Continuing the guidebook commissioned by Rutgers Scarlet Knights survivor Ray Ransom, here’s the Illinois Fighting Illini edition of the OTE Guide to Dealing with Sub-Mediocrity
After the historic and monumental upset of #6 Wisconsin by my beloved Fighting Illini, I remain on top of the world, feeling anywhere from overjoyed to deeply content to frighteningly optimistic.
In other words, I’m way out of my comfort zone.
The OTE Guide to Dealing with Sub-Mediocrity, therefore, is a great way for me to speak from a place I’m accustomed to (namely, the cellar). First, though, I’d like to address the fact that what Rutgers is doing right now is truly historic and unlikely to be duplicated in the future. Since 1995, when the NCAA eliminated the tie, the longest losing streak in Big Ten conference games belongs to the Zook/Beckman Fighting Illini, losers of 20 straight from 2011 to 2013. In third place is the 16-game skid by the Flood/Ash Scarlet Knights from 2015 to 2017. In second place is Rutgers’ current 17-game B1G losing streak.
Having said that, I have plenty of experience with persistent, oppressive losing of the type that breeds apathy and resentment, so here’s some things to know.
It’s Okay To Prioritize Your Personal Happiness
It’s pretty common for someone who enjoyed their college years to really enjoy going back to campus afterwards. The presence of a hopeless football team doesn’t have to change that, for two reasons: first, you don’t have to let it ruin your weekend, and second, you don’t have to go to the game.
I really wanted to be a superfan in my 20’s and go to tons of games, go to all the other Big Ten stadiums, tailgate, organize bowl trips, etc. The first season after my graduation in 2012 made it clear that this was probably not going to be anywhere near as fun as I’d envisioned, and Illinois never became competitive enough to justify getting that hyped before I turned 30, and they still haven’t.
Here’s the thing though: when your awful team finally does something good, nobody’s going to be checking your ticket stubs from the terrible times to see if you’re a good enough fan to be admitted to the next game. I’ve made some trips to Champaign to go see a football game that I was pretty sure the Illini were going to lose, but when making the plans, I asked myself the following question: “if Illinois loses BIG, will this trip still be fun?” It was always important that the answer be “yes” because more often than not, the Illini would lose. So of course I would be excited to go to Memorial Stadium for the game, but I’d get just as excited about visiting the Alma Mater, going out to Green Street, a Sunday trip to Curtis Orchard, going to the Arboretum, seeing friends smart enough to avoid Illini Football, and all kinds of other fun stuff.
You can also make the same trip, but not bother going to the game! Maybe go to one of your favorite campus bars and watch it there, or don’t bother! Track it on your phone! Ignore it completely! The choice really is yours!
That goes for even Saturdays when you’re at home and would normally build your day around watching the game. Make plans that are flexible enough to accommodate the second half in the event that it’s worth watching, but always be prepared to bail when your team responds to a go-ahead touchdown by immediately throwing a pick-six and then muffing the ensuing kickoff. Remember: you are the master of your destiny and nobody can force you to watch terrible football. I know you want to watch on the odd chance that it’s not terrible, and today’s technology allows you to be able to do that, but you also need to accept that your suffering as a fan won’t make the wins appear faster, the football being played really IS terrible, and most importantly, NOBODY can dictate how to be a fan of your team.
You know who IS a bad fan? You know who REALLY doesn’t get it? The person who questions how you can still be a fan of your school and thinks you should just support this or that mainstream or local team. That person can go to hell, because that’s just not how this works at all.
Class Solidarity: Love Your Basement Brethren
You just can’t stand to watch your school be humiliated anymore, but you love watching college football and following its stories. Well, maybe your football program isn’t going to do it, but what about a program LIKE yours? That’s not to say that you should adopt Kansas or Oregon State or Vanderbilt, but when you see success here, it feels good to celebrate it as a victory for the class of college football’s oppressed.
Since everything is bitter and makes you angry when your team has been outgained by comical numbers of yards, it’s very tempting to just hate on the cellar-dwellers when they have a moment. “Look at that,” you say, “WAKE FOREST and IOWA STATE are ranked! God, even ILLINOIS gets to have a moment in the sun! Screw them, I hope they lose, it could have been us!”
This is the wrong way to go about looking at it (obvious exception for rivals) because at the end of the day, Rutgers, Illinois, Kansas, Indiana, Oregon State, Kentucky and the historic underclass all share one important vision: they want to see the Ohio States and Alabamas of the world bleed, and they want to see the power structure ripped apart. When Kansas beats Texas, it feels like a blow is being struck against the ruling class, and if it can’t be your team that does it, it’s always good to see a basement buddy get it done. There’s no need to be the crab in the bucket pulling the escaping crab back in.
Subsist On Other Sports At Your School
Football is your jam, and you’re never going to change that, even if everyone says you’re a basketball school at your best anyway. However, when football brings you no pride, start subscribing to feeds from the sports your school does well at! For Rutgers, I specifically suggest wrestling because I love wrestling and it’s a quintessentially Big Ten sport, but I’m sure Rutgers fans know what sports they excel at. Rutgers Wrestling won’t ever replace Rutgers Football in your heart as Your One And Only Team, but it’ll give you something to be excited about and pump your fist and do your school cheer for the time being.
Illini basketball started to tank shortly after Illini football did the same. Fortunately, the women’s volleyball and men’s golf teams have made some runs at the national title recently. Wrestling gave me Isaiah Martinez, possibly the most dominant Illinois athlete of all time. Of course football is the dream, but it’s on hold for now.
If that doesn’t work, does your school have any alums in the pros that you might consider following?
You’re Saving Up For A Feeling Most Sports Fans Never Experience
I’m not going to patronize you by telling you that it’s going to get better, or that this will pay off some day, or that, y’know, when you’re where Penn State is and they’re where you are that you’ll be laughing then, because none of that is necessarily true. When you’re at the bottom, it’s not true that there’s nowhere to go but up. You can also stay bad.
However, years of getting the give-a-shit beaten out of you by awful football (and no, I’m not talking about, like, that time Michigan missed three bowls in seven seasons, or when Minnesota had bad seasons bookend two bowl games in the Tim Brewster era, or when Michigan State spent 7 years going just a bit above or below .500, I’m talking stretches of years where you look at the schedule trying to figure out if there’s a Big Ten team you can beat) can prime you so that if a huge moment ever comes (Purdue 2018, Illinois last week...maybe INDIANA SOME TIME SOON?), you’ll experience an explosive high like nothing else in sports. Observe the text I sent to Antler Kaeperbisky not long after James McCourt’s kick went through: