Illinois Football reminds me of the love of my life.
For 13 years I chased after her, always willing to do whatever she asked. Whether helping her around her house or giving her a ride somewhere, I would jump at the chance. Every once in a while, we would get something to eat together or go to a movie—only to be reminded time and time again that we were just friends. That is the story of Illinois Football in my lifetime.
Every fall I get hope, just like I used to do every spring when baseball came around—thinking that this was the year for the Cubs (until 2016 made it a reality). You always hear the coach talking—whether Turner, Zook, Beckman, Smith or now Bielema—talk about how good they look in camp.
The team usually opens up with a non-Power 5 opponent and looks great, getting the fan base excited, hoping they’ve turned a corner, that we can make plans to go bowling around the holidays.
How many felt the excitement last year after they defeated Nebraska, only to have our hearts ripped out by UTSA?
Last Friday against Indiana was another one of those nights where it hurt to be a Illini fan. The team looked so good against Wyoming. You could feel the fan base thinking, “hey, if they can beat Indiana on the road, we could get a good crowd for Virginia and possibly start 4-0 with Tennessee-Chattanooga after that, and guess what—we could go bowling!”
Wow!! With a 4-0 start and the fan base rolling, we could tell the recruits that what we were selling was actually true: no more same old Illini. Last Friday hurt like the Maryland game last year. It was right there for the taking, the Illini defense holding Indiana to 70 yards all second half, only to see them drive 75 yards for the winning score, and the offense turn the ball over in Indiana territory.
We didn’t only lose the game—the wind was taken out of the Illini’s fan base sails. It stung like the Michigan game in 2000, and like those opening losses to Missouri in the 2000s.
I visited my Aunt last week. She attended the University in the 70s, has lived around the Champaign community most of her life, and used to be a season ticket holder. She said that some of the thrill is gone. She remembered when Memorial Stadium use to be rockin’ with sell-out crowds.
I guess we can all hope for the days of Mike White and John Mackovic, when the Illini used to go to bowl games every year. While I like Coach Bielema’s energy, and he seems to be working hard on the recruiting front (especially in state), but the class ranking isn’t high, and they lost probably their best recruit a couple of weeks ago in Jamarrion Harkless. Recruits like Harkless want Memorial Stadium full. But for that, losses like last night cannot happen. Josh Whitman talks about giving to Illini Guardians. But for that, losses like last night cannot happen.
As I told Cassie Arner at Illini Day when she asked what it would take for the Chicago fan base to get behind the Illini—“Win, baby, Win.” Until then, they are going to say the same thing they said last Friday. Same Old Illini.
Let’s beat Virginia next Saturday!!! I-L-L I-N-I!!!!