By Dave Wischnowsky –
EVANSTON (CBS) They say you can’t go home again.
Turns out, though, you can go back to college.
I can prove it. After all, this past weekend, I spent 13 blissful hours being 19 years old again in spite of the fact that, ahem, I’m only three months shy of my 37th birthday.
For that refreshing dip into the Fountain of Youth, I can thank 150 of my new friends in the Orange Krush, the University of Illinois’ famous student basketball cheering section that’s become infamous throughout the Big Ten for hijacking the opposition’s stadiums.
In recent years, the Krush has invaded the basketball arenas at Michigan, Nebraska, Minnesota, Ohio State and Iowa. On Sunday night, Northwestern University’s Welsh-Ryan Arena was the latest to get Krushed. And I was along for the entertaining daylong adventure.
About a month ago, McKennon Biers, a U. of I. junior and the current president of the Orange Krush, shot me an email with an invitation to join the students on their annual “sneak attack” road trip. This year’s destination, the message whispered, will be Evanston.
I agreed to tag along and was sworn to secrecy since the Krush’s annual ploy involves adopting a cover story to purchase a block of tickets (this year, they posed as “State Farm interns”) and disguising themselves in the opposing school’s colors (purple for Northwestern). At tipoff, the Krush members peel off their rivals’ T-shirts to reveal the orange underneath and announce their presence.
Loudly. Very loudly.
In January, Biers’ invitation sparked nostalgia considering that the last time I was a member of Orange Krush was during my sophomore year at Illinois when Lou Henson was in his final season as head coach of the Illini. At that time, Bruce Weber was an assistant at Purdue, Bill Self was head coach at Oral Roberts and John Groce was a 25-year-old assistant at Taylor University in tiny Upland, Ind.
With memories in mind, I prepped myself for Sunday’s clandestine road trip by digging through the bottom of a dresser drawer and pulling out a tattered “Orange Krush” T-shirt that I used to wear. On the back, below a regal Chief Illiniwek logo, numbers read “1995-96,” making the shirt almost as old as some current U of I freshmen.
Eat your heart out Will Ferrell.
Because, that’s Old School.
My fiancée, who has a master’s degree from Northwestern, wasn’t nearly as excited about the excursion as I was (I can’t understand why). But, nevertheless, she wished me well on Sunday morning before issuing a warning: “You better not end up in any Harlem Shake videos.”
Well, honey, I didn’t.
But that doesn’t mean that one didn’t happen.
In order to get the full Orange Krush Experience, I actually drove 50 miles south out of Chicago to Manteno, where one of the Krush’s three Peoria Charter Coach buses pulled off Interstate 57 to pick me up about 11:30 a.m. On the bus, Biers greeted me with a handshake as a highlight DVD of the Illinois’ 2004-05 Final Four flickered on the TV sets behind him.
After being introduced to his fellow Krush members on board, McKennon and I chatted about the student organization, which was founded in 1975. Today, the Krush does far more than just cheer on the Illini. Since 1998, the Orange Krush Foundation has raised nearly $2.4 million through fan pledges for more than 60 local and national charities. That includes about $150,000 this season, and you’re welcome to contribute yourself at illinipride.com.
Biers explained that Northwestern was chosen as this year’s “sneak attack” destination in order to tweak “Chicago’s Big Ten Team,” the nickname the Wildcats have boldly bestowed upon themselves through NU’s omnipresent marketing campaign.
“But ‘Our State, Our Team’ is the new slogan for Illinois,” Biers said with a grin, “so this year seemed like as good as any to go to Northwestern.”
With the bus’ TV sets switched to “Anchorman,” we trekked north to Joe’s Bar on Weed Street, a popular Windy City sports bar co-owned by Illinois alum Tommy DiSanto, who recently was named to the U. of I.’s newly created Chicago Advisory Board. At Joe’s, the Chicago Illini Club fed the Orange Krush members pizza and Coca-Cola before loading back onto the buses for the drive to Evanston.
En route to enemy territory, Krush members prepped for their undercover mission by half-heartedly practicing the Northwestern fight song and engaging in a competitive round of Illini basketball trivia. Upon arrival at Northwestern, the Krush had a couple of hours to kill on campus, but they commented how the place seemed dead compared to Champaign.
Inside the student union, one Krush member asked a girl what they should do to entertain themselves. After struggling to come up with anything, she suggested an afternoon Mass. A dozen Krush members later ventured into an empty lecture hall where one took a seat, kicked up his feet and declared: “Our state, our classroom.”
Outside, a few Krush members spied a random tent set up beneath a tree on campus and joked, “At Northwestern, we don’t camp out for basketball games. We camp out for class.” Despite the wisecracks, the Krush did appreciate one way that Northwestern embraced its own bookish identity. Inside a campus apparel shop, a T-shirt for sale bore the message: “Nerdwestern.”
At 5 p.m., the 150 Krush members – all decked out in purple – entered Welsh-Ryan Arena as the doors opened and three were immediately wrangled by an NU employee who asked if they wanted to take part in an on-court tricycle race midway through the first half.
“You’re not high school students, are you?” inquired the employee, who failed to ask if the Krush members were Northwestern students. That missed question would come back to haunt NU.
During warm-ups and team introductions, the Krush members packed into rows of bleachers at the top of Welsh-Ryan and lustily booed the Illini and cheered for the Wildcats. They sang the NU fight song (sort of). And they annoyed the adult Illinois fans seated near them.
But then tipoff came, and the Krush dumped their “Purple Pride” and instantly transformed into orange-clad Illini fans, sparking a round of laughs, applause and photos from the other surprised Illinois fans seated nearby.
One Krush member seated near me ended up in full-body orange spandex. Two more behind me were dressed as dairy cows. And the “Tricycle Trio” soon ventured down for the on-court race. After finishing, they lifted up their purple shirts to flash their orange, sparking roars from the thousands of Illinois fans in attendance.
In addition to all the hijinks in the stands, the streaking Illini team also dominated on the court in a 62-41 rout. Things got so bad for NU during a 26-0 Illinois run that a Twitter follower tweeted to me during the second half, “How much longer until the Northwestern players rip off their jerseys to reveal Orange Krush shirts?”
At game’s end, Illini star D.J. Richardson waved up to the rafters, showing his appreciation for the student section’s support. The Krush hung around at Welsh-Ryan congratulating the Illini players for so long that NU officials eventually had to shut off the lights near the Illini locker room just to get them to leave.
And so we left, with me traveling on the Krush’s bus far past my apartment on Chicago’s North Side in order to retrieve my car down in Manteno. As the clock ticked past 10 p.m., the Krush freshman seated next to me on the bus related how he had a paper due at 3 a.m., followed by an exam at 9 a.m. and yet another exam at 7 p.m.
“But I’ll be fine,” he said.
And with that, I was relieved that my fun flashback was coming to a close and that I was headed back to the “real world.”
Although, I’ll always have a Krush on college.
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.