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Wyoming v Illinois Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

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The Illinois Gene

Hopefully, your Dad gave it to you, too.

Happy Father’s Day, Illinois Land!

Even thought I’m not a huge “Star Wars” fan, I usually think about the scene on the catwalk where Darth Vader tells Luke Skywalker, “I am your father” every year on Father’s Day. I would think 99% of the people reading this column over the age of 30 have said those exact words into the posterior of a 20” box fan.

It’s never not funny.

There is a similar reveal at the end of the third Austin Powers movie. I prefer this version of the trope. Among a long list of various gifts my Dad gave to me along the way, a sense of humor and finding funny in everything is at, or near the top of it.

My Dad also passed the Illinois Gene to me, seemingly at birth. As long as I can remember, which is the fall of 1988, I’ve been watching, talking about, criticizing, having my hopes and dreams crushed by and spending too much time on the Illini, and Illinois athletics.

This is the true gift that keeps on giving. Pandora’s box be damned. That’s too predictable. The Chief’s Box is the one I open on a nearly daily basis. No one, and I mean no one, knows what will come fluttering over the brim and out of the top of that wooden case.

Just when you think you have all the answers, Illinois (or the athletic department) will change the questions.

Here’s a photo caption I never thought I’d write 24 months ago.

Illinois v Nebraska
Bret Bielema talks with Illinois AD Josh Whiman after a road win last season in Lincoln. Illinois finished 2022 8-5, and is gaining momentum on the recruiting trail.
Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Fans of other institutions and teams may look at this as a curse of a sort, perhaps an evil spell cast on me to not enrich my life, or bring joy, but to add bitterness and pessimism to my overall persona.

As the kids and cable news pundits say these days, “Both can be true.”

A large portion of my adult personality stems directly from two things.

My Dad holding a catfish and me pretending to drive a boat on land. This is circa 1985. I didn’t know what Illinois athletics was at this time. See how happy I was?

My father’s role in developing me as a competitive athlete that played baseball collegiately, and my direct reaction to everything else in life with that framework in mind. At times, my competitiveness and drive to succeed take a proper back seat to an adult reaction that is equivalent to my biological age of 40.

I have learned to acquiesce the need to win at all costs, and the default setting to be a cutthroat competitor. It comes through in my everyday life in the sometimes needlessly competitive sales world.

It always comes through during Illinois sporting events.

People that know me in a professional lens probably think I’m mild mannered and, for the most part, level headed. It seems like I would never yell at my TV at the top of my lungs obscenities that cannot be put into print here for myriad reasons.

I have called Brad Underwood, Bret Bielema and the rest of the umpteenth coaches at Illinois since the late 1980s names so vulgar, it would make a Navy Captain blush.

Illinois v Arkansas
In a shocking turn of events, Brad Underwood calls one of his timeouts in the NCAA Tournament last year. This is definitely off-brand for him. This has been yelled at my TV.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

My father presents the same way. When he comes over to my house to watch a game, my wife and daughter typically schedule an activity away from the house to avoid the catastrophic events going on in my basement.

It is not for the faint of heart.

Since I’ve already labeled it the Illinois Gene, I’ll circle back to that concept.

Being an Illinois fan isn’t something you do on the weekends or at night during a game. Being an Illinois fan is part of your identity.

An Illinois win against Bethune Cookman by 37 can make your beer taste colder, and layer umami into your ribeye.

However, win against the same team by “only 19” and you can come up with a thousand reasons this team also won’t make the Sweet 16 in March. Here we go again. The Illinois Gene not only robs you of joy, it takes future happiness of the equation prematurely.

Football and men’s basketball are in the best shape they’ve been in congruently since the mid-2000s. That was obviously short-lived, as both Bruce Weber and Ron Zook took a flamethrower to both sports shortly thereafter.

Wisconsin v Illinois
Ron Zook plotting his next move to ensure Illinois ends up 6-6 despite winning their first six games. He famously pronounced the “s” in Illinois when he was hired on ESPN. That’s so on-brand for Illinois football.

See what I did there? I couldn’t help myself. I tried to give Bielema and Underwood compliments, but my Illinois Gene wouldn’t allow it stand on it’s own merit.

Illinois football will likely win seven or eight games this year. We are 76 days away from the home opener against Toledo on Big Ten Network (6:30 p.m.). I should be eager to write about the team and look forward to seeing what Bielema can do in Year 3.

We know that’s not going to happen. The Big Ten released its 2024 conference opponents in the recent weeks. I look at 2024 and see four losses already. I just can’t be content or happy in the moment.

NCAA Basketball: Jimmy V Classic-Illinois at Texas
TSJ shines in OT last Jimmy V Classic, despite being atrocious the first 40 minutes. It was an awesome game.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It was announced on Twitter that Illinois will play in the Jimmy V Classic against Final Four good Florida Atlantic University in December at Madison Square Garden in New York City. That’s back-to-back participation in one of the best in-season events in the sport.

It seems like that would be awesome, because it is. After coming back to beat No. 2 Texas in OT last year at MSG, the Illinois season imploded faster than a black hole. Skyy Clark left and Illinois landed on the bubble shortly thereafter.

Oops. I did it again.

Happy Father’s Day to my Dad! Thanks for the Illinois Gene!


Where do you land on the Illinois Gene scale?

This poll is closed

  • 44%
    Go Illini!
    (60 votes)
  • 4%
    Illinois sucks this year, too. Fire them all.
    (6 votes)
  • 38%
    I have 100% rewatched the 2005 NCAA Basketball Championship Game specifically to see how bad the calls were on James Augustine.
    (52 votes)
  • 12%
    Illinois athletics has cost me relationships, happiness and potentially a marriage (or two),
    (17 votes)
135 votes total Vote Now

Happy Father’s Day to everyone in Illinois Land.

I hope you’ve been able to get the Illinois Gene from your father, as I have been fortunate enough to get from mine. Don’t expect to be happy, but expect to be entertained.

It’s a blessing. It’s a curse.

This is Illinois athletics.