How are you? It’s good to be talking to you. I hope you’re doing well.
Twenty-one months ago, I was a wide-eyed soon-to-be junior at the University of Illinois. I had just applied to become the Site Manager at The Champaign Room, unaware of the blog’s loyal following and past. I jumped at an opportunity to share my passion and knowledge of Illinois Athletics and my writing and journalism skills, and just looked to follow Tom Fornelli and Jim Vainisi in carrying on the site.
Here were some of my first words, from my Introduction column.
With Lovie and Underwood, I-Mar and #GolfSchool, it’s a great time to be an Illini fan. Let’s have some fun, tell some stories, and (**fingers crossed**) end up not disappointed. ILL-
It was a great time to be an Illini fan.
We had fun. (Thanks, Giorgi.)
We told some stories.
But, we did end up disappointed, I guess.
With that in mind, I think I accomplished everything I wanted here. I won’t toot my own horn too much — I’ve only played my trumpet once since Basketball Band season ended — but TCR has experienced unprecedented growth on unprecedented growth over the past two years.
TCR has hired over 20 writers, with some of them going on to Rivals, The Daily Illini, MLB.com (for myself) and even promoted inside this very blog. We published articles on a daily basis, ran several interactive tournaments, started The TCR Podcast Channel (with nearly 28,000 listens on SoundCloud in eight months), grew the Twitter and Facebook accounts by several thousand followers and had credentialed reporters cover football, men’s basketball, baseball, softball and volleyball, all while trying to maintain the same tone of voice that you have grown to love from TCR.
So, as I move to Madison, Wisconsin, later this month to start my post-grad career as a TV producer at WISC News 3, it’s time for me to step away, letting the site grow in the hands of someone who can hold it close and push it forward.
And I’m honored that person will be Tristen Kissack, who you have been reading on this blog since the moment I started in August 2017. An 18-year-old applicant with no experience writing, Tristen has been my right-hand man the entire time, and I can't wait to see what happens next. I’ll let him introduce himself and his goals more over the coming days, but I’ll still be hanging around the site in a mentorship and editing role, while also helping write stories when needed. (Just because I’m graduating and moving to Badger country doesn’t mean I’ll forget about how much fun it is to watch the Illini.)
But, before I go, I wanted to do one more thing.
I honestly hope you have enjoyed the site and our coverage of the Illini over the past two years. And if you haven’t, let us know what we can change. We will continue improving to be a fan site run by fans, for fans. That’s SB Nation’s thing, and we want that to be our thing.
In that introduction column, I gassed myself up more as a journalist than anything else — like just being a fan. Sure, I did the Marching Illini, but I still introduced myself as a journalist.
Maybe that was a mistake.
So, as I say goodbye to this position that has brought me great joy and was maybe the best thing I got involved in during my time in college, I wanted to take a chance to share 10 short stories about my time here as a fan, as a member of the band, as a broadcaster and as a reporter. Hopefully that bridges the gap between you (the reader, my friend) and me, or hopefully it brings you back to a time in your life when maybe you were in college.
Maybe I’m just doing it as a therapeutic exercise for me before I leave.
Whatever the case, here are some of my memories — the fond ones and the sad ones — of Illini Athletics since I started college in August 2015 through my graduation in May 2019.
1. The First Football Game
There’s a phrase I could use here, but for the sake of the audience reading, I’ll just describe it instead.
Ever since I committed to the U of I in March 2015, I was ready for that first football game. Actually, I’ll go back even further. My high school, Stevenson (Lincolnshire) went undefeated in 2014, culminating with a tight victory in the state championship at Memorial Stadium. Playing in the pep band at that game, I was ready to see college football in that stadium.
So, here we are, Friday, September 4, 2015. Tim Beckman was fired a week ago, and it’s time to see the Illini play Kent State. Yeah, footba—
Ah, nope. How about a postponement for a non-stop lightning delay.
It didn’t ruin the moment for me. Actually, I think the moment became cooler. Instead of having that be my first moment at a game in the Marching Illini, we did an impromptu concert inside the ARC. We played basketball in our uniforms. I talked to the guy who would become my roommate for the next three years.
And then we did it all again tomorrow. We never marched our show for that week (it was Boston in case you were wondering), but the Illini trounced the Flashes the next day in the makeup.
My first experience with Illinois Athletics: absolute domination.
2. The First Conference Victory
Things are going well at this point. My first few weeks of classes are actually pretty interesting, and just about everything is good at college. Just the way it should be.
The Illini are 2-1. They beat Kent State and Western — sounds like 2018, albeit Illinois actually won in 2015 — and now they get a chance at conference play under Bill Cubit.
Of course, however, Nebraska is coming to Champaign to open things up. Illinois.... doesn’t beat Nebraska in football. Not since they’ve joined the Big Ten at least. Yet, this wet, cold October day feels a little bit different.
Illinois sticks around — at least that’s what my memory tells me. And then Mike Riley has Nebraska keep throwing the ball when they can just run out the clock, giving Wes Lunt and Illinois a chance to.......... win the game????? Sure.
Somehow, the Illini get it inside the 10 and have what feels like a hundred chances to score. The entire time I’m just staring from the band, not even thinking why this matters remotely at all to me (it does, because I’m an Illini fan and that’s how sports work). With one more shot at the endzone, Geronimo Allison makes a catch, and does the Alma Materesque pose — probably my favorite photo of the past four years.
We hug. We celebrate. We win.
Again, Illinois wins. They’re on their way to a bowl game.
3. Women’s Basketball at Parkland
There was no bowl game.
And as football began to wrap up — and I had the experience of a lifetime over Thanksgiving break marching in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City — I had my first experience with Illinois Basketball.
It was a women’s game. And, like most of my experiences at that point, it was for band. But, as State Farm Center was having its finishing touches during its renovations, the Illini women opened the season at Parkland against Chicago State. (I also went to the men’s game when they lost to Chattanooga in Springfield, but that’s not as fun of a story.)
So, there I am, in a gym smaller than the one at my high school, watching the Illini and the Cougars. It wasn’t a great game, but it certainly was humbling. Before college, I was never much for the other sports (AKA non-revenue ones), but I enjoyed myself, and I realized that these are top-level athletes who just are not getting the recognition — or support — they deserved.
I’m not going to say my push for covering ALL sports came from this night, but it certainly helped the case.
4. IMAR from the Rope
All the nine other stories I’m about to tell here are basically about the big sports at Illinois: Football, Men’s Basketball and Volleyball.
But, as a freshman on-air reporter at The Daily Illini, I started my collegiate career covering a sport I knew — and still know — nothing about: wrestling.
Suddenly, without any prior reporting experience, I’m thrown into the fire and headed to the third floor of Huff Hall every week to interview some of the Illini wrestlers — especially Isaiah Martinez.
One of those days where I went to Huff for interviews sticks out in my head more than anything else. I showed up early — I’m always on time, FOR EVERYTHING — and I’m standing off in the corner of the natural-lit wrestle room. Mats are everywhere, and one rope hangs from the ceiling.
And that’s when I see I-Mar, who was notable for going undefeated and winning the national championship for his weight class as a freshman. He climbs that rope so quickly, and, three years later, I have never seen an athletic feat that comes close to matching that.
For Martinez, that was likely easy.
For me, it opened my eyes to what athleticism is. And he had it.
5. The Norse
Freshman year ended, and I liked Champaign-Urbana enough to come back for another round. As a sophomore, I got more involved with the Big Ten Network’s campus program, Student U, which gives student production teams and broadcasters the opportunity to produce Big Ten sporting telecasts.
After doing sideline reporting for one soccer game, I was scheduled to do color commentary with Oskee Talk co-host Orri Benatar for Illinois Men’s Basketball’s game versus the Northern Kentucky Norse.
The entire day was a blur (mostly because I was sick), but the experience will live on forever. Malcolm Hill scored a career-high 40 points that day. The broadcast was re-aired on actual Big Ten Network a few days later. (It still sits on the DVR at home, nearly three years later.)
Even if I never pursue a real career in play-by-play announcing (I probably won't), I’ll always have that experience of sitting at center court and talking hoops.
I wouldn’t say junior year was uneventful. I went to Israel, Ireland and interned with the Milwaukee Brewers and MLB.com, but it was not nearly as memorable as my senior year.
And that Senior Year really started on the first of my many Senior Days — Iowa’s 63-0 drubbing of Illinois in Champaign in front of the sparse fans remaining. Following the game, I called for the firing of Lovie Smith. Maybe that was in the heat of the emotions (it was cold), but in some ways it’s still a point of view I agree with.
That game cemented for me a love of this University (all the time I put into being a fan, reporter and band member for four years just for that kind of game) and a desire for nobody to ever have to sit through that again. It’s unfathomable how you give up 63 points thrice in a season, and even worse when you’re shut out on your Senior Day.
To those on the field, thank you. To the few who stayed, thank you.
To everyone who hated that day, I’m sorry. I certainly know it will stick with me for the rest of my life — for good and bad.
Find me a more powerful photo in college sports this year.
7. Elite Eight
Well, every night has its dawn. And if the night was a nine-touchdown loss to the Hawkeyes, then the dawn was certainly a four-set win over the Badgers in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament’s Elite Eight.
I had SO much fun covering this match. It was on a Friday morning, which was ridiculous, because, you know, it was the DAMN ELITE EIGHT. But the energy in Huff Hall was unlike anything else, and the fact that it came as revenge against one of Illinois’ biggest rivals made the victory that much sweeter.
Sadly, the Illini blew their two-set lead in the Final Four and didn’t get a chance at former head coach Kevin Hambly and Stanford in the Championship, but I don’t think there was a better moment on campus the past four years than when Illinois clinched it.
THAT’S IT! Ignore the over-excited camera shake! pic.twitter.com/xoXVgDgxxS— Stephen Cohn (@stephen__cohn) December 8, 2018
And when the entire gym sung Hail to the Orange after the match. Woo, boy. Just want that moment for basketball.
8. The Upsets
Then, miraculously, that moment happened for basketball.
Upsets! Even a court rush!
First, the blowout win of Minnesota at State Farm Center, good for the Illini’s first Big Ten win of the season. I kept the parking pass from that game and hung it in my bedroom because I wasn’t sure if there would be another win I would witness this season, and I needed something to remember that game. Of course, I chose the parking pass.
But, even more special, was the upset over Michigan State. I was at the Women’s Big Ten Tournament back in 2017 when Malcolm kissed the floor and the Illini beat the Spartans, so this was my first taste of that upset, and it was incredible.
While I have my doubts about football, there is no doubt in my mind that more moments like that are coming for basketball. Sooner than later.
SPECIAL MENTION: Beating Maryland at Madison Square Garden and being there for it. Amazing. Those Terrapins fans were pissed.
9. Senior Night(s)
I guess when I’m so involved in college, you get to have a few Senior Days. My first was for Illini Hockey, where I had the honor of serving as the play-by-play voice this season. There isn’t a better group of guys on this campus, and they aren’t appreciated nearly enough for the grind they go through. For someone who didn’t ever watch hockey three years ago, I’m now a lifelong Illini Hockey fan.
Then there was Senior Night for basketball, and even though the Illini were crushed by the Hoosiers, it was cool. At that point it cemented that there would be no NCAA Tournament again for my class, and I came to terms with it. I appreciated the history of State Farm Center (Assembly Hall), I looked at the banners up in the rafters, and hoped that one day more will be added.
Plus, kissing the floor was really, really cool. Shoutout to The Daily Illini’s (and a good friend) Austin Yattoni for snapping that picture.
10. One Last Ride
While I continued covering baseball and managing The Champaign Room for more than two months after the Men’s Big Ten Tournament, my collegiate athletic career essentially ended on that Thursday night in March at the United Center.
I was there for band, as I was for so many of my 250+ events during my time as an undergrad. Thankfully we avoided true heartbreak when Illinois slid by Northwestern in overtime in the first round on Wednesday night, but that just gave us another chance to witness a Hawkeye thumping on Thursday.
Yet, as that clock wound down and Gene Honda announced that one minute was remaining in the second half, I couldn't help myself but start tearing up. Your time in college is supposed to be the best four (or five, or six) years of your life, and to this point, they were.
I witnessed so many Illinois losses. (I have spreadsheet with all the games for all the sports I went to in school, but not the results. Trust me when I say there were a lot of losses.) So I saw a lot of bad games, but I never had a bad day.
Between running TCR and performing in the Nation’s Premier College Marching Band and just buying into whatever it is here in Champaign, I had the time of my life. And I’m blessed to have gotten to share so many of those moments with you, and I can’t wait to continue sharing them as an alum.
Maybe a nearly 3,000 word piece wasn’t the route to go here, but whatever. These are my stories and my moments that defined my time living in East Central Illinois, and, on some level, I hope you were able to relate.
We’re all Illini. We all want them to win and succeed on a national stage.
But even if that doesn’t ever happen, we’ll always have each other.
So, as I sign off and move into a different role in TCR, one with more editing and less writing, I thank you for sticking around. This site — and this fanbase — is special.
Just for fun, here’s my 11 favorite articles from my last two years at TCR.