All I’ve ever really wanted is to experience big-time college football at the University of Illinois. My freshman year of 2007 led me to believe that it would be like that; despite the mid-2000’s, the NFL talent and the Rose Bowl berth showed that Fighting Illini football was a legitimate establishment. The legendary Memorial Stadium would soon become known as a tough place to play due to the swirling winds and the intimidating crowd, and even if we didn’t always win, it’d be a thrilling experience to be in the stands rooting for a competitive major conference football team.
The crowds were big through the 5-7 2008 season, and though the season was frustrating, the night game against Indiana sticks out as a moment when I felt big time college football happening at Illinois, with a team that, for that game, looked great and a roaring, packed crowd creating a wall of sound as the Hoosiers tried to operate their offense. But late into 2009’s disastrous 3-9 campaign, the crowds tapered off and few were on hand to see a frigid December loss to Fresno State.
Since then, the atmosphere has mostly been a shadow of what it was, with swaths of empty seats and audible chants from visiting fans genuinely damaging my pride. Who could blame the crowd for foreseeing the 2011 collapse and never buying into Tim Beckman or a lame-duck Bill Cubit? My experiences during three games in seats outside of Block I was a far cry from "every man stand up and yell;" it was more like "every man, woman and child sit down and sulk quietly until halftime, then leave."
And the program earned it with the Tim Beckman hire, and doubled down upon extending Bill Cubit. This was a definitive statement that Illinois would not be Big Time College Football, and my dream of a packed, vibrant, electric Memorial Stadium seemed deader than ever.
Then, in one fell swoop, Josh Whitman somehow made Illinois Football immediately relevant by committing to assemble a Big Ten-grade coaching staff. Lovie Smith came on board, and the caliber of recruits committing has been exclusively Power-5 level since he did. Thousands of new season ticket holders bought in, and over 48,000 showed up to watch Illinois take on FCS Murray State.
Which brings me to Saturday, September 10th. If you share my dream for Illinois to feel like the Big Time College Football you watch on TV, this game against the hated UNC Tar Heels under the lights is your chance to live it. The biggest crowd in years turned out for Murray State. The crowd’s chants in appreciation of Lovie Smith were loud and clear on the TV broadcast. Even before this past weekend, I was just watching SportsCenter in the background as I folded laundry and this came on:
This was not a dream; four minutes of SportsCenter coverage for the Illinois Fighting Illini. This game atmosphere will be more exciting than any home game in the Tim Beckman or Bill Cubit eras. From personal experience, I’ll tell you it’s possible. In 2011, coming off a 2010 bowl win over Baylor, Illinois took the field against No. 23 Arizona State under the lights. Just listen to this:
That was the last taste I got of that atmosphere I dream of at Illinois. Maybe there are growing pains in Lovie Smith’s first year, and maybe we take a step backwards next year and it takes several years before we’re a serious contender poised to be featured on major networks for reasons other than blowouts at the hands of Ohio State. Maybe the time of that electric game day atmosphere and that roaring crowd being staples of Memorial Stadium is years and years into the future. It’s even possible that North Carolina outscores us 42-0 in the first half and everyone leaves.
But I guarantee that for at least one quarter, Memorial Stadium will wake the echoes of 1983, Ray Eliot and the Red Grange days and show what it’s like when it’s the home of a Big Time College Football Team. I’ve waited five years to bask in it again, and I have no second thoughts about driving the 500 miles it takes to get there and witness my dream come true, no matter how briefly.
Where will you be?