By Adam Harris –
Champaign, IL – Today, I returned to the University of Illinois, my alma mater, to watch the Illini football team live for the first time since 2008, and it made me realize how little support this campus continues to show for their program.
I covered this team from 2006-2008 for the student run radio station here on campus, and back then the student fan base was lethargic about supporting their team. Besides the games toward the end of their 2007 season where they went to the Rose Bowl, students rarely filled their student section and even the ones that came did not stay until the end of the game.
Granted the team was bad for years before and then after their Rose Bowl run continued to be bad, but this program’s fan base constantly over hypes what their program actually is.
Many times I have heard and talked to “die hard” Illini fans who act like they love this team just as much as an Ohio State or a Wisconsin fan loves their team; but take it from someone who has been to both these locations a few times, it is way different in Columbus, Ohio and Madison,
Wisconsin on game day and during game week than it is on the campus of the University of Illinois.
On game day in Ohio State and Wisconsin, there is a certain buzz around the whole campus. Most, if not all, tailgate spots are filled by about 8am for an 11am game, and when the game starts, the fans go into the game instead of stay at their tailgate site. Not one ticket is ever wasted, and fans do not leave before the game is over. Here in Champaign, fans are more relaxed about their support, rarely stuffing the stadium.
Let’s compare the Illini attendance to the Penn State attendance numbers for this season. At 4-3 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten this year is an off year for a Penn State program. People knew going into this season they were not going to be anywhere near where they are used to, however if you look at the attendance numbers from their four home games this year you would not be able to tell they are struggling: Game 1 vs Youngstown State – 101,213 people, game 2 vs Kent State – 100,610 people, game 3 vs Temple – 104840 people, and game 4 vs Illinois – 107,636 people. Beaver Stadium seats 107,282 people for the Nittney Lions.
At 5-3 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten, the Fighting Illini are having a better year than expected, yet their fans continue to not show up. In game 1 vs Southern Illinois attendance was 52,217. In game 2 vs Northern Illinois attendance was 50,569. In game 3 vs Ohio State attendance was 62,870. In game 4 vs Indiana, their homecoming game, 53,550, and today vs Purdue attendance was 50,371. Memorial Stadium in Champaign can hold 62,870 total.
The Illini did sell out one game but it was against the Ohio State Buckeyes who travel as well as any fan base in the country. Even for homecoming against Indiana they were just about nine thousand short of a sell out.
The Illinois football program is supported just as it is viewed around the country, mediocre. Until this changes, the program will not enter a status which the fans believe it is. Until there are more fans in the stands, the Illini program will be viewed by future recruits as a bottom half of the Big Ten experience and continue to want to go to other places.
Talking with a former Ohio State player, who will remain nameless, he said going into Illinois was never an intimidating thing. “We always knew we would win.” The crowd can change that mentality, if they want. They talk the talk, now walk the walk.