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Wisch: Could Illinois Support Another Big Ten School?

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Illinois' State Farm Center. (Getty Images)

Illinois’ State Farm Center. (Getty Images)

Dave Wischnowsky Dave Wischnowsky
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in...
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By Dave Wischnowsky-

(CBS) Michigan has two, and they’re both in the Sweet 16. Ohio and Iowa have two apiece, and all of them heard their names called on Selection Sunday. Indiana also has two, and … well, perhaps they’re not the best example right now.

Throughout the Midwest, several states have a pair of large public universities that are both members of major conferences (Michigan/Michigan State and Indiana/Purdue in the Big Ten; Iowa in the Big Ten and Iowa State in the big 12; and Ohio State in the Big Ten and Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference), and many of them enjoy athletic and academic success.

Illinois, stands alone in that regard, but two local legislators want to change that.

Last week, state senators Michael Connelly (R-Naperville) and Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) introduced legislation in Springfield to study the feasibility of making one of Illinois’ current state universities a Big Ten school.

According to the Naperville Sun, the measure, Senate Bill 3526, passed the Senate Higher Education Committee on March 19 and will be called for a Senate vote soon. Both lawmakers say they are pursuing the idea due to concerns that some suburban students are leaving Illinois to attend other, high-priced Big Ten institutions out of state.

“The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has become highly competitive to the point where we are seeing students with excellent grades and test scores get shut out of attending our in-state, public Big Ten school,” Murphy said, according to the Sun.

“We should make it easier for these students to stay in Illinois, not look for greener pastures across state lines.”

The state senators may have a valid point when it comes to in-state academics, but what about when it comes to athletics? How might a second public Big Ten school – Northwestern is a private institution – impact sports in Illinois, both on the collegiate and high school levels?

It’s an intriguing question, to be sure. And while I feel that the gut reaction for most University of Illinois fans would be to recoil at the thought of another school waving a Big Ten banner within the state borders, I’m not certain that it would be negative thing.

After all, look at Michigan, which has both Michigan and Michigan State in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament and just watched the Spartans win the Rose Bowl in January. Look at Iowa, which saw its Iowa Hawkeyes selected for a NCAA Tournament play-in game, while the Iowa State Cyclones are playing in the Sweet 16. And look at Ohio, which sent both Ohio State and Cincinnati to the NCAA Tournament last week and has also seen both schools field powerful football teams in recent seasons.

You can, of course, also look at Indiana, where the Hoosiers and Purdue Boilermakers are both a mess in basketball and football. But that isn’t always the case – in basketball, at least.

As the fifth most populous state in the country and home to the nation’s third-largest city, it would seem as if the University of Illinois should be a perennial powerhouse in both football and basketball.

But it isn’t, as the school regularly struggles to keep its top prep stars in state. Last month, Illinois signed only five football players from local high schools, and none of them were highly ranked. Meanwhile, the basketball program has again missed out on the state’s biggest stars in Chicagoans Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander, who will head to Duke and Kansas, respectively, and follow in the footsteps of Jabari Parker, Anthony Davis and Derrick Rose, other recent standouts who left Illinois to play on other states’ courts.

When it comes to recruiting, state pride has long been a dilemma for Illinois. Unlike states such as Ohio and Indiana, it just doesn’t seem as if the majority of high school kids dream of growing up and playing for the state school. Northwestern also doesn’t recruit particularly heavily within the state, as it signed only four football recruits from Illinois in February and has only three in-state players on its basketball roster.

While I never thought about it before, could the lack of Illinois enthusiasm for local athletes be in part due to the fact that they didn’t grow up captivated by a compelling in-state rivalry?

After all, Illinois and Northwestern is much more of a rivalry in name than it is in reality. When the schools play each other in any sport, it’s hardly as if the entire state stops what they’re doing to pay attention.

Over time, I suppose that could change if another public school in Illinois were added to the Big Ten. The state senators mentioned Southern Illinois University as a possibility with its location near St. Louis offering an appealing television market. Others have mentioned Illinois State in Normal or Northern Illinois in DeKalb as potential candidates.

None of those schools currently have the academic chops, including Association of American Universities (AAU) membership, or the athletic department budgets to merit Big Ten consideration, making all of them long shots. There’s also no indication that the Big Ten is interested in further expansion, let alone expansion within the Illinois borders. But none of that is stopping Murphy and Connelly from expanding their thoughts about the idea.

“Once upon a time the Big Ten, if you weren’t Notre Dame, they weren’t going to consider expanding,” Murphy told ESPN Chicago on Monday. “But at this point they’ve added Rutgers. The dynamic is changing.”

It is. And could the dynamic of sports success also change in Illinois with a second public Big Ten school?

I don’t know — but it’s certainly interesting to think about.

Follow Dave on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his columns here.

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