After 700 days, the Illinois Fighting Illini have finally won another Big Ten game in football, ending a 13-game skid against the conference. That 13-game Big Ten losing streak is behind only Rutgers’ 16-game skid that was broken by Illinois last year as the second-longest dry spell since Illinois’ legendary 20-game slide from 2011 to 2013.
How does this affect a fanbase? Well, I can only speak for myself here, but there’s a progression you go through. When you’re descending into the depths of football oblivion, you as a fan will fight it every step of the way, insisting that it was really only this one phase of the game that made enough mistakes that it cost them the opportunity to get a win. You start telling yourself that certain players or units are playing so well that eventually they have to win a game. Then you start telling yourself that maybe the losing is taking its toll and this team can get back on track with just one win to restore their confidence.
But as you get to the meat of one of these losing streaks, it sets in that the team really is as bad as the record has been showing, and you start to believe they will fail at every opportunity. Desperation and anger give way to a kind of walking depression; you aren’t going to be nervous or tense or excited, you’re not going to make a lot of noise, you’re just going to sit quietly knowing the team is just not good enough to ever win. You can’t talk smack anymore; everyone in the league is better than you.
Even the teams struggling the most will find their rhythm against your team, because winning a game simply isn’t in the cards. This is especially true when your team’s ineptitude is most apparent on the offensive side of the ball, because although you know your team has no chance to do anything, if they were to win it would be because the other team gave you a bunch of points, not because your team actually did anything to earn them.
Rivalries stop mattering; how can you hate any team other than your own? They’re not the ones that are making college football unpleasant. At some point, the depression fades into a numbness that allows you to laugh at your team’s miscues and watch in awe at the sheer talent disparity on display. You don’t want to go out of your way to be at the stadium, and when you see it on TV it’s half full and the visiting fans are louder than yours.
Enough of this will really make you wonder what the point is of continuing to watch this sport. Your connection to your team is too strong and even if you were to just decide that you’re now an Alabama fan or an Ohio State fan, it would never feel special like YOUR SCHOOL. So, you think to yourself, this is your lot in life. The wins are few and far between and maybe you’ve seen your last. Knowing all the forces at work behind the scenes in college football, from those profiting massively off unpaid labor to the insidiousness of NCAA compliance cracking down on a kid getting enough help to get by without being homeless to the commercialization and commodification of all the organic things that made college football so special, like traditional rivalries and regional identity, to the way that coverage of this sport is now structured to make you think only about the College Football Playoff™, you start to think that maybe it would be healthy if you just quit watching this blood sport entirely. You’re a (insert your team) fan. You don’t belong. You’re not the target audience.
BUT THEN THERE’S A MOMENT!
A college football program rebuild is something that takes years and whose results sometimes can’t be seen for several seasons. Even when there’s some improvement, however, you can’t feel as though it’s sustainable as a fan until the team’s record starts to show it. The fact that Ohio State only beat you by 31 this year instead of 49 doesn’t really bring you much comfort, even if you can see an identity developing.
Then, at long last, you get a game like Illinutgers 2018, where that newfound identity actually manifests itself into a win and all the promise of “this will some day yield a conference win that will get us out of the very bottom of the cellar” finally comes to pass!
A fist pump, a cheer, some clapping...it no longer feels silly and inconsequential, but like a natural reaction to your team playing well. When Epstein had his untouched 41-yard run to build a 21-point lead with 5 minutes remaining, I had the most liberating feeling a downtrodden fanbase can feel: I finally felt I could allow myself to visualize a victory! Suddenly, this incredible feeling of beating one of your competitors, this prize that has been locked away from you and only you for so long behind many layers of clear Lexan so that you can see everyone else enjoy it, can actually be yours!
It actually happened! Illinois football is miles away from even starting to climb the mountain to the top of the conference, but fans haven’t even been thinking about that climb. It started with the struggle to get up off the mat and stand upright, and with that step complete, we can imagine having fun with Illinois football again without that albatross hanging from our neck.
Memorial Stadium being packed with orange-clad fans drowning out a visiting offense with noise is now something that seems like it could someday happen again instead of just a memory from bygone days that couldn’t happen today. The team established something it does reasonably well, which is run the ball. Suddenly, it might actually be fun to go to a road game. It’s not that I need my team to win, but when you know they’ll lose 45-0 to Brady Hoke and then they lose 45-0 to Brady Hoke, how can you really even have much fun as a visiting fan?
Sure, I may not be willing to reasonably predict an Illinois win for the rest of the year, but they’ve already won 3, and that’s all I hoped for this year. Any additional wins this year? Gravy! As a fan, it feels like I’m back in the game, like I just got over a debilitating illness. All I’ve ever asked for is for it to be fun to watch Illinois football and to feel like defeating our peers in the conference is possible more than half the time. Not that we win more than half the time, but that it SEEMS POSSIBLE.
It’s like I have a team again, like the program was suspended and now it’s back.
Hell, I’m actually going to the Homecoming game now despite those horrible gray uniforms. We’ll probably lose by giving up huge quantities of points, but now I can watch the game while thinking that we can win it! I might actually use up most of my voice!