Illinois Fighting Illini football fans have a very different college football experience than those who latch onto the likes of Ohio State, Alabama, USC, Oklahoma and teams in that echelon. Browsing Reddit has made that abundantly clear, as I see discussion threads such as this one asking about a recent season that’s a blank spot in your memory as a fan. In this thread, several fanbases reflected shamefully on 10-win seasons that were below expectations. This is the kind of emotion I’ll never fully understand, along with such phenomena as being certain your team will win a conference game, or feeling good about the prospect of returning a punt. Bowl trips and the ability to talk prodigious smack are perks that our fanbase generally lacks. But there’s one major perk of Illini fandom that the likes of the Buckeye faithful will never experience.
No, I’m not talking about the thing where you go to Champaign without any plans and pick up tickets on your way to the stadium for $2 a pop.
I’m talking about the extent to which losing to Illinois drives people crazy. The Fighting Illini have won eight of their last 56 conference games, which means that for 48 of those games the fanbase had varying degrees of adverse reactions. However, each of those eight wins signaled the end of the world for the opposing fanbase, and those of us who enjoy some good sports schadenfreude are able to feast for many winters on the buffet each conference win brings.
Take, for instance, this Maize’n’Brew post about the Halloween 2009 game that moved Illinois to 2-6 on the year:
First off, apologies for the deleted threads, basically there was nothing of value being stated in the most recent one, and the game thread had digressed to caps-lock explicatives from yours truly, and really, there’s just not much to gleam from that is there?
Losses to even decent Illinois teams have prompted thoughts such as...
I honestly don’t know where we go from here.
...from a Purdue perspective where this was a stark indicator of Danny Hope’s limitations.
A beatdown of Penn State on the road yielded the following in a summary:
The reaction following Penn State’s 33-13 loss to Illinois yesterday is coming in anywhere from brutal to alarmist and it’s hard to argue against much of it at all. To put in perspective just how shockingly terrible the defeat was, consider the last time Penn State lost a noon kick at home...can you even remember it? Probably not, and that’s because noon games are reserved for sacrificial lambs.
After the 6-game skid to end the Zook era blossomed into a 20-game losing streak, someone had to be the team to break it, and it was going to hurt when Illinois did break that streak. Sure enough, it inspired deep introspection.
Folks, that is not just bad. Purdue would have to improve to be bad. This was an embarrassing effort and a collective failure of every single facet of the Purdue football program from Morgan Burke on down to the backup walk-on long snapper.
Fortunately for the Boilermakers, Tim Beckman charitably served up a road win to them in 2014, which seemed to signal the end for him. Everyone around the conference thought so, which is why Minnesota was so flabbergasted to lose in Champaign. A sample from the comments on this piece:
Holy shit. That was the single worst performance from a Gopher team I’ve seen since Kill got here. The just didn’t seem to care about playing. How the hell does that just happen!?
Penn State was substantially more hurt by their trip to Champaign, leaving defeated.
We’ve lost games this year to good teams and to bad ones, we’ve been blown out, and we’ve lost in the final seconds. But this one is worse than any I can remember. It’s not just that Penn State lost to Illinois, it’s that Penn State so thoroughly deserved to lose to Illinois. And it all came to a head because James Franklin was too much of a coward to believe that his team could just pound the ball inside and gain the half a yard they needed to put the game away.
Northwestern fans found themselves extremely sobered by the season-ending loss in 2014.
I wish I could be optimistic about the future of this program
But I’m pretty much just the opposite.
The trend is obvious. But too many people are willing to provide excuses for this program, or point to the anomalous 10 to argue that things are fine. They are not. We just got fucksawed by Tim Beckman at home, with the season on the line. To call it an embarrassment is an understatement.
In 2015, it was once again Purdue’s turn to meet the end of the world at the hands of the Fighting Illini.
This program has become a joke. This program has become a laughingstock. Shame on me for taking a look at that Nebraska game and believing that Purdue had actually made progress. Shame on me for believing in my team. Shame on me for hoping again and shame on me for wasting each and every Saturday with this team.
2016’s wins against Rutgers and Michigan State inspired some wailing and gnashing of teeth, but the best example of this hidden perk of Illini fandom that I’ve found comes from the aftermath of the 2015 win against Nebraska — Mike Riley’s first Big Ten conference game coaching the Cornhuskers. Several write-ups followed, none of which were very pleasant.
And for Mike Riley, that could involve a moving van heading back west towards Corvallis, if Nebraska plays like this the rest of the season. Nebraska has been in a position to lose the game at the end in four out of five games this season, and the teeth of the schedule is still ahead. Buckle up, it could get really bumpy.
From the comments:
I know it’s early but
does anyone see this ending differently than after 2-3 seasons he is fired? Unless something drastically changes I am going to find it very hard to continue to support this staff.
If you’re the kind of sports fan who loves seeing opposing fans have meltdowns, you’ve come to the right place.
The reason I bring this up now is that Illinois has been pegged by Vegas as the worst team in the league again with an O/U of just 3.5 wins. This attitude is prevalent throughout the blogosphere, with schedule previews writing off Illinois as a guaranteed win. To be fair, the team is on a twelve-game Big Ten losing streak and lost starters due to transfers. However, although 2018 will not be the breakthrough season for the Lovie Smith regime, that conference losing streak will end this fall. In fact, I can even describe the game. Illinois wins the turnover battle despite making several big mistakes, holds on to the ball just long enough to keep the defense fresh and outlasts the opponent in a low-scoring game that leaves the other team scratching their heads as to how it happened.
In other words, this fall, a Big Ten team is going to lose to Illinois, and not only will we party like it’s 1983, but that team’s fans will go absolutely ballistic.
I can’t wait.