Asmussen | Meet 'hyper-fans' Dale and Chris Smith

Asmussen | Meet 'hyper-fans' Dale and Chris Smith

They just gave Illinois football a big wad of cash. So, the Smith brothers get to call the first play against Kent State, right?

Nahhh, they will leave it to the experts.

"We want them to win," the Smiths said.

On Wednesday, Springfield residents Dale and Chris Smith donated $20 million to the school. The bulk of the money will go to the new football performance center, which will be named in honor of their parents, Henry Dale and Betty.

Dale, 67, and Chris, 61, have been making trips to Memorial Stadium since they were kids.

Henry and Betty started going to the games in the 1950s. And kept going and going and going. Good times and bad. Some big wins and some painful losses.

A week before he died in 2015, Henry was in the building for a game. Illinois beat Western Illinois 44-0 that day.

"The day he died, we were getting ready to watch the North Carolina game," Dale Smith said.

Betty, 88, still makes it to the stadium. As often as possible. She prefers the morning games.

The Smiths have a suite. How are they as fans?

"We've got high, medium and low range of screaming," Dale Smith said. "Chris is, by far, the loudest member of the family. The second loudest is Mom. I am a loud fan. If all of us are in there, people are bewildered."

"I yell a lot," Chris added. "But positive things. Encouragement."

Illini hero

Appropriately, the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Center will be located near a planned statue of linebacker great Dick Butkus.

Ask the Smiths their all-time favorite Illinois player and they quickly respond: Butkus.

"We agree," Chris Smith said.

"He's the best one I've ever seen," Dale Smith said.

Dale Smith told a story about going with his father to the 1964 Rose Bowl.

Illinois beat Washington 17-7. After the game, Butkus famously led the Illini on a victory lap, showing the Left Coasters their Midwest athleticism.

At least Dale got to go to the game. Chris, six years younger than his brother, had to stay home.

There have been two Illinois Rose Bowl appearances since. One in 1984 and the other in 2008.

Chris Smith's favorite game came in 1983, a 16-6 win against Michigan during a perfect 9-0 Big Ten season.

"We beat Michigan about five times during a 50-year period," Chris Smith said. "Just the emotional impact, when the clock was winding down, I saw grown men and women crying in the stands. It was just incredible."

Chris Smith, a '79 Illinois graduate, didn't get to see many wins during his time as a student. Coached by Bob Blackman and Gary Moeller, the team never won more than five games during Smith's four years.

Still, he was there, through thin and thinner. The kind of memory that might cause you to say: "One of these days, I'm going to help my school."

Invest in the future

The football struggles continue all these years later.

Illinois won just five games the past two seasons and hasn't finished on the plus side of .500 since 2011. The year Ron Zook was fired.

Still, the Smiths believe. And are willing to put their money where their heart is.

"It's a challenge," Dale Smith said. "I think what you focus on is improvement. Improvement by individuals. Improvement by units. And improvement by the team, game by game, season by season.

"We want to have a good, competitive team out there. And steadily get better. That's what brings you back, outstanding plays and good games and growth for individuals."

Eventually, the Smiths figure, the wins will come. They can't wait.

"It will be terribly exciting," Dale Smith said. "As the facility gets built out, there are so many tools there.

"We think it will play a big part and pay a lot of dividends."

It's a lot of coin. Not many fans can write a really big check.

Chris Smith credited the Illinois athletic administration for being "very patient, but also persistent."

The Smiths were introduced Wednesday at an afternoon press conference. In the morning they got to talk to the Illinois players.

They are big fans of Illinois coach Lovie Smith. And not just because they share a last name.

"I never thought we could get him," Dale Smith said. "I thought he was beyond our reach. Chris and I were hyper-fans when he was the Bears coach."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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