a commercial for Illinois football. It's like the University doesn't want to publicize that they have a product that is relatively cheap, close and easy to get to, and is generally entertaining. I went up to Chambana a couple years ago for an Illinois-OSU game, and it was a full day, relatively inexpensive blast.
There's a sizeable untapped market here in downstate Illinois, and college athletics is well supported locally--Southern Illinois, for example, has a pretty dedicated following for a relatively small school. I thought the Illini had a golden opportunity to make some inroads during and after the 2007 season, but failed to capitalize, both on and off the field.
Maybe it was because the name 'Ron Zook' engendered head shakes and eye rolls and his teams were so inconsistent. Maybe the Tim Beckman hire didn't really move the needle, I don't know. But Illinois has some marketable players, and it wouldn't be hard to push those faces to the people and say 'come watch us, we're pretty good'.
Now, could Illinois have gone flashier in terms of the coaching hire? I don't know. If the University really isn't out front in their marketing and promotion, no. If you're not promoting the program to the state and to the Alumni, then you're not going to bring in a major hire, like Urban Meyer. You need a guy that can bring excitement back to a program and get them on the upswing, a guy that can at least get the confidence of the faithful restored, like Jerry Kill. And I think Tim Beckman is that guy. He's energetic, he's already taking shots at Northwestern, and he's a good coach that knows how to recruit.
And for Illinois, that's half the problem. The state isn't California, Florida, or Ohio in terms of the quantity of top notch recruits, but it's pretty fertile. If Beckman can keep most of these kids home, he's going to build a good program that will start selling itself. Oncve that happens, there's potential here.
It wouldn't take much for there to be some interest in Illini football throughout most of the state. We're too far away to get the Bears every week, so it's the Rams for the NFL...and this just in, they're awful. A little clever marketing with an energetic guy like Beckman, and some consistency on the field with a couple of 7 or 8 win seasons with an upward trajectory in future years, and I think they can start to shake the doldrums.
So is that the answer--just start winning consistently and advertise it? It seemed to work for basketball. maybe it is that simple--but maybe Illinois football will always be the 'meh' program of the B1G. I didn't think we could talk this much about something so few care about. I'll let you wrap it up with any final thoughts. You have the floor, Jesse.
Jesse: Wow, closing statements? I feel like I should go put on the fancy suit. Look, I actually hold very little disdain for the Illinois football program. Nebraska has very little history with them, they are not in the same division, and they have never really, 'rained on our parade' in my lifetime. As I said in the very beginning, they are essentially a non-entity to me. That is not always a bad thing, but the few fans who believe elsewise need to really start looking in the mirror and asking themselves if that is really true.
See, Illinois should start marketing better. If it takes a battle for the LOLhat with Northwestern, great! If it takes a caravan across Southern Illinois and Northern Missouri, great! If it takes the contraction of bad ties and oxford shirts, even better. Whatever it takes, you make sure your product gets out there and that the people craving some attention feel compelled to do something about it. Then, you win. Nobody expects Illinois to be Ohio State, but why can't they at least be Kansas State? Seriously, K-State is one of my least favorite teams ever because of our history with them, but I got to hand it to the Wildcats. They are consistent, they have a rabid fanbase, and they make sure people know they exist. Illinois has just as many people to pull from and are in a historic conference. There just don't seem to be a lot of excuses. It is absolutely possible to win 8 or so games consistently with the recruiting base and history they have.
For what it's worth, I hope Beckman does well. While his press conference at Media Days was laughable (and I don't care what the Illini faithful say, it was painful to watch), he seems to be the right guy for the job. Bottom line, Illinois fans need to start rallying the troops and instead of just getting defensive about their team, they need to start going on the offensive. If you lose, be mad about it. If you look stupid on TV, write a letter to the AD. Whatever it takes, you know? Football is symbiotic with its fans and the culture/dynamic is only as good as what you put into it. The thing is, even with all of what we discussed, I just have this nagging feeling that maybe their time has passed them by. I guess, no matter what a team does, sometimes things never change. Like you said, it just still seems like Illinois football will never 'get it'... Kind of a travesty if you ask me.