By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Losing isn’t fun.
However, with that said, the way that Illinois lost to Washington at Soldier Field on Saturday was more enjoyable than pretty much the entirety of the 2012 football season.
Against the Huskies, the Illini competed. They rallied. And they didn’t embarrass themselves in a 34-24 decision that, not insignificantly, was 22 points closer than the 38-6 thumping that nationally ranked Washington put on perennial powerhouse Boise State two weeks prior.
In Illini Nation – or at least in Tim Beckman County – that’s progress.
But perhaps the most progressive aspect of the Illini’s “Chicago Homecoming” on Saturday was how, after long last, Illinois football finally made an effort to truly connect with the Windy City. That hasn’t happened since my freshman year at Illinois – way back in 1994 – when the Illini opened the season with a 10-9 loss to Washington State at Soldier Field.
And it had better not be 19 years before Illinois comes back again.
“Overall, this was a pleasant experience, a great idea to play at Soldier Field,” Beckman said on Saturday night after a crowd of 47,312 showed up for the game. “The fans got really loud in the fourth quarter.”
It was also pleasant that the scrappy Illini actually gave them a reason to stick around, making things interesting late. And now Illinois needs to give the fans a chance to return to Chicago. The game’s turnout at Soldier Field might have been thin at kickoff (hey, tailgating is fun) and far from a capacity crowd at the 61,500-seat stadium, but it was still better than anticipated for a team coming off a 2-10 season.
And, besides, the game should only be a beginning for Illinois’ efforts to connect with its vast number of alumni in Chicagoland – as well as the city’s many sports fans and recruits who might develop more interest in the Illini if they saw them more often. As I’ve long said, if Illinois wants more fans to end up making the 140-mile trip down to Champaign for games, they likely have to bring the product up to them first.
And while Saturday’s game might have been a step backwards in the loss column, it was still a step in the right direction in that regard.
“This was a great experience,” said Illini tackle Austin Teitsma, a Glenbard South product. “I didn’t know if our fan base would be the same in Chicago, and it was. They were hard-core.”
Next up: Making sure that the athletic department’s efforts in Chicago are just as fierce.
Two years ago, one of my former classmates at Illinois expressed his opinion about his alma mater by saying 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.”
When Mike Thomas was hired as the new Illinois athletic director in August 2011, he spoke about boldly about making such changes by setting his sights on elevating the Illini’s identity, with Chicago as the bull’s-eye.
“I think we need to become better branded nationally, and that starts within the state,” Thomas said. “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 later asked to elaborate on Illinois’ potential for growth, Thomas said: “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.”
Thomas, who has made several significant moves since, including signing a broadcasting deal with 670 The Score, has also spoken previously of playing a football game at Soldier Field in the years that the Illini don’t play at Northwestern. The next time Illinois doesn’t road trip to Evanston is 2015. Right now, there’s an open date on the Illini schedule for the season opener on Sept. 5.
Here’s to hoping that it’s filled with a game in Chicago.
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.