By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) More than 12.8 million people reside in the Land of Lincoln. But, when it comes to sports (and politics) they really live in two states.
One is the State of Illinois.
And the other is the State of Chicago.
As a graduate of the University of Illinois who spent the first 29 years of his life living south of Interstate 80 and a current resident of the Windy City since 2005, I think I know both “states” quite well. And I understand the many differences and divides that often exist between them.
So, that’s why I particularly admired the chutzpah that new Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas showed last week when he announced his aspirations as the leader of Illini athletics.
Now, I just wonder if he can actually pull it off.
“I think we need to become better branded nationally, and that starts within the state,” the sharp and impressive Thomas said last week during his introductory press conference in Champaign. “I think we need to be the king of the state. I think we need to be the king of Chicago.
“… Our goal is to be a national brand, identifiable from coast to coast. But that really starts in the state and then we’ll work ourselves out from there.”
When it comes to college teams, I think that the University of Illinois already is the king of the state. And, with more football and basketball wins – a lot of them – I believe that the school can even become a national brand.
But what I’m most uncertain about is if any college can truly become the “King of Chicago.”
And, yes, that includes Northwestern, aka “Evanston’s Big Ten Team.”
Now, that is not to say Illinois shouldn’t aspire to reach that princely plateau. It certainly should. And among all universities in the Midwest, it certainly does have the best chance to be Chicago’s king. But therein lies the problem – all those universities in the Midwest.
“No college team will ever be ‘King of Chicago,’” a sports-savvy friend of mine wrote to me last week. “Chicago remains the capital of the Big Ten, and as such too many people go to too many varied Big Ten schools to make one king.
“Plus, even with Notre Dame tanking, they’re still No. 1 in the hearts and minds of the Catholic community. Chicago is a pro sports town. Anyone who thinks the city will rally around one college team is fighting a losing battle.”
With more than 300,000 alumni from a dozen Big Ten schools splintering the Chicagoland area college sports fan base, the city indeed is one tough nut to crack. A winning battle plan needs to be clever, consistent and, most likely, painstakingly complex.
But the interesting thing about Thomas is that he appears to be perhaps the first Illinois AD to ever truly want to try to conquer Chicago – at least in terms of using the concerted kind of marketing effort that Northwestern AD Jim Phillips has attempted with his admirable-albeit-inaccurate “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” campaign.
Last week, following his introduction, Thomas was asked specifically about the Illinois athletic program’s rep among many college athletic circles as a sleeping giant.
“Whether you use the word sleeping giant or high ceiling – whatever you want to say – I think that there’s room for growth here,” said Thomas, who hired the coach in Brian Kelly that put unlikely Cincinnati on the national football map. “And certainly it’s my job to make sure I do whatever possible to make that happen.
“Talking to a lot of people, even in the (Big Ten) conference, they think there’s a great opportunity here competitively and just to continue to grow what’s already happened here.”
A die-hard Illini fan friend of mine also wrote me last week, sharing his belief that: “For far too long, Illinois has treated its athletic program like a small-town YMCA instead of the university’s best marketing tool. That has to change now.”
Mike Thomas appears to be ready to do just that.
The only question is, can it be done well enough to truly conquer Chicago?