Analysis: Why Illini Football Fans Won’t Enjoy Pat Forde’s College Realignment Fantasy
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- There are a lot of reasons why alumni, current students and fans of Illinois feel relegated to second class citizens in the intercollegiate world.
When Joel Goodson is asked how his Princeton entrance interview went and he puts on the black sunglasses, what does he say?
“Looks like University of Illinois!”
For a lot of reasons and even in its home state, Illinois is seen as the backup school, the second-class citizen of universities. Northwestern and University of Chicago and even DePaul are seen among some in the state of Illinois has having more educational opportunities or a higher prestige of undergraduate degree programs than the U of I. In athletics, Illinois has to be considered one of the most prominent Power Five Conference schools yet to win a national championship in the modern era in either football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball or baseball. Sure, the football media guide “claims” five national championship football team all before 1951 but three of those titles were based off a mathematical system called the “Boand method” that became obsolete by 1960. It wasn’t until 2005, when the Illini team that was ranked No. 1 practically for the entire 2004-05 season led by Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head, that Illinois had ever played in the national title game in any of the three season’s big sports. Among all the retired jersey banners that fly in the State Farm Center, there is no national championship banner that hangs proudly.
With all due respect to the fine folks of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois isn’t in or near a glamorous part of the state but yet seen as two hours from everywhere you want to be (Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis etc.).
What Sports Illustrated senior writer Pat Forde did, in all likelihood without knowing it, with his Monday cover piece titled “America, Realigned: A Radical Reimagining of the NCAA Landscape” is to strip away another level of how Illinois fans define themselves: We’re a Big Ten school. Which, at least in terms of simply name recognition, puts them on equally footing as an Ohio State and Michigan in one of the most traditionally-based and influential leagues in college sports. Being part of the Big Ten has helped define Illinois fans by close proximity rivalries with Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin.
In Forde’s world, that is all gone. Illinois is now relegated to playing in a conference where geographically, and that was explained in the piece as most important, Illinois doesn’t have a natural rival outside of Northwestern and Northern Illinois (and we’ll get to why it’ll burn the orange and blue blood of all Illini fans to be placed on the same level as the folks in Dekalb). In Forde’s world, Illinois will now play conference games in Morgantown, West Virginia, Huntington, West Virginia, Knoxville, Tennessee, Lexington, Kentucky., and Bowling Green, Kentucky. These places aren’t synonymous with the midwest or upper midwest of the United States of America. If you’re a U of I student and you want to make road trips to way games, there’s no more trips to horseshoe in Columbus, the ‘Big House’ in Ann Arbor, no more trips to the “other” Assembly Hall in Bloomington, no more trips to Carver-Hawkeye or even West Lafayette, Ind., in Purdue, where current Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman was born and went to high school.
In this analysis, Illini Now/Sports Illustrated will present three specific reasons why Forde’s dream of what FBS conferences should look like is a nightmare for Illinois but they’re all wrapped around one concept: Relegation. Like in Premier League soccer, once again, Illinois has been relegated to a second-class status.
- Issue No. 1 - No more natural rivalries for Illinois
One could make the argument that because Northwestern traditionally over so many years (essentially before Gary Barnett took the Wildcats to the Rose Bowl in 1994) seen as a pushover in football and men’s basketball, Illinois has never had a natural rival. And you couldn’t be more wrong. Indiana, in an obvious geographic sense but also right from the moment former Illini coach Lou Henson stood up in front of a post-game media conference podium and called Bob Knight “a bully” after a game at Assembly Hall in Champaign, the Hoosiers have been the Illini’s foil for generations. Illinois fans despise practically everything about IU from the colors, to the fact Indiana built a new basketball arena and called it the exact same name as the one built in Champaign nearly a decade earlier. That’s right folks, Illinois had and will always have the FIRST Assembly Hall in Big Ten Conference history. Add in the fact that Illinois fans get tired of Indiana basketball fans believe the sport originated with their state despite the fact that practically every Indiana team that has been worth remembering had somebody from the state of Illinois in a prominent role, and most likely, from the city of Chicago. To the fact in football, one of our most prominent players came from the Hoosier state (Jeff George) overlooking the fact that having to transfer from Purdue. To lose the Illinois-Indiana rivalry would be akin to Missouri and Kansas never playing each other anymore because of a conference realignment nobody seems to understand except for being familiar with decisions made for the almighty dollar.
This past March, Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu perfectly summed up what Illinois-Iowa games mean.
“It’s just we don’t like each other, simple as that,” Dosunmu said after a 78-76 win on March 8. “They want to kill us. We want to kill them. There’s no sweetie or nothing like that.”
Whether it is the coaches getting in each other’s face or players getting nose to nose (because that is exactly what father and son McCaffrey have done to assistant Ronald ‘Chin’ Coleman and Da’Monte Williams), this rivalry doesn’t buy into the ‘Iowa nice’ saying or “midwestern values” you hear from other regions of the country to get an applause line. You want football dislike? Okay. Lovie Smith still and will likely always believe the helmet-to-helmet hit by Geno Stone on Brandon Peters at the end of the loss last season in Iowa City was dirty, uncalled for and an embarrassment for the Big Ten Conference that a penalty wasn’t called. After Smith and the Illini lost their starting quarterback for the season finale against Northwestern, which cost them a better bowl opportunity, go ahead and try to convince Smith otherwise.
Do I need to even bring up the Bruce Pearl-Deon Thomas feud? That memory and the subsequent result for Illinois, Thomas and Pearl will likely be a fire that is never extinguished. You take away these kind of games because Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan and Purdue are in what will be called the “Great Midwest” and “Great Mideast” Conference isn’t a pill Illini fans are likely to shallow easily. In the same line of thinking, how are Illinois fans supposed to generate emotions for playing Notre Dame (the school Illini fans already feel traditionally dominates the Chicago Tribune front pages anyway), West Virginia, Vanderbilt, Marshall, Middle Tennessee State.
- Issue No. 2 - Illinois would not react well to sharing a conference with Northern Illinois
Illinois looks down on the directional schools in the state of Illinois. Trust me, I’m a graduate of one of them. To ask Illini fans to be okay with sharing a conference and playing league games with Northern Illinois is an absurd concept from the first moment on. As we’ve already pointed out on Illini Now/Sports Illustrated, Illinois currently refuses to schedule a football home-and-home series with NIU despite seeing neighboring Iowa and Missouri do it years ago. There are some Illinois fans that can’t stand the idea of the IHSA state football championships being shared between Memorial Stadium and Huskie Stadium in Dekalb. When Illinois men's basketball head coach Brad Underwood uses the phrase “flagship university of the state” in his speaking engagements, it’s not an accident and it is intended to upset the other Division 1 schools in the state like Northern, Southern, Eastern and Illinois State. With Illinois and Northwestern able to call themselves Power Five schools by being in the Big Ten Conference, Northern Illinois has been relegated to the third wheel and almost forgotten other FBS school in the Land of Lincoln. There’s no way that Illinois fans won’t see going to Dekalb for a “Mid-American Conference”, which sounds too much like the MAC, (which Illini fans will hate on principle anyway) as a relegation or an indignation.
- Issue No. 3 - Does Illinois have a recruiting footprint in this conference?
So, now Illinois shares a conference with Tennessee, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, West Virginia, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee and Northern Illinois? What’s the recruiting pitch to the in-state talent? Listen, you’re really going to enjoy that game against Northwestern and Northern Illinois. I understand the argument that Lovie Smith (having gone 0 for 19 on in-state players in the last recruiting cycle and still not having a local commitment in the 2021 class) isn’t exactly loading up on in-state talent but the Big Ten Network still allows for the possibility that those moms and dads could watch their son on television every week even if they can’t make it to a game. Is the MAC Television Network going to happen and if so, what cable package/satellite television carrier buys that channel? Currently, Illinois does a lot of its recruiting in Florida, Texas, Atlanta and St. Louis. Now they’re in a conference where Missouri is the crossover opponent but nobody in the previous four markets are going to be interested in Illini athletics without ties to the communities in the coaching staffs. The Big Ten Conference allows for Lovie Smith and Brad Underwood to conceptually have a chance with prospects from neighboring states such as 2021 basketball verbal commit Luke Goode from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Finally, where is the geographically logic of this conference? Yes, the Big Ten now has geographic head-scratchers like Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers. However, the trip to West Lafayette, Ind., to Champaign, Ill., is 91 miles and approximately 90 minutes. Why is that trip being eliminated when travel costs are already going to be a major concern for Division 1 athletic budgets coming out of the worst virus since the Spanish Flu epidemic? So Illinois can make trips to Murpheseboro, Tenn., or Bowling Green, Ky., or Huntington, West Virginia? Those aren’t normal car rides for fans in the fall.