By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) With only three winning seasons out of its last 12, the current reputation of University of Illinois football doesn’t have much going for it. But the enduring reputation of the Illini’s football past? Well, that’s golden.
Although, right now, only part of it is bronzed.
And it’s time for that to change.
“There are two. Two sides to Memorial Stadium. We call them East and West. Your seats are in the West Main or maybe they’re in the East Balcony. A few years ago, the west side became the (Red) Grange side. A statue, outside the walls, dead center on the 50, memorializing the greatest college football player of all time. That’s the Grange side.
“It’s time for a Butkus side.”
He’s right — it is. But while there are two sides to Memorial Stadium, Illinois actually boasts three football immortals, and all of them – George Halas included – deserve their statuesque due.
This coming Sunday, prior to its season opener against SMU, Baylor will celebrate the grand opening of its new 45,000-seat McLane Stadium by unveiling a statue celebrating quarterback Robert Griffin III. It was only three years ago that Griffin – now with the Washington Redskins – won the 2011 Heisman Trophy for the Bears, and already the guy has a statue in Waco. I’d say that’s a premature honor.
Conversely, Illinois’ own pigskin honors are running behind, considering that it’s been 50 years since Dick Butkus played his last down in Champaign and 95 years since Halas won Rose Bowl MVP for the Illini.
In 2009, the university wisely got around to immortalizing the brightest star in its orange-and-blue galaxy when it erected the aforementioned statue honoring Harold “Red” Grange, who in 2008 ranked No. 1 on ESPN’s list of the 25 Greatest Players in College Football history and in 2009 earned the same top honor on the Big Ten Network’s list of the conference’s 50 greatest icons.
On those same lists, Butkus was listed at No. 19 and No. 6, respectively. Halas, meanwhile, didn’t make the ESPN cut and checked in at only No. 44 on the BTN list, but in football circles, “Papa Bear” really is no less legendary than either Grange or Butkus after establishing the Chicago Bears and co-founding the NFL itself.
In February 2011, while BTN was counting down its icons, Decatur Herald-Review executive sports editor Mark Tupper quoted then-Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther as saying that, “There is some talk about a Butkus statue” finding a home outside Memorial Stadium.
Guenther also made mention of a statue that might honor Halas, prompting Tupper to write, “Think about that: A school that can boast Grange, Butkus and Halas as cornerstones in its football tradition would be wise to trumpet such college football royalty in a bold and distinguished way. And a pair of statues similar to the one that so nicely pays homage to Grange would be a great addition.”
It certainly would. For one, the trio of statues would be a great nod to the Illini’s football past. Perhaps even more significantly, it could also help provide a boost to the program’s future.
Recruiting the state’s premier high school football players – especially those from the Chicago area – remains a challenge for current Illini coach Tim Beckman, much in the way it’s been a persistent struggle for the Illinois coaches before him.
For whatever reason – mostly program inconsistency and too much losing, I’d surmise – Chicagoland preps don’t regularly look toward the Illini. But it’s a safe guess that many of them do look toward the Bears. And I’ve long argued that Illinois can never do too much to link itself to the state’s most popular football outfit – that being the Bears – whether it’s by regularly playing games at Soldier Field or by reminding Chicagoland recruits and fans that the Monsters of the Midway got their team colors because Halas wore orange and blue at Illinois.
By more closely connecting Illini football history to that of the Bears’, Illinois could more closely connect Champaign and Chicago and potentially help lure more recruits (and then fans) south on Interstate 57.
In his Illiniboard column, Rosenthal wrote about current Illini fans:
“We spend a lot of time and effort trying to connect Champaign to Chicago, and with good reason. Michigan is connected to Detroit, Ohio State dominates Cleveland and Cincinnati, Missouri has re-established connections with St. Louis and Kansas City, and Illinois needs to do the same with Chicago. Is there any better way to do that than to remind every Chicago Bears fan that Mr. Butkus played in Champaign?”
And that Mr. Halas did, too.
As Tupper explained in February 2011, a big reason why Butkus and Halas statues don’t already stand outside Memorial Stadium is due to the issue of money. The Grange statue was built at a cost of $350,000 that came from an anonymous donor. Guenther implied that there already was financial support brewing for the Butkus statue, according to Tupper, and perhaps one for Halas as well.
Guenther, however, is no longer the athletic director at Illinois, having been succeeded by Mike Thomas following his retirement in June 2011. And as Illinois football prepares to kick off its 2014 season Saturday at home against Youngstown State, Thomas currently has bigger fish to fry in regards to Beckman’s shaky coaching status and the ongoing State Farm Center renovation. But once those issues clear up or near completion, Thomas absolutely should turn his eye toward erecting statues for both Butkus and Halas.
As for where the money would come from to build them, well, it wouldn’t hurt to see if the Bears might chip in. Perhaps there’s a Chicagoland corporation that would be interested in sponsoring the statues and having its named linked to two Bears greats. Or maybe the Illini could launch a Kickstarter campaign.
They could call it “Bear Downstate.”
I’d chip in.