By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Come 2013, the Illini are coming to town.
Get used to it, Chicago, because it’s going to be happening often – and not just for football games.
At least, that’s my strong suspicion as the University of Illinois forges ahead behind the captainship of athletic director Mike Thomas, who has made it clear as he enters his second year that he wants the state’s flagship school to plant its flag in the heart of the Windy City.
This week, Thomas announced that Illinois has switched next season’s nonconference matchup against the University of Washington from Memorial Stadium in Champaign to Soldier Field. The Illini will now “host” the Huskies in Chicago on Sept. 14, 2013, the school’s first game on the Bears’ turf since 1994.
“This is a great opportunity for our football team to play in one of the most historic football venues in the nation,” Thomas said this week. “Soldier Field is in an incredible location that will allow our fans in the Chicagoland area and from around the state an opportunity to watch the Fighting Illini take on an outstanding Pac-12 opponent in Washington.”
When news of the rejiggered schedule broke, one of my friends – a longtime Illini season ticket holder who lives in Bourbonnais – expressed concern about Illinois giving up an actual home game and taking an appealing matchup away from the fans in Champaign.
As an Illini season ticket holder myself and sensitive to the local economy losing the revenue from a big football game, I was sympathetic to those concerns. But then I realized that even without Washington, Illinois still has seven home games in 2013, including an interesting nonconference game against Big East foe Cincinnati.
Last season, Illinois had eight home games in Champaign, including five in a row to start the season. That was too much and it fatigued many fans – particularly those driving down from the Chicago area.
Seven home games in Champaign is plenty, and the overall pros of playing in Chicago outweigh the cons of taking a date away from Memorial Stadium. After all, if Illinois wants fans in Chicagoland to come down to campus for games, it makes sense to get them interested by first bringing the games to them. Can’t expect to take if you don’t also give.
Last August, during his introductory press conference Thomas said, “I think we need to become better branded nationally, and that starts within the state. I think we need to be the king of the state. I think we need to be the king of Chicago.”
With more than 300,000 alumni from a dozen Big Ten schools splintering the Chicagoland area’s fan base, it’s nearly impossible for any school to truly become the “king of Chicago.” But Illinois could become, say, a prince by increasing its exposure in the city (and, of course, winning games).
This month, the Illini athletic department already has revealed its new slogan: “Our State. Our Team.” – a pointed rebuttal to Northwestern’s “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” campaign. Expect the rivalry between the Illini and Wildcats to spike in coming seasons.
Thomas has also said he wants to play a football game in Chicago during the seasons when the Illini do not play at Northwestern. But I suspect that’s not all that he wants.
Rumors have swirled during the past year that Thomas may want Illinois to play a second basketball game in Chicago each season. For more than a decade, the Illini have faced off against a non-conference foe at the United Center each December. I find it unlikely that Thomas would schedule another non-league foe for a game Chicago. That would be redundant. But don’t be surprised if Illinois soon starts playing one Big Ten game each season at the UC.
Last August, Thomas said about the reputation of Illinois’ football and basketball teams: “Whether you use the word sleeping giant or high ceiling – whatever you want to say – I think that there’s room for growth here. And certainly it’s my job to make sure I do whatever possible to make that happen.”
Expect “whatever possible” to be happening in Chicago more and more often. I think you can count on it.
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.