By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Back in August, during his introductory press conference in Champaign, new University of Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas heaved an orange-and-blue gauntlet 130 miles north toward the Loop when he declared his desire for the Illini to be “the king of Chicago.”
Now, whether it’s possible for any college – even, you know, Chicago’s so-called “Big Ten Team” up in Evanston – to truly conquer the Midwestern metropolis that so favors pro sports and boasts such a diverse collegiate fandom is quite debatable.
But that hardly means that Thomas & Co. shouldn’t try. And now that the straight-shooting AD has his own coach guiding the Illinois football program in Tim Beckman, who himself has stated a plan to recruit the state “as hard as anyone ever before,” I have a suggestion for one certain way to get Illini football on the radar in the fickle streets of Chicago.
Schedule Notre Dame.
Play the game in September at Soldier Field. Or, if you have to, play it in November at Wrigley. But whatever the Windy City venue and whenever the date, it’s high time for Thomas to find a way for the Fighting Illini and the Fighting Irish to finally play again.
It’s been far too long.
In fact, it’s been so long since the schools of Butkus and Rockne last knocked helmets that Beckman was only three years old at the time while Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was six days shy of his seventh birthday.
During that long-forgotten game, held Oct. 19, 1968, in South Bend, Ara Parseghian’s Fighting Irish whitewashed Jim Valek’s Fighting Illini 58-8. Illinois didn’t fare any better the previous season either, as Notre Dame steamrolled rolled 47-7 the Illini in ’67.
Truth be told, the Illini haven’t had any success at all when they’ve met the Irish on the gridiron. Notre Dame enjoys an 11-0-1 all-time record against the Illini, with that lone tie coming way back in 1937 via a 0-0 decision. Illinois’ other best showings vs. the Irish were losses of 7-0 in 1945, 21-14 in 1942 and 14-6 in 1938. And in the 12 matchups between the schools, Notre Dame has won by an average margin of 26-5.
It hasn’t been much of a “rivalry.” And its lopsided nature is likely one reason why it was discontinued after ’68 as Notre Dame opted to instead turn its focus toward other Big Ten rivals Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue.
However, if any athletic director can get the Illinois-Notre Dame rivalry restarted, one would have to think that Thomas is the guy. After all, at Cincinnati, it was Thomas who gave Kelly his big break when he hired the coach away from Central Michigan and provided him the launching pad that he used to land in South Bend.
Perhaps Kelly could be persuaded to return the favor and give Thomas’ new football program its first shot at the Fighting Irish in decades.
Now, I’m certain that plenty of Irish fans will shout that Notre Dame has little to gain by playing Illinois, and I’d understand that argument if a series was to be played in only South Bend and Champaign. But if Chicago is thrown into the mix, the game is a different animal with far greater appeal for both schools.
For the Chicago media market, the game would be a monster draw and attraction – much bigger than next season’s Soldier Field matchup between Notre Dame and Miami, for example.
Notre Dame-Illinois would provide a fresh football buzz for both programs and give the Chicagoland region something new to discuss. Illinois would, of course, get the bigger bump in regards to a Chicago “Q” rating for the Illini, but Notre Dame would feed off the publicity, too. Beyond all that, it’s just ridiculous that the two schools haven’t played in so long. It’s time to get a game in the works.
College football series are scheduled years in advance, of course, and both the Illini and the Irish already have multiple game commitments in the next few years. So any such matchup likely wouldn’t be imminent. But if Thomas wants to start raising Illinois’ profile in the Windy City, one of his first orders of business – not that he’s hired a new coach – should be to start setting up more games in town.
And, quite simply, no other game would be like one against Notre Dame.
Here’s to hoping we see it happen.
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. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.