EVANSTON — Here’s an idea for Illini planners in their latest initiative to paint the Chicago River orange.
How about beating Northwestern tonight? It’ll never be “Our State. Our Team.” if the Purple-clads from the northern suburbs keep winning.
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody, facing the firing squad with another failed (4-8 in the Big Ten) attempt to reach the NCAA tournament, is on a 3-for-4 run against the Illini after back-dooring them 68-54 Jan. 17 in Champaign. That’s 3 for 4 after a 58-game stretch in which Illinois won 53.
And lest you forget, Northwestern’s 10-win gridders handed the Illini their 14th straight Big Ten loss, 50-14, for their seventh triumph in the last 10 meetings.
“When there’s success in the program, a lot of problems take care of themselves,” said Tom Hardy, executive director of university relations. “It’s during the rough patches that a lot of people point fingers. Winning solves a lot.”
It is in the face of strong headwinds that athletic director Mike Thomas is revving up a quest to raise the UI’s profile in the city.
Every new regime gives it a whirl, just as five UI presidents have strategized and emphasized during the last decade. There are 10 million folks in metropolitan Chicago, and the UI claims 1.4 million fans with some degree of Illini leanings. UI presidents have long received downstate criticism for spending so much time by the lakefront, and every president, chancellor and athletic director has dreamed of capturing the city.
With this as background, Thomas has announced a new Chicago Advisory Board featuring a nine-person group that includes Ron Bess, Ryan Baker, Tommy DiSanto, Mary Kay Haben and other prominent UI names. They’ll offer support and advice on how to become better engaged up there as they work with the Alumni Association, the UI Foundation and a Chicago development office led by senior associate AD Rick Darnell, former Chicago Cubs marketer Matt Wszolek and fundraisers Zach Goines and Jim McGuffin.
This is a major push, from billboards to myriad events surrounding the Sept. 14 football game with Washington’s Huskies at Soldier Field. Along the way, there’s the Big Ten tournament at the United Center on March 14-17, an Illini football scrimmage at Gately Stadium on March 29, an I Fund road race at Lincoln Park in April, the John Kerr golf outing (Merit Club in Libertyville) in June, Illini days with the White Sox, Cubs, Fire and Kane County Cougars, July’s Party at the Park ... anything to attract Illini fans and bring them together.
Future consideration may be given to playing more football games in Wrigley Field and hosting two basketball games at the United Center, rather than one. And Learfield Sports is attempting to address radio broadcasting concerns (currently with WIND).
Battling for attention in Chicago — strategic planning initiatives — is the oldest story in the university book. But bad things, like the UI admission scandal, are easier to sell and draw quicker headlines. And when athletic failures mount, the results drift to the back pages.
“This is a big, diverse market, cluttered with people trying to do the same thing as the University of Illinois,” said Hardy, a veteran Chicagoan. “We’ve done these things at the university level, but not always with the resources for major branding and marketing. Our hospital and health care system operates with a modest budget compared to the carpet bombing by others (like Rush, Northwestern, etc.) in the medical profession.
“In sports, Chicago’s pro teams get the lion’s share of media space. At the same time, Northwestern has been innovative in its tie-in with the Cubs, and Notre Dame is virtually an NFL franchise in its own right. Northern Illinois football has joined the mix.
“Illinois gets its share when the performance allows it to break through. We saw that in Rose Bowl and Final Four years,” Hardy said.
Wszolek, a UI graduate, spent 10 years in the promotional end with the Cubs before coming on board. Calling the Illini’s 2005 NCAA win against Arizona “second only to my marriage and the birth of my kids,” he spills over with enthusiasm.
“People in business here are innovative,” he bubbled. “Establishing this board is the most integral thing we’ve done in 20 years. These are smart, creative people from different facets of the private sector. And the common denominator is that they’re avid Illini fans who want to give back. It’s great to be able to pick their brains.
“In marketing, we always run parallel paths: We can’t control what happens between the lines, but we can control the experience,” he said.
“Chicago is a networking town, and Illini people like to stay in touch with other Illini people. We are trying to bring them together. It’s one more way to move the brand forward.”
Thomas, in his interest-building agenda, links Illini grads in Chicago with the UI’s student population.
“They’re tied together,” Thomas said. “The students are our most important constituency. It starts on campus, and we hold constant discussions on how to get them engaged. If we don’t get them when they’re on campus, it’ll be hard to get their involvement later.
“The Advisory Board is important because these people live and breathe Chicago, and they live and breathe Illini. They see us through a different lens. Since this became public, we’ve already been contacted by others with similar DNA asking to be involved. We’ll soon have committees with sub-committees.”
Good marketing. Now let’s see if the Illini teams can market themselves, starting tonight.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org