Part of what I love about these game day stories, is how much I actually learn as a fan. I had no idea about the rich tradition of football at the University of Illinois. In recent years, times have been lean. In 2001, Ron Turner guided the Fighting Illini to a 10-2 record and a Sugar Bowl invite. Since that time Illinois has had just three winning seasons. In February, Illinois stunned the world by hiring 37-year-old Josh Whitman as the Director of Athletics. He played football here from 1997-2000 and served in the athletic department under Rod Guenther. One of the things I learned was the love for the new A.D. Every fan I spoke with spoke highly of Whitman. Upon arrival, he immediately made a huge impact, by hiring former NFL coach Lovie Smith to run the football program.
I have to tell you, the pre-game festivities in Champaign are among the best I’ve seen. Illinois makes it easy for all fans to enjoy a great afternoon of football. The city has buses running from two downtown locations, allowing fans to park for free and take the buses to the doorstep of the stadium. Round trip is just $2 and seniors ride for free! And it made a difference in attendance — the large contingent of senior citizens at the game was very noticeable. I talked to many and several indicated that the transportation is a big reason they attend. The tailgating scene here is also top-notch.
This is the second year for this attraction, and the gem of the pre-game experience. Regardless of game time, live music and the family fun zone begins three hours before kickoff. The Marching Band drumline performs 2.5 hours before kickoff and the Fighting Illini Walk (where the team rolls up on the team bus and walks past fans to the stadium) happens about 2 hours and 15 minutes before kickoff. The Grove has something for everyone. I was fortunate to take in a concert by Country Music star Jerrod Niemann. This was one of the top pre-game atmospheres that I’ve been to — fun for all. As you walk from the grove into the stadium, you can’t help but walk up to the Red Grange statue. Who was Red Grange — he was known as “The Galloping Ghost” and was voted the best college football player of all time by ESPN in 2008.
ILLINI FOOTBALL BEGINS
Iliinois football began in 1890. Scott Williams was the head coach and guided the team to a 1-2 record. They opened the year with a 16-0 loss to Illinois Wesleyan, followed by a 62-0 beating by Purdue in game two. They closed the season with a revenge win over Wesleyan 12-6, the first victory in program history. In 1896 the Illini joined the Big 10 Conference. Robert Zuppke is credited with bringing the football program to a national spotlight. Zuppke coached the team from 1913 to 1941, compiling a 131-81-12 record. He led them to four National Championships in (1914, 1919, 1923 and 1927). The field at Memorial Stadium is named Zuppke Field in his honor.
FUN FACTS ABOUT ILLINI FOOTBALL
- Illinois has been crowned Big 10 Champion 15 times, the first back in 1910.
- The Illini have been to five Rose Bowl games, winning three.
- Two players have has their numbers retired. #50 Dick Butkus and #77 Red Grange
- There are 15 players and coaches in the College Football Hall of Fame. Those include names such as Alex Agase, David Williams, Claude Young, Butkus and Grange.
- Pro Football Hall of Famers include, Ray Nitschke, George Halas, Hugh Ray, Bobby Mitchell, Butkus and Grange.
- The School is rumored to have invented the tradition of “Homecoming” over 100 years ago.
- The Illini band was the first to ever march in the St. Patrick’s day parade in Dublin Ireland in 2008.
Chief Illiniwek was the official mascot of the school from 1926 to 2007. The mascot was portrayed by a student who wore Sioux regalia. The student would perform at halftime at sporting events. Several Indian groups protested, that Illiniwek did not represent the indigenous cultural figures and rituals. As a result of the controversy the NCAA termed Chief Illiniwek a hostile and abusive mascot image. The university retired the mascot in 2007. I was lucky enough to see the Chief walking inside the stadium.
The Illini and Northwestern play a spirited rivalry. The winner receives the Land of Lincoln Trophy. The Illini hold a 55-49-5 series lead. In the first meeting in 1892 the two teams battled to a 16-16 tie. Illinois and Ohio State also play a heated rivalry. The first game was played in 1902, a 0-0 tie. The two teams play for the “Illibuck”, a wooden turtle trophy. In the early years, the game was played for a live turtle! The Buckeyes lead the overall series 63-30-4.
This was to be the first big test of the Lovie Smith era. The game was dubbed an Orange Out, and all the fans were asked to wear orange. The students completely filled up the student section in the South end zone. A crowd of over 60,00 filled Memorial Field. On the third play of the game, Ke’ Shawn Vaughn broke loose on a 65-yard run around end, to put the Illini up 7-0. The Tar Heels battled back on two short runs by quarterback Mitch Trubisky and led 17-14 at the end of the first quarter. Trubisky found T. J. Logan on a 24 yard touchdown pass to go up 24-14. The Illini closed out the first half scoring with a safety, and went to the locker room down 24-16 at the half. The second half was all North Carolina, as the Heels rolled to a 48-23 victory. While this was the first loss of the season, the fans are all in on this regime, and the excitement is building. I expect the Illini to be a player in the Big 10 West this season and go bowling!