Before I begin my
rant speech editorial piece, I should start by saying that this is my view on what happened Saturday.
Homecoming week is always a special week during the football season for fans and alumni alike. For starters, there's always a collective buzz around campus. Traditionally, this week takes place during the time on the calendar when the leaves have changed their color from a deep green to a fiery red/orange/yellow. The wind is brisk but there always seems to be a few rays of sunshine that peak through the October clouds (or it's raining...I remember a few Octobers being 20+ days of rain), and there's a certain smell in the air that just signals Homecoming Week is here. I've been lucky enough to have attended games this time of year since 1994, and there's a buzz that we all wish we could replicate on a weekly basis.
*What do you mean?*
To set up my case, let's take a look at the attendance figures over the last few years. Under Coach Tim Beckman, the average paid attendance for the 3 seasons of football was 43,633. While those numbers were declining on a season by season basis, the team managed to improve (shows you the power of opinion our fans had about the coach). Before that (when I was in school), average attendance for the last 3 seasons of Zook was 54,426 (difference of 10,793 people). While that doesn't seem like a lot, click on the numbers and see the clear difference. Mind you, that's the difference between a non-conference game with a struggling team and a coach that people don't like -AND- a coach that people tolerate playing against the top ranked team in the country.
That being said, things USED to be electric on gameday. There was always a certain "we've got this" mentality during conference play that made us feel invincible...like any game we played, we AT LEAST had a chance to win. It's a feeling that I haven't felt in a while (2010 to be exact), but a feeling that's reared it's beautiful head recently.
After previewing the Iowa game, that feeling was there! By golly that feeling of "we could win this" was there as I hiked to Kinnick Stadium decked out in Illini orange while yellow and black clad fans blared AC/DC and drank BEvERages all around me. I was in enemy territory, BUT I DIDN'T CARE. "We could ACTUALLY pull this off" was the thought that echoed in my head as Wes Lunt and the Illini offense had the ball with 3:20 left in the game. And yes we all know what happened in the end, but we at least had a chance to do what we did against the Nebraska Cornhuskers the week before. But falling to a team that could very well win the Big Ten West Division in a close game is not the worst thing in the world. Looking around that stadium and taking in the sights and sounds from pregame to postgame...I couldn't help but think "this is what it could be like."
Enter Homecoming Week.
That same WONDERFUL feeling of "we could ACTUALLY pull this off" was back as I finished my analysis of the Wisconsin Badgers. I watched my Facebook thread fill up with friends excited to return to Champaign, and some legitimate talk about winning the game all week. Twitter was optimistic, our simulation was optimistic, everything was lining up to be a win. And sure DIA may have been giving away free student tickets to the game and brought in a popular country singer to handle the pregame festivities, but there was a pregame buzz again...one that we haven't felt in quite some time.
Take a look at what it looked like in Memorial Stadium (photos from Cary Frye):
Fighting Illini.com photo gallery
Someday...it's going to be like this everyday.
Not right now, let's pump the brakes a little bit. After this season, there's a good chance our coaching staff will be gutted and we'll probably fall into the cellar again in the Big Ten West. But once we put together a program (not just coaching staff, but a PROGRAM) that is able to sustain relevancy on a yearly basis, these pictures and tweets will be a daily occurrence. And when that day comes, we'll once again be able to say, "We've got this."
Not matter the outcome, Saturday was refreshing. And it's really nice to know that everyday will be like Saturday...eventually.