Sitting at the intersection of Green and Wright Street in the heart of the University of Illinois campus is the Alma Mater statue, one of the most iconic symbols of the school. It depicts a woman in robes — our motherly Alma Mater — extending out her embracing arms as two other figures, who symbolize “learning” and “labor,” flank her to the side. Everything about our dear Alma symbolizes warmth, welcoming, and unity that every Illini feels when they think about the University. At the base of the five-ton bronze sculpture is an engraving that reads “To thy happy children of the future, those of the past send greetings.”
This weekend, those of the school’s great football past will come roaring back for our fans of today in a sold-out, prime time game against North Carolina. This shouldn’t sound like a big deal for a Big Ten program, but for Illinois, the magnitude and importance of this game cannot go unacknowledged. Ever since the heyday of the 1980s, when the team was consistently good and regularly appearing in bowl games, the school’s administration has been largely apathetic towards the football program, which eventually started to reflect in the fans’ attitude. Attendance at games dwindled to the point that Illinois became a national laughingstock for its poor fan support. Students didn’t even bother to tailgate for the games. They would rather get blacked out in a dingy shithole like Kam’s (And I say that in the most loving way possible) on mornings of game days than participate the great college tradition of getting blacked out outside in a parking lot across the street from the stadium. And honestly, it’s hard to blame them for not giving a shit when the program inspired no confidence to do so otherwise, both on the field and off.
That’s all starting to change, though. The term “sleeping giant” gets thrown around a lot in college sports, but Illinois, the home of Red Grange and Dick Butkus, is absolutely a sleeping giant of a football program that is finally starting to rise from its slumber. The school hired an athletic director who played for the Illini in the 90s and has an ambitious vision for the program that he is doing everything to fulfull. He hired Lovie Smith, the former Chicago Bears coach who led that sad-sack franchise to a Super Bowl, in March to be the team’s head coach and has made serious monetary investments in the program that hasn’t been seen in 25 years. Lovie, in turn, has started to take advantage of the fertile recruiting grounds in the Chicagoland area and received commitments from some of the best players in the state. Hell, even the national media is taking notice. Lovie and the Illinois football program have been featured on SportsCenter multiple times this summer for the positivity surrounding the program, reversing a disturbing trend where Illinois coaches were in the national spotlight for various acts of stupidity and malfeasance. Illinois is finally beginning the process of rising to its full potential as a major college football program. Most importantly, the fans are starting to come back, as evidenced by last week’s large crowd to see the Illini throttle an FCS team and this week’s sell-out crowd for the UNC game.
There is a dearth of quality games going on in college football this weekend, so if you’re looking for a game with will have some meaningful importance, even if it’s only for one set of fans, I highly recommend tuning in for UNC-Illinois Saturday night. You will get a glimpse of what Illinois has the potential to be in college football. A big-time coach on a big-time stage playing a big-time opponent (Even if they’re not ranked after last week) in front 60,000+ orange-clad maniacs creating one of the rowdiest stadium environments in the nation. If you’re a student, I implore you to partake in the gameday festivities. Go tailgate, do the pre-game stuff near the stadium, and try to score a ticket from a shady scalper. Be a part of this. It’s what going to a school like Illinois is all about.
I won’t go so far as to proclaim a victory for the Illini—currently they’re a touchdown underdog to the Tar Heels, and I honestly feel like it should be more—but for this team, at this moment, relevance is almost a victory in and of itself. For the first time in a long time, there is sustainable, palpable excitement about football in Champaign, and on Saturday night it will be on display for everyone to see. And much like our beloved Alma Mater, we welcome you with open arms as we start what is hopefully a successful new era of Illini football. To thy happy fans and spectators of the future, those football ghosts of the past send greetings. And their greeting, quite simply, is “We’re fucking back.”.
Image via YouTube