By Dave Wischnowsky
(CBS) Imagine that you’re a leadoff hitter who finds himself down 0-1 in the count every time you step up to the plate. Or that you’re a basketball player who strolls out for each game’s opening tip with one foul already whistled against you. Or, perhaps, you’re a golfer who’s already down a stroke every time you dig in at a tee.
If you can imagine those things, well, then you can kind of imagine what it’s been like living as an Illinois football fan for the better part of the past decade.
Only even more demoralizing.
Besides injuries, sanctions and Nevin Shapiro, nothing saps the excitement out of a new college football season quicker than an 0-1 start. And for the past four seasons – not to mention, six of the past 10 – that’s just what the University of Illinois has done.
That’s all thanks to Missouri – which beat Illinois inside the Edward Jones Dome during six season openers in 2002, ’03, ’07, ’08, ’09 and ’10 – and retired Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther, who agreed to the ill-advised and ill-fated St. Louis series.
(Note to new Illinois AD Mike Thomas: “Don’t do that.”)
At 2:30 p.m. this afternoon, for the first time since 2006, Illinois will kick off a football season at the kind of place (Memorial Stadium) in the kind of atmosphere (outdoors in September) and against the kind of an opponent (Arkansas State) that its program needs as much, if not more, than any in the nation.
It’s almost unimaginable for a school with the resources, reach and rich football history of Illinois (alma mater of Red Grange and Dick Butkus), but it’s now been nearly 20 years since the Fighting Illini last reached bowl games in consecutive seasons in 1991-92.
Considering that a school now needs only to be .500 to qualify for a bowl game such a drought isn’t just inexplicable, it’s inexcusable. And part of the problem has to do with foolish nonconference scheduling on the part of the Illinois athletic department, which needs to help its football team find year-to-year consistency and build momentum – not help sabotage that.
Before Illinois can ever dream of becoming an elite or semi-elite football program, it first has to become a legitimate one. And that starts with the bare minimum of making a bowl each and every season.
And it really – really – helps when your struggling program gets to start of 1-0.
To me, that’s just pure logic. And that’s why I was so baffled earlier this week when legendary Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate published a piece entitled, “I Miss Missouri.”
Tate, who generally is spot-on with his analysis of all things Illini, wrote in the column, “Gosh, I miss Missouri. As a viewer and as an ink-stained wretch, give me the national attraction, the September bowl game, the toughie with meaning.”
To which, I say: Give me a season-opening win.
Tate wrote: “I know, I know. Illinois went 0-5 in St. Louis, and felt obliged to ask out. I hear you. You’re saying: ‘Pay beatable teams to come here and somehow manage to qualify for a bowl game.’ ”
To which I say: Yes, I do say that. (And it actually was 0-6 in St. Louis.)
Tate wrote: “Missouri WAS our bowl, and it was better than any December game. Sure, the win against Baylor was nice. But who can hate Baylor? As, with eyes rolling and arms flailing, Lewis Black would say: “You can’t. You JUST CAN’T! It’s a Christian school, for G—’s sake. Feel sorry for Baylor. Those people have to live in Waco.”
To which, I say: Missouri in Week 1 a bowl game? That kind of thinking is part of the reason why Illinois football isn’t at all what it could and should be. Beyond that, Texas in December is much nicer – and far more exciting – than St. Louis in September.
Tate wrote: “But Mizzou, hey … Illinoisans love to hate Missouri. They’re Iowa with an M. They’re Indiana with pads. It’s our Border War. We relish every December basketball win like it’s an NCAA triumph.”
I say: Yes, Illinois fans relish the Missouri basketball series. Illini fans hate Mizzou in that sport. But I don’t think that they at all loathe the Tigers the same way in football. Why? I don’t know, but that is the way it is.
In his column, Tate went on to lament that instead of 60,000 crazed fans jamming the Edward Jones Dome today, there will be only about 40,000 at Memorial Stadium on this holiday weekend. But 60 to 65 percent of those fans at past Illini-Missouri games have been dressed in black and gold (I know, I’ve seen it). And with a whopping eight home games, including the first five weeks of the season, there will be plenty of fans at games on later dates.
But you know what would really help swell those crowds?
Not starting off 0-1.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.