Before you continue reading, please realize this is not a hot take. It’s September 2017, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has the best fanbase in college athletics.
Illinois football running backs coach Thaddaeus Ward sells the program and school to recruits as Littyville — and he’s right. There is no place in college athletics quite like the University of Illinois. It’s, as the kids would say, “litty.”
To gain an appreciation for why this statement is true, just look at the past three days. It is a small sample size, but it should do this argument justice.
This started Friday night in Huff Hall at the annual “Stuff Huff” game. Illinois played host to Stanford, and former head coach Kevin Hambly, who left Champaign in the spring to take the nation’s premier volleyball coaching job with the Cardinal.
The Illini were swept by the Cardinal, but not before putting up a fight against the defending national champion.
But a majority of the football, woman’s basketball and other teams were in attendance supporting their fellow student-athletes, as well as other Illini fans.
Just look at this place.
The weekend continued — as weekends sadly do — with athletic director Josh Whitman’s morning run with fans looking to jog around campus and share their thoughts about the Illini with the man making the decisions. You would be hard-pressed to find another AD making this much of an effort to connect with fans.
Saturday night was a football game against Western Kentucky, and whatever that big red mascot of the Hilltoppers’ is. Illinois entered as the home underdogs against a Conference-USA school that had never defeated a Power Five program in its history.
Head coach Lovie Smith prepared his team for the program’s first night game since a blowout loss at the hands of current Chicago Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky and his North Carolina Tar Heels last September. While the crowd did not make for screensaver-esque photos like last year’s sellout, the fans arrived and cheered on the underdog, a team that had won only nine games since 2015.
For those inside Memorial Stadium, it did not have the feel of a stadium for a team that is considered among the worst Power Five programs in the country. The fans seemed to believe in Whitman’s plan and witnessed the Illini’s best game so far in the Lovie Smith era.
The fans inside Huff Hall and Memorial Stadium do not compare to the fans who attended the U.S. Open Singles Final at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The casual Illini fan has probably never heard of Kevin Anderson before this weekend when the former Illinois tennis player became the first in program history to reach a Grand Slam final.
Anderson lost in straight sets to some dude named Rafael Nadal — now the winner of 16 Grand Slam finals. He put up a good fight, but it was not enough at the end of the day.
The support Anderson had, however, had to make the experience that much more comfortable and amazing for the 31-year-old South Africa-native. Current Illinois men’s tennis head coach Brad Dancer was in attendance at the final and was the recipient of ESPN airtime on several occasions during the match.
But it was what the casual fans did at the championship that really strike a chord.
Illinois, obviously, is not the only university with a school specific cheer that would be recognizable through a television broadcast — we’re looking at you Boomer Sooner and “O-H! I-O!” — but there is something truly special about being an Illini.
I mentioned Whitman’s plan earlier. For those unfamiliar, the Illinois AD has stressed the motto “We Will Win” since taking office March 5, 2016. Some of the moves he has been associated with have been met with anger and frustration (i.e. banning of War Chant), while others have had nearly unanimous positive response (i.e. hiring Lovie Smith, Brad Underwood, Nancy Fahey and Chris Tamas).
There have been plenty of memorable moments for Illinois athletics in the past, but this weekend seemed to have marked a turning point, and it was due to the fanbase, also known as the best in college athletics.