I had to give this question much more thought than I originally guessed.
And after some soul-searching, I realized that I actually have two different answers: one for why I became an Illini fan and one for why I remain an Illini fan.
My first exposure to Illini athletics came during the 2005 basketball season, and shortly afterward my older brother had decided that he would attend Illinois the following year for undergrad. I remember intently following the basketball team with my brother from that time on, and then gaining interest in the revival of Illinois Football during the Rose Bowl season. Eventually, I too decided to attend Illinois, and the anticipation of enjoying consistently competitive athletics teams played a meaningful role in that decision.
During my freshman year in 2010-11, it seemed like Illini athletics really were going in the right direction. My neighbors and I on the third floor of Scott Hall watched Ron Zook and the Illini football team go toe-to-toe with Missouri under the leadership of a talented freshman quarterback, and that winter they would rout a young Robert Griffin III and his Baylor squad in the Texas Bowl. Meanwhile on the other side of Kirby, Bruce Weber and his team qualified for the NCAA Tournament again after being ranked for much of the season, while racking up victories over the likes of North Carolina, Gonzaga, and Michigan State along the way.
You couldn’t fault me for thinking that things were going to be alright over the next few years.
Of course, we all know what happened next.
The wheels fell off the Zook regime after an unbelievable home loss to one of the worst Ohio State teams in years, and I had the unfortunate privilege of watching the collapse of Bruce Weber’s era in person. After making the nine-hour trip with the Orange Krush to Lincoln, we stood aghast as the Cornhuskers thrashed the Illini and Meyers Leonard broke into tears on the bench. We all knew Weber’s time was up after that game on the long trip back to Champaign.
I bought into Beckman and Groce’s visions for their respective programs, although it was pretty easy to write Beckman off after his antics and disastrous first season. On the other hand, some of my best memories of Illinois Basketball came from John Groce’s inaugural season: watching the Illini crack the top ten after a home victory over Gonzaga, refreshing my Twitter feed to see that D.J. Richardson sank a three-pointer to beat Hawaii in a literally unwatchable game, and of course, rushing the court with Krush after Tyler Griffey’s layup against Indiana.
Unfortunately, there weren’t many memorable moments over the next few years, and that began to erode my passion for Illini athletics.
The real test for me — and I’m sure for many of you as well — came after the firing of Beckman and subsequent hiring of Bill Cubit. I felt embarrassed to be an Illini fan and remorseful after we found out that player mistreatment took place for years under Beckman and his staff. But then I felt betrayal after the University unambiguously punted on the decision to hire a head football coach, and in doing so, dug the hole that the football program is currently mired in.
At the time my thoughts kept circling back to “clearly the University administration doesn’t care about Illini athletics, why should I invest my money, time and emotions in it either?”
It was then that I found my answer for remaining an Illini fan.
No truly good stories proceed in a linear fashion. The best stories feature protagonists emerging from desperate or almost impossible circumstances to reach their goals. Captivating tales have plot twists, along with heroes who join the protagonists from unlikely places, and villains who thwart them at seemingly every move.
I’ve stayed an Illini fan through all the turmoil, scandal and countless losses because I want to see this story end well for the people involved in it.
I want to see Trent Frazier make it to the NCAA Tournament and avoid Malcolm Hill’s fate of carrying the team but always coming up short. I want to see Lovie Smith take the Illini to bowl games and compete with the best teams in the conference. More importantly, I want to see him create a solid foundation for his successor and change the narrative about Illinois Football. I want to see Mike Dudek enjoy one more season like his freshman campaign and show the whole country how talented he really is.
Illini athletics pulled me in years ago, then almost scared me off in one of its most tumultuous times, and now it’s these storylines, along with the characters who navigate them and the hopes we all share for a better future in Illini athletics, that keep me engaged.