Fans of the Illinois Fighting Illini will tell you that it’s hard to hate Illinois given how bad they are at football. This is nonsense. Hating Illinois is very easy for three reasons:
- Every time Illinois is the class of the B1G in a major sport, it is a sure sign that the conference sucks and Illinois is about to get eviscerated.
- Every time Illinois tries out the “don’t sleep on us, we’re a darkhorse ready to make some noise” shtick, you can be sure there’s a 2x4 ready to make rapid contact with their forehead.
- Despite 1. and 2., Illinois fans continue to fall in love with the smell of their own farts, convince themselves that THIS TIME Lucy won’t pull that football away, and get their hopes up. It’s like a second-rate version of watching Cubs fans until 2016. Really, it can be charming.
But it’s also very easy to hate.
I am on the back nine of my life and have about 40 years of B1G-watching to draw on. Please understand, this is not some cheaply constructed hate piece. I’m not hating just because I’m supposed to be hating for the sake of an OTE tradition. I hate because there is ample reason to hate. It’s the result of the slow accretion of data points over decades. My hate is well-marbled, Grade A, USDA prime hate.
Chest-thumping fan, ca. 1983: “First B1G team to go undefeated against everybody else in the conference. Mike White is an offensive genius and nobody in the B1G can keep up with our high-powered passing attack.”
B1G fan: “Great. Rep us well in Pasadena.”
Reality: Unranked UCLA 44, #4 Illinois 9. Illinois had zero rushing yards and was outgained in the air.
Quietly confident fan, ca. 1987: “Sure we finished fourth in hoops, but the B1G is the best conference in the country, we went 8-2 down the stretch, we got a 3-seed, and the region is there for the taking.”
Reality: 14-seed Austin Peay 68, 3-seed Illinois 67
Loud, obnoxious fan, ca. 1989: “Yeah we didn’t win the conference, but that’s only because of Gill’s injury. We swept Indiana and got a 1-seed. Flyin’ Illini baby!!!”
B1G fan: “I gotta hand it to you. You’re for real. You’ve got as good a chance as anybody.”
Increasingly surly fan, ca. 1990: “Michigan was the favorite but has already lost twice. Iowa’s coming to town and the winner is pretty much a lock for the Rose Bowl. We don’t need Jeff George. Mackovic is a genius. Fuck Bruce Pearl. The Hawks are gonna pay.”
B1G fan: “Maybe. Iowa already beat both Michigan and Michigan State on the road, though.”
I could do this all day, really. Both in the sense that I enjoy this and that Illinois has given us so much ammunition.
There was 1997 when Illinois fan wanted you to know that despite Bobby Jackson leading Minnesota to the B1G title and Andre Woolridge leading the B1G in scoring AND assists, Kiwane Garris might just be the best PG in the conference. And then 3-seed Georgia goes down, opening up the bracket for the 6-seeded Illini. A 5-14 Garris shooting performance later, Illinois was bounced by the 14-seeded Chattanooga Moccasins.
There was 2001 when Illinois scored 30 plus point against each of their last six B1G opponents on the way to winning the B1G title outright. In the BCS era, Illinois wasn’t able to go to Pasadena, but they did their best ‘83 Illini impersonation, falling behind LSU in the Sugar Bowl 28-0 (and 34-7 at halftime).
I’ll admit the last couple of decades the hate died down a bit. Yeah, they gifted Roy freaking Williams his first national title because the best guard trio in B1G history (just ask Illinois fan) decided to shoot 29% (10-34) from 3 in the title game. And yeah, losing 49-17 to a merely very good USC team in the 2008 Rose Bowl helped demonstrate how overrated the conference was that year.
But, anybody reading this who is not yet 30 could be forgiven for thinking me petty for hating on Illinois. The last 10-12 years have not been kind to Illinois. Who could work up the energy to hate them?
Fortunately, the 2020-21 basketball season happened, and you all got to see it first-hand. The cycle:
- “Ayo AND Kofi are back. B1G faves!!!”
- “Yeah we lost to Baylor, but they’re really good. We’re still fine.”
- “Fuck, what are we doing losing to Missouri? Same bullshit every time I get my hopes up. Fire Underwood!”
- “Back-to-back home losses to Maryland and Ohio State? We deserve this. We’re never going to be good again.”
- “9-1 in our last 10, convincing win against Wisconsin in Madison, we’re coming on!”
- “Fuck yeah, just blew out Michigan in Ann Arbor. I don’t care how our AD voted or what the rule is, we’re the best team in the B1G. THIS is what I’ve been waiting to see for so long. Best team since ‘05 baby! We deserve this. Suck it haters.”
- “B1G tournament champs. Give us that 1-seed and let’s ride this hot streak. Where’s Baylor. We’ve matured this year and want rematch. Fuck anybody who tries to qualify our achievements. We’ll have the last laugh when injury-depleted Michigan gets bounced in the first weekend everybody else in the B1G is forced to admit we’re really the best team in the best conference.”
No B1G school gives you more sizzle and less steak than Illinois.
Right now, Illini fans are laying low. But just wait until Illinois is in bowl contention this November, or when Kofi Cockburn successfully defends his first pick-and-roll in a few months. You’ll sense the balloon of self-regard inflating over Chambana. When it does, run to a safe spot and then just watch with joy as it explodes all over the place.
At some point, though, you have to wonder. Is there an explanation for all of this? After enough iterations, might we conclude that this is more than mere bad luck? Is there some cosmic force looking to punish Illinois fans? And if so, what would we call such a reliably malevolent force?
Maybe it’ll have to remain a mystery.
Or maybe not.