EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: The last time Illinois introduced a new football coach, C-U was definitely a basketball school. So sayeth Sporting News.
Date: July 3, 2005
Headline: We're movin' on up (I think)
By JIM ROSSOW
In about a month, when the smoke rises from the chimney at The Sporting News, we'll know where Champaign-Urbana stands as a sports city.
A year ago, we were 99th —which, considering there were 368 cities on the list, seemed reasonable. But Kalamazoo was 98th and Toledo was 95th — which, considering it was Kalamazoo and Toledo, seemed like Nancy Cantor was counting the votes.
Fortunately, we did not mope, blame the refs or tell The Sporting News we didn't want to play anymore. We dressed in funny colors, wore headbands to church and climbed statues on campus in the middle of the night.
Surely that will vault us past, say, Laramie, Wyo., when the new rankings come out, although we struggle when it comes to calf roping.
Who knows? The criteria used by the magazine is a bit murky. Rankings are based on a number of hard-to-measure things like sports climate, fan fervor, stadium ambience and, as far as we can tell, length of hot dogs and size of tubas.
What we do know is the cutoff was Thursday. So now's a good time to look in the mirror to see if we've improved.
Good: We treated college basketball like Tom Cruise treated Oprah's couch, jumping up and down the second Wake Forest entered the gym and not stopping until April. Orange was everywhere, from the kindergarten room to the retirement home. Thousands showed up to watch Illinois in action ... at shootarounds the day before NCAA tournament games. Fans without tickets scooped up every available bar stool and — attention, East Lansing — didn't toss them through a window after the second round of drinks. So many of you followed the team during March that Indianapolis, Chicago and St. Louis could have been mistaken for C-U, except there were buildings more than three stories tall. So popular was Bruce Weber's bunch that even Bill Murray and the governor got involved, pretending to be diehard fans. Never mind that they thought Kenny Battle was a fight at that gym on Springfield Avenue.
Bad: Bill Murray and the governor got involved, pretending to be diehard fans.
Good: The fervor hasn't died down. Dee Brown's coming back, Weber is on a recruiting roll and the Big Ten still can be had.
Bad: Until Greg Oden enrolls at Ohio State.
Good: Deron Williams is going to be an NBA star, giving C-U some name recognition at the professional level.
Bad: The season hasn't started. Though we have nearly every major sport covered — from Brian Cardinal (NBA) to Jason Anderson (MLB) to Fred Wakefield (NFL) to Steve Stricker (PGA) to Perdita Felicien (track) to Kendall Gill (boxing) — we're lacking the 'marquee appeal' The Sporting News is seeking. If only Nobel Prizes counted.
Good: Ambience wouldn't be an issue at Memorial Stadium ...
Bad: If more than a handful of fans showed up on fall Saturdays. When full, the stadium compares to any in the Midwest. The school's tailgating setup is enough to make a bratwurst nervous, the sightlines are mostly pillar-free and the tickets are, in Big Ten terms, cheap and available. But the football team's been dismal for three seasons and counting, resulting in a coaching change and plenty of parking. If it ever gets fixed, that riot gear used during the Final Four might come in handy.
Good: Despite its football woes, Illinois was able to land a high-profile coach in Ron Zook.
Bad: This isn't basketball, where one Oden can make an immediate difference. As well as Zook is recruiting, these kids still are two years and 30 pounds away from beating Iowa. And patience is not part of the criteria.
Good: Illinois' men's tennis program is one of the best in the nation.
Bad: The coach just left the nation.
Good: Only Michigan won more Big Ten titles than Illinois in 2004-05.
Bad: Illinois still didn't crack the Directors Cup Top 25, a list of the nation's top overall Division I athletic programs. Then again, neither did Toledo.
Good: There's talk of an ice arena, an expanded tennis facility, an indoor golf center, a volleyball/wrestling arena, artificial turf at Illinois Field and a 18 new holes where pigs used to live at South Farms.
Bad: It's just talk.
Good: We host the IHSA wrestling and football finals.
Bad: If we don't shape up, it'll be down to wrestling as early as next year.
Good: We live in a recreationally friendly neighborhood. There are as many parks as mosquitoes. Champaign has four new softball fields and soon will have a new pool. Urbana has a roof on its swimming hole. There are racetracks in Danville, Farmer City and Fairbury. Villa Grove has fast-pitch softball, Paxton has amateur baseball and Monticello has a rodeo. There are donkey races in Fisher, soap box derbies in Rantoul, horses in Gordyville and snowmobiles on grass in Homer. Before long, Savoy is going to be the soccer capital of the county.
Bad: When it comes to natural recreation, we're not exactly Colorado Springs. A river would help. Or a hill. Even a boulder. Heck, a venomous snake might liven things up.
Good: We figure Illinois cracks the Top 75 this year.
Bad: Right behind Manhattan.