One of my earliest, most powerful sports memories happened on Sept. 15, 1990, in Champaign, Ill. I was 14 years old and wore "Wayne's World" T-shirts almost exclusively, and, as far as I knew, Urbana was as far north as the planet extended. Memorial Stadium, where the Illini play, held about 70,000 people, and for that Saturday afternoon's game against the Colorado Buffaloes, nearly every single seat was filled.
That was more people than I had ever seen in my entire life -- the number of people in the stadium was more than three times the size of my hometown 45 minutes away -- and the whole building shook. Illinois, coached by John Mackovic, was ranked No. 21, and Colorado, led by All-American Eric Bieniemy, was No. 9 and considered a legitimate national title contender. But the Illini, thanks to a terrific game from running back Howard Griffith, pulled off the upset, 23-22, dropping Colorado to 1-1-1 and, in the eyes of coach CU Bill McCartney, ending their title hopes. "I think this loss takes us out of consideration for anything like that," McCartney said afterward. It turned out that Colorado would win its next 10 games and win the (mythical) championship. But on that day in September, all I knew was that I was supposed to scream with 70,000 of my closest friends.
At that time, nothing in the world seemed bigger than Illinois football. I can close my eyes today, 25 years later, and remember that feeling vividly. The sound was overwhelming, almost purifying. I felt part of something larger than myself. To a rural kid from just a few stops south on I-57, this was the whole universe. I felt like a member of a nation.
Last September, I went back to Champaign, now as an alumnus, to watch Illinois beat Middle Tennessee State on a late field goal in front of 20,000 disinterested, cranky grumps who couldn't believe they'd charge 15 bucks a ticket for such junk. The crowd shuffled out after the final field goal, a little bored, mostly quiet. We hit no traffic leaving.
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For most of the last decade, Illinois athletics has been the joke of the college sports world, and oftentimes the joke hasn't been particularly funny. There are of course the on-field failures. As pointed out by Robert at influential (and mostly sad) fan blog IlliniBoard, Illinois has been historically bad at both men's basketball and football since the turn of the new decade.
Since 2009, 62 of the 65 power conference teams have had at least a Sweet 16 or an 8-win football season. https://t.co/9RoUo1LEbt— Robert (@ALionEye) February 22, 2016
But it's the off-field stuff that has been worse. Mike Thomas, the most recent athletic director, and football coach Tim Beckman were both fired in connection to allegations of player abuse. The women's basketball program dealt with accusations of racial discrimination. The basketball arena's re-construction took so long that the team had to play in Springfield for the first four games this season, where it lost to North Florida and Chattanooga and almost lost to Chicago State, a team that finished 4-27 this season. Gone are the days of Dee Brown and Deron Williams and Jeff George and Rashard Mendenhall and Simeon Rice. They're getting destroyed in recruiting by Northwestern. Illinois is the joke of the college sports world.
I tell people about the days of beating the eventual champion in a stadium that was so loud and raucous that I feared it would collapse, about Nick Anderson's shot to beat Bob Knight and Indiana, about the greatest NCAA Tournament comeback in history (with Bill Murray wearing orange and screaming in the stands), and nobody believes me. Why should they? Every year that goes by, I start to forget a bit myself.
Which is why you'll have to forgive us Illini faithful for this one moment.
* * *
Saturday morning, new Illinois athletic director -- oh, yes, Illinois had been without a permanent athletic director since November -- Josh Whitman, a former Illini tight end who came from Washington University in St. Louis, began his first day on the job. Within the first two hours, he had given basketball coach John Groce a vote of confidence -- reasonable, from this view, considering the injuries that have ravaged the team this year -- and, then, shockingly, fired head football coach Bill Cubit. No one had told him where his parking space was, and he canned the football coach a week before spring practice began.
The problem was not Cubit, who served as an interim coach after Beckman was fired and was kept on by the interim AD and given a two-year contract extension to help with the transition to the new AD. This might have made sense in theory, but it was a total disaster in practice; no recruit wants to sign over four years of his life to a coach on a two-year contract. It was a split-the-baby move that actually cut the baby in half. It took a bad situation and made it worse.
Whitman, who is five years younger than Ichiro Suzuki, fixed that within his first two hours on the job. It was a crazy move: Who fires their football coach in March? Spring practice was scheduled to begin Friday, and Whitman told the whole coaching staff it would have to reapply for their jobs. He also didn't tell the players first, which led to some fuss on Twitter but also the sense that he must have something set up, to make such a wild move and work so hard to keep it quiet.
Later in the day, word of Whitman's plans leaked. Monday, it became official.
Illinois hired Lovie Smith, of all people. Lovie Smith! The former Bears coach, who was fired by the Buccaneers just two months ago, is the official savior of the program.
Now, there are reasons to be concerned about such a move. It's always a risk to bring an NFL coach into the college game, with its obsession with recruiting and all the weird arcana that come with it. Smith didn't exactly leave either Chicago or Tampa Bay with a halo over his head. (Remember that First 100 Days longread? Yikes.) It's possible Smith is walking into a situation he doesn't entirely understand. Also: Illinois did just fire a coach a week before spring practice. There's a ton of heavy lifting to be done. And most of all: This is Illinois. Bad things happen at Illinois.
But this is undeniably the best thing to happen in Illinois sports in almost a decade, if just because it is not demonstratively a disaster.
I mean, I have no idea whether Lovie will be good at this, but this certainly feels … sane? And that's a start. https://t.co/IcTtLjs5ZM— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) March 7, 2016
Lovie Smith brought a team to the Super Bowl. (Bringing in coaches who have lost a Super Bowl is a bit of a Big Ten tradition of late.) He is one of the 50 most winningest coaches in NFL history; he's in between Bill Walsh and Sean Payton. One of his former assistants (Ron Rivera) just coached in the Super Bowl himself. Smith is a serious-minded, respected, veteran coach who has seen everything, and has plenty of college coaching experience before his NFL stints, even if it was over 20 years ago. There are many top-tier college programs that would have been elated to hire him three months ago.
But no. He's at Illinois. It boggles the mind. And for the first time in recent memory, it makes one believe Illinois can be what it once was. Illinois has a natural recruiting base -- Chicago, St. Louis, even Indiana -- and a dormant and massive alumni base that is desperate for something to believe in again. When Illinois is good, freaking Bill Murray comes out to cheer for it. Lovie Smith is pals with the president, for crying out loud.
We all lament what we have lost. We want it to return to us. I want to be that 14-year-old, screaming with 70,000 fans, feeling pride -- or at least something other than shame -- in the Illini. I don't know if Lovie Smith is going to work out as Illinois head coach. But I believe again that it can happen. All a sports fan needs is hope: We'll put up with just about anything if we have hope. A 14-year-old doesn't need much to have hope. A 40-year-old requires a lot more. Monday, for the first time in a decade, the Illini faithful, so beleaguered for so long, finally got it. I'm ready to start hitting some postgame traffic again.