Chances are that if you're reading posts on this website, you've been to a few Fighting Illini football games throughout your life. Think about everything that changes on a year-to-year basis. About 25% of the roster changes every season, coaches get fired and replaced, and Memorial Stadium itself has even seen some drastic improvements recently. Despite those variances, though, one factor has remained a constant for over a century.
Block I, the Illinois student section, is constantly creating new ways to enhance the atmosphere in Champaign. What kind of preparation goes into their weekly card stunts? What's the student experience like? Today we're joined by Block I's Ryan Christiansen and Sam LeRoy to answer these questions and more. Hopefully we'll convince a few incoming students to get tickets in the process!
Block I has been supporting Illinois football for over 100 years! So, clearly, your organization has a ton of history. In your eyes, what makes the section so unique when compared to standard seats at Memorial Stadium?
Ryan Christiansen, Block I VP: For starters, we're off on our own in the North End Zone. I like to think that separation between us and the rest of Memorial Stadium leaves it to us to ignite the atmosphere and bring the energy. Personally, I've never watched a game from anywhere but Block I, so I can't attest to the magnitude of our impact on somebody sitting in the Horseshoe or the upper deck, but we yell on each defensive drive and cheer after each first down because our goal is to have contagious energy for the rest of the stadium.
The band has a huge impact in that as well! We have the best seats in the house right behind Dr. Barry Houser and the Marching Illini! No matter how the game's going, or how early we're into a game, the students all come together for whatever cheer or dance Barry leads in front of us. Finally, the card stunts! Is there anything more unique than a card stunt? Not only is it an awesome opportunity to be able to sit and participate in a stunt, but you also get the best seat in the house to watch the stunt live on the jumbotron!
Let's talk about those card stunts, which are simply incredible every single week. What kind of preparation do you oversee in advance to make sure they're executed seamlessly?
Sam LeRoy, Block I Chair: Because we try to tailor each card show to a specific theme, the preparation starts months in advance by meeting with the DIA and the Marching Illini to learn about their shows each week and any special events. We also just look at the schedule to see how we can poke some fun at our opponent and look if there are any holidays that week to highlight. For example, because the North Carolina show is the day before 9/11 a lot of that show will be a salute to our first responders and armed forces. But we'll leave plenty of room for some good-natured ribbing at UNC, and of course we always work in some classics and fan favorites like the chug stunt.
Once we have our ideas mapped, we use a computer program -- homemade by a U of I student a few years ago -- to design the stunts. When we get to game week, we'll pick a time to meet with all of our 40 ‘Blockheads' for cardsorting. We'll go under the North Endzone to manually prepare the cards for the game. It sounds tedious but with the help of our student volunteers it goes by pretty quickly and we have fun doing it. The Blockheads are key in allowing us to execute not only our stunts, but every event we have planned for the season. Finally on gameday, we'll get together towards the end of the second quarter to roll the carts over and pass up each row of cards bucket brigade style. Then it's showtime -- I'll put on a mic and hopefully it turns out as good as it looks on paper.
What's the typical game day experience like for a student in Block I? Are there any plans to further utilize Grange Grove this season?
SL: Grange Grove was an awesome addition to the gameday atmosphere, especially for students. The difference in the pregame energy level among the whole crowd was noticeable, especially with the Illini Walk and Marching Illini concert. At this point there won't be many dramatic changes to our Grange Grove setup. Like last year, we'll be in the Northeast corner (closest to ARC) next to other tailgate plots dedicated for student groups. We'll start tailgating about 3 hours before kickoff with free food, games, and competitions that include giveaways for our members. We're also looking forward to the concerts the DIA has planned, and hopefully we get to host the Big Ten Network's new Gameday-style show this season. In game, the atmosphere is marked by a ‘big event' every quarter. We have the William Tell dance with the huge shield flag at end of the 1Q, the Block I Dance at end of the 3Q, and obviously stunts at halftime.
We have a great back-and-forth with the Band and Barry Houser during the game, he does a great job pumping us up. Besides William Tell, Low Brass and Crazy Train are fan-favorites. We're also currently working on developing more unique cheers for different situations like Orange Krush has done in past seasons. For example, we want to get the whole stadium participating in loud "We Will Win' chants. The best part of the game comes after each victory, as the team rushes over to sing the Alma Mater with us. As long as we do our job and provide an intimidating home field advantage, I think we'll be singing a lot this year.
From a value standpoint, Illinois' student tickets are the best bargain in the Big Ten. And it's also important to note that the $60 price tag gets you a lot more than just a seat. What are the other benefits for members?
RC: The seats for seven home games are a great deal for $60, but you're right, there are a lot more incentives that come with your tickets. For starters, you get a free 2016 Block I t-shirt, access to those awesome tailgates in Grange Grove, the chance to participate in a card stunt, and access to awesome 'Sideline Sessions'. One Sideline Session we had last year was "Punt Golf", where we turned Memorial Stadium into a golf course, and you played by punting a football from the tee box into the hole. Punter Ryan Frain and other members of the special teams unit joined us, which made it even more memorable!
We also love to keep students involved with Illini football when the team is on the road. The most notable thing we do is a Big Ten road trip for 100 of our most devoted members (based on a check-in system at our events). Additionally, we host a watch party inside Memorial Stadium where students can view a game on the giant jumbotron. We've also put together a daily fantasty-style game where students can predict the top performers of each week's contest (winners take home a prize).
Block I members are also automatically registered for Illini Pride, the umbrella organization that comprises all of Illinois' student sections. Illini Pride membership comes with similar benefits as Block I (food, prizes, apparel) but for every sport!
The Sideline Sessions sound like a fantastic way to get involved during the week. What are some examples of other activities that have been done in past years? Will there be any opportunities to meet Lovie Smith and the players?
RC: Sideline Sessions are a great chance to get more involved with Block I, and meet other students that you may not regularly interact with. One event we host each year is the Block I Bags Tournament, where we get up to 32 teams and play a single-elimination tournament. In the past we've also gotten to play an 'Amazing Race' around Memorial Stadium, take a tour of the football team's facilities, and play wiffle ball on the field.
We're still in the process of communicating with the coaches and players, so I can't promise they'll be at each event. But if there is an opportunity to meet with players or coaches from the team, it'll be at our Sideline Sessions.
Illinois boasts the largest Greek system in the country with over 7,600 students. Unfortunately, though, Block I participation has been lacking within that demographic due to the popularity of campus bars. What's your sales pitch for those fraternity/sorority members?
RC: Greek involvement is clearly not where we'd like it to be. For some reason -- I'm not sure how or when it began -- there's been a separation with Greek life between going to an Illini football game and watching an Illini game. What I mean by that is at campus bars, where the majority of Greek students are Saturday morning/afternoon, students are watching the game on TV. They think that the best way to enjoy a game is at a bar, but when they haven't gone to a game to experience the atmosphere they don't realize what they're missing.
What makes college football so special is the electricity in the stadium, and students are blessed to live mere blocks away from this atmosphere. Anyone that's gotten to experience that environment is coming back to the games, those are the students that still make it to the game after they stop by campus bars on the way.
This year's goal is to get those Greek members at our game before Greek "Block" begins, and we've worked with the majority of these fraternities and sororities to host their recruitment events at Grange Grove. We're going to get them in early and let them feel that electricity, and from there we'll let them choose the best way to enjoy a game.
Last question! What do you think Illinois' record will be this Fall, and where do you see them finishing in the West Division? Optional: which bowl game will the Fighting Illini win?
RC: I don't know what to expect on the field with Lovie at the helm, but it's exciting to find out! We have a good team, so I don't think we'll have to wait long to see how Lovie works with talent. As far as the record, I hope each game is played hard and the team feels our energy at home. I just want 7 home wins!
Thank you to Ryan (@tdawg861) and Sam (@samleroy18) for taking the time to answer my questions! Make sure to follow Block I on Twitter (@IllinoisBlockI) for some behind-the-scene looks at the program throughout the season. For current and incoming students that are interested in joining the section, you can click here for more information from the Illinois Ticket Office.