Wisch: Can Illinois Really Be ‘The King of Chicago’?

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?

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    Hey, Hey!!!
    GREAT to see you back, Dave.
    We were about to put your photo on a milk carton.
    Truly I was worried when the Score took your photo off the website (now restored).

    To paraphrase from Field of Dreams, “Win and they will come.”
    If the Illini win, they can be the college King of Chicagoland.

  • Dave Wischnowsky

    Heya Arse,

    No, I’m alive and well — was just out in NYC from Thursday evening until yesterday morning for vacation. Hit up the Yankees-Rays game on Friday night. I received an e-mail from another reader wondering about my whereabouts too, so it’s nice to be missed. Ha. And good to be back, as well.

    As for Illinois, you’re right, it really is all about wins. You can call yourself “Chicago’s Big Ten Team,” like Northwestern has. But there’s no way a school really can be unless it wins, and wins big and wins big and consistently. Do that, and you’re likely well on your way — even if Chicago will always be a melting pot of Big Ten fans, and probably will always lean towards pro sports.

    But, who knows, Illinois has never won consistently enough to really see what would happen. Perhaps Thomas is the guy to finally build and demand consistent excellence from Illini sports programs — particularly demanding it in football (which has only been consistent in its inconsistency).

    • Mr. Pouty Pants

      I remember how much orange people were wearing throughout Chicago-land during the Illini’s Final Four run in 05. This city LOVES winning over anything else. I totally agree that as far as sports goes, this is a pro town like you said. However, if the Illini can consistently spend time at least flirting with a BCS ranking and making runs to the sweet 16 or better, then Illinois can have Chicago’s attention over other colleges.


    That Final Four basketball team, certainly, got a lot of talk up on the Score.
    Did the “who cares?” quote come before they played at the All State Arena?”

    And, as you (need a verb, here): post? this, Dave, in the last two days, I saw a guy, I’m sure it was in Houston Monday or last night, wearing a downstate Block I ha–the kind you see sold in grocery stores and a Kelly Green Cubs shirt (the kind more popular among Cubs fans north of I-80).

    • Murphs Upper-Lip

      verb: blog?

  • Nazey

    The only way to truly win consistently in major college sports is to break the rules., or at least bend them or significantly lower your entrance standards (ala Duke basketball). Look at USC, Ohio State, now Miami, among how many others? To be a perennial top 5 program means you have to be a football or basketball factory. Is Illinois willing to do that? I doubt it.

  • MusicMan704

    Winning the hearts of Chicagoland is possible, but it starts with winning records like anything else. When you are regularly on the minds of middle school and high school athletes and sports fans for positive outcomes, over time more sports crazy fans and top athletes attend your school. Its always easier to express love for a team when they give you regular bragging rights.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    Dave, not to take us off course.
    Your readers hope/assume/presume you will address Z at some point.
    Looking forward to that blog…ought to be a humdinger.

  • Murphs Upper-Lip

    Hey Dave, glad to see you on the site. Didn’t realize your pic was down, that would have been a shame; don’t care too much about U of I but enjoyed your article — turn their football program into a true team of reckoning for an extended amount of time and Chicago will eat it up.

    Agree with LHA, let’s hear your opinion on the Z mess.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      Hey fellas, I’ll be weighing in on Zambrano soon — hopefully tomorrow. I certainly have thoughts about it.

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    […] -Can a Illini turn Chicago’s #1 college football and college basketball group (CBS Chicago) […]

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