CHAMPAIGN – Some people will say it's "just a building." If the walls could talk, they would strongly disagree.
"Just a building" hosted one of the greatest moments in college football history: four touchdowns in 12 minutes by Red Grange. Against Michigan. In the christening of the then-1-year-old Memorial Stadium.
"Just a building" was the home of college football's greatest linebacker, Dick Butkus. The superstar will be back in town today, celebrating the rebirth of the now 85-year-old Memorial Stadium.
"Just a building" saw Mike White's team sweep the Big Ten in 1983. "Just a building" gave college football Alex Agase, Buddy Young, J.C. Caroline, Al Brosky, Bill Burrell, Jim Grabowski, David Williams, Dana Howard, Simeon Rice, Kevin Hardy and a host of other great players.
It took $120 million, good timing and a whole lot of hard work to improve on the unique fixer-upper. Today is the payoff.
There are two new club levels, 42 luxury suites, a new press box, refurbished Great West Hall and a balcony level with one of the best views in the Big Ten.
Besides the fans and two teams, more than 40 former Illinois greats will make their way back into the building. Stars from the World War II era to the Ron Zook era. By position, they will be introduced to the crowd during breaks in the game. The quarterbacks will walk out at halftime, with at least six of the school's 10 best expected to attend.
"You want those guys to feel good about their program," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "There's no question they're going to feel good about the stadium and good about the facilities."
Oh yeah, and there's a game, too. Division I-AA member Eastern Illinois makes its second trip to Memorial Stadium in three seasons. Illinois won the last time 42-17, one of just two victories during the 2006 season.
The Illini will wear throwback jerseys from the Butkus era. Instead of "Illinois," the orange helmets will simply have the players' numbers. No names will be on the back of the jerseys, helping with the old-school feel.
"It's what they wore, so it's going to be exciting," Zook said.
Plenty has changed since the Panthers were last in town. The stadium, for one.
"I'm kind of anxious to see how that has come out," Eastern Illinois coach Bob Spoo said. "I understand it's a beautiful thing and great for the University of Illinois. To have all of those great players come back is a great thing."
Since 2006, Zook's team went from Big Ten basement to the Rose Bowl. Illinois' reputation has improved so much that the team lost to Missouri in the opener and remained in the Top 25. The Illini are the only ranked 0-1 team.
Zook isn't taking anything for granted. Tell him the Panthers play in a lower division and he'll point out repeated playoff appearances.
"We're going to get their Super Bowl (effort)," Zook said. "If you don't put the fire out immediately, they're going to stick around."
The Illinois players didn't need to be told about the grand reopening. They've seen the changes during practices and games. They've walked by between classes. Or driven by on the way home.
"It was already a great place to play," Illinois linebacker Brit Miller said. "But with the west side, it feels like it will be complete. Our journey, building that stadium and with Coach Zook getting everything started, there's a lot of significance to that. There's a lot of excitement around our program."
The reconfigured stadium should enhance the homefield advantage.
"It's going to be fantastic," Illinois center Ryan McDonald said. "Just the way it's coming along, moving the students to the north end zone, that whole block of boxes will definitely keep the noise in and just make it louder.
"I'm glad to be a part of Illinois football when this is happening."
Someday, McDonald wants to check out the luxury suites as a fan.
"I think it would be kind of nice," McDonald said. "I'd have to have somebody spot me (the money). It would be real cool."
The current Illini are aware of the former players who will attend the game. Butkus will be joined by Butkus Award winners Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy.
"We're going to try to represent as well as we can," Miller said. "Any time Mr. Butkus is around, it's always a fun time. It's kind of nerve-racking. But he's an Illini and you just want to do well for him.
"Before he really started coming around and talking to us, he was kind of a mythical guy. You didn't know what to expect. You knew he was a baller and you've seen film on him. You knew the kind of tenacity he brought to his game. How he talks about the game and how he talks about when he played, it's a whole new deal."
Juice Williams followed Butkus from Chicago Vocational to Illinois. He's looking forward to saying hello to the legend.
"He's one of the greatest players of all time," Williams said. "It's an honor to be in his presence, especially for me going to the same high school as him."
Zook hasn't missed a chance to praise the work done at Memorial Stadium.
"Obviously, it's a fantastic thing," Zook said. "It's just unbelievable. It's going to be exciting. We've got to make our players play like that place looks."
Zook hasn't had much of a chance to tour the suites or club levels. That will come later. But he has watched the reconstruction from his northeast corner office. He saw the north stands go up first, followed by the west stands.
"You walk in there and you can just feel it," Zook said. "It's like going into a brand new stadium, but it has all that mystique."
Zook now has facilities that rival any in the conference. The weight room will be the largest for any football program in the country.
Recruiting gets a boost, too.
"There will be a shock and awe factor for sure," McDonald said.