Memory Lane: Roadtrip with the Krush

News-Gazette reporter Bob Asmussen and photographer Holly Hart were allowed to tag along on the Krush's recent trip to Purdue. Embedded in a group of 100, Asmussen had to dress and act like the Krush for nine hours.

'Even though we lost, there was still so much energy,' Krush member Rachel Grove said. 'It was so cool to be there and be in all of the Purdue fans' faces. It was a great experience.'

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: Our behind-the-scenes trip to Purdue with the Orange Krush.

Date: Feb. 11, 2007

Headline: 'Your Orange Is Showing'

The Orange Krush has made the Assembly Hall one of the most intimidating gyms in the country. But it's not just home games where the Illinois student cheering section helps out.

For the past few years, the Krush has been following the Illini to select road games. Using a mix of spy tactics, enthusiasm and college-age creativity, they've made the chant 'I-L-L I-N-I' loud and clear from Iowa City to Ann Arbor, forcing rival schools to change their ticket policy.

To better understand the recent phenomenon, News-Gazette reporter Bob Asmussen and photographer Holly Hart were allowed to tag along on the Krush's recent trip to Purdue. Embedded in a group of 100, Asmussen had to dress and act like the Krush for nine hours.

Asmussen came away impressed with the operation. The students also had a ball, despite the outcome.

'Even though we lost, there was still so much energy,' Krush member Rachel Grove said. 'It was so cool to be there and be in all of the Purdue fans' faces. It was a great experience.'

Here's the story:

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - This isn't six fraternity guys taking Flounder and his brother's Lincoln to the Dexter Lake Club.

On a freezing Saturday morning, 100 of the 1,500 Orange Krush members climb aboard two cushy Peoria Charter buses bound for Mackey Arena. Their mission: Sneak into the building as Purdue fans, wait until tipoff and replace their black clothing with orange. It's espionage, college basketball style.

'It adds another element of what we're about, just that surprise element,' current Orange Krush president Aaron Dubnow said. 'We'll fool some. We won't fool all. There are some rumors that the Orange Krush is coming.'

Whether or not it works doesn't really matter. It's the effort, and the attention to detail, that separates the Orange Krush from your average student fan group.

Sitting near the front of the bus are John Castree and Rachel Grove. If you saw them on the Illinois campus, they'd look like average students. Castree is a sophomore from Rockford and is studying economics. Grove is an undeclared freshman from Belvidere.

What you don't see at a casual glance is their inner orange. Stick him on a bus pointed toward Purdue territory and mild-mannered Castree turns into a cheering machine. Send Grove into a rival building and she becomes a face-painting, orange-wearing fanatic. In a good way.

'I definitely want to do it all four years,' Grove said. 'It is so much fun. It is so worth it.'

Castree and Grove are two of the dedicated members of the Orange Krush, the Illinois student basketball cheering section. The one with the glowing reputation for clean cheers (most times) and philanthropy (all of the time).

The group raised more than $285,000 last year for charity, distributing the money among 38 different organizations.

Oh, and they do a little shouting at basketball games, too. Home and away.

Go to Crawfordsville, take a left

They are oh-so-organized for the trip. As they gather outside Huff Hall, stockpiles of food are divided between the two buses. Thanks to the generous donations of the Rebounders Club, there are plenty of doughnuts, apples and packs of cheese and crackers. There is bottled water and their favorite pop, Orange Crush.

Don't try to sneak onto the bus, it won't work. IDs are carefully checked by the group leaders: Dubnow, Eric Benz, Gretchen Kopec and Eric Anderson. They count and count and count some more. Can't leave anybody behind.

As the Krush climb aboard, each member is given a copy of the Illini Hoop Scoop. On Purdue-colored gold paper, the sheet explains the secret nature of the trip. It includes the Purdue roster, the Purdue fight song and tips about the history of the Boilermakers.

Dubnow and Benz ride together on one bus, No. 253, which Dubnow writes on his hand. Just in case.

Dubnow, a junior majoring in elementary education, is ready to go. He shouts out, 'Is everyone excited?' and gets a weak response.

Remember, it's early and these are college students. And it's Saturday, a day meant for sleeping in and goofing off.

They are mostly young college students. Dubnow asks how many freshmen are on the bus and a bunch of hands go up. The numbers dwindle by class, with the seniors the least represented.

The Illinois-Wake Forest game plays on the multiple television screens for most of the trip. The flat roads gradually give way to the friendly streets of West Lafayette, which is Dubnow and Benz's cue to start gameday preparations.

'Boiler up,' Benz shouts.

'Toot, toot,' Dubnow answers.

Benz suggests the Krush 'get on Gordon Watt,' a sophomore swingman. He gets nods of approval from the Krush members.

And then there's one final bit of advice:

'Please don't get kicked out or arrested.'

Follow the leaders

Dubnow and Benz went to New Trier High School together. They cheered at basketball games even then, following the Trevians everywhere.

Once they got to Illinois, they decided to keep up the rooting. So, like Kopec and Anderson, they turned to the Orange Krush.

Getting in to the group involves more than just showing up for the games. Each of the Krush members is required to raise money. For each three-pointer the Illini make, freshmen need pledges of at least $1. The more money you raise, the higher your place in the Krush ticket pecking order.

But the fund raising has nothing to do with earning a spot on the twice-a-year bus trips. Those perks go to the most devoted fans, the ones who attend the most men's basketball and women's basketball games. Plus wrestling matches. And volleyball matches. And soccer matches.

After the buses pull into the Purdue basketball parking lot, Benz, Dubnow, Anderson and Kopec get out to strategize. Dubnow takes the charade very seriously, planning a scouting mission to make sure.

The rest of the Krush members patiently wait on the bus. It's still more than two hours before tipoff.

The scouts return from a quick check of Mackey Arena. They remind the group about the key to the ruse.

'We're Purdue fans.'

They are all wearing black, some of it with the Purdue insignia, over their orange T-shirts. The most-often used expression the next two hours will be 'your orange is showing,' followed by a quick tug or push of clothing.

Next to the Krush travel party is a bus full of Illinois fans. One of the Krush members yells, 'Go back to Champaign' to the puzzled Illini boosters, who can see the students on the Peoria Charter.

Before the group starts the long walk toward Mackey Arena, a pack of about 10 to 12 Krush members branches off. They are dressed in orange, face paint and wigs included. Once inside the building, they will get yelled at by the 'Purdue fans' from the Krush.

Wearing black sweatshirts and winter coats, the group moves toward the giant Boilermaker statue, just north of Mackey Arena and across the street from Ross-Ade Stadium. The Krush members climb the statue for a photo.

Down the hill, a couple of orange-clad fans walk happily toward the indoor football facility. One of the Krush members yells, 'Hey Illini, you suck.' The ruse continues.

The group doesn't go en masse into Mackey Arena. Instead, groups of four to six hit different gates, hoping not to be identified. They'll meet in their seats at the north end of the arena soon enough.

Tricky business

So, how do you get seats for 100 Orange Krush members to a game at Purdue? Or Iowa? Or Michigan?

It isn't easy. And in some cases, it's downright impossible.

The Krush members are welcome to get seats for the game at Iowa, but not in chunks of 100. Try six to eight, the new limit for single-game sales.

'If the Orange Krush shows up, they show up,' Iowa ticket manager David Sandstrum said. 'Our goal is to send them home crushed. They are definitely a good fan base. They're dedicated.'

The Krush won't be at this year's Iowa game. The Hawkeye administration grouped tickets to the game with three others, part of its Big Ten weekend package. So, if you want to see the Illini, you needed to also buy tickets for Minnesota, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Benz doesn't want to reveal how the group bought tickets for the Purdue game. Only that it took more than one try to get it done.

'I called up and said, 'I'm Eric. I need to buy a lot of tickets for this game, is that OK?' ' Benz said. 'They're like, 'Oh yeah, sure.' I said, 'Can I get 100?' and they were like, 'I don't think so.' '

Ultimately, he got the seats.

'Nowhere is impossible,' Benz said.

'We got two strikes at Purdue, then we hit a home run on the 0-2 count,' Dubnow said. 'Down by two, we hit a three at the buzzer.'

For past road trips, the Orange Krush members have used some skullduggery to land their tickets. Maybe the best story, and the one that gained the Krush notoriety across the Big Ten, came in 2005.

Determined to make the trip to Michigan, the group tried conventional methods to buy seats. When that didn't work, it made up a name, 'Youth Action,' and went to the group sales folks at Michigan. The Krush members got the tickets and also were offered a tour of the campus and a pregame meal (it didn't happen).

The 2005 trip happened before Clark Riley arrived at Michigan. But the Wolverines assistant director of marketing, who is in charge of group sales, has heard the tale.

So, when the Orange Krush came back for last year's game, Riley had an answer.

'The guy gave me his name and I had a hunch it was the same group,' Riley said. 'I searched his name and found he was a student at the University of Illinois. Generally, people don't buy that big of blocks. We spread them out across the arena.'

Members of Purdue's Paint Crew went to a game at Ann Arbor this season. Again, Riley broke up the group, putting them in sets of four and eight throughout Crisler Arena.

'You want it to be a home crowd,' Riley said.

There is an advantage to buying tickets in bulk at Michigan: The price drops from $15 to $8 per ticket.

A warning to the rest of the Big Ten: the Krush is already planning next year's excursions.

'You're always thinking, 'Where can we go next?' ' Benz said.

Friendly faces

Mackey Arena has had one sellout this season. It wasn't for Ohio State. Or Michigan State. Or Missouri. It was the 14,123 listed for Illinois-Purdue.

Plenty of the seats are filled by Illini fans, including the 100 Krush members. They line the upper ring of the quaint arena.

Dubnow and Benz decide to have a little fun while roaming the halls before the game. So, they each pay $12 and sign up for the Paint Crew. Membership has its privileges: they are given black Paint Crew T-shirts.

Still disguised as Purdue fans, the Krush members spend the 30 minutes before tipoff taunting the Illinois fans with 'No one likes you' and 'NIT.' Every few minutes, Benz or Dubnow rise for a stirring 'Boiler Up.'

Amazingly, the Krush follow the directions of Benz and Dubnow. If they ask for quiet, they get it. If they want everyone to sit down, it happens.

There are rules to being in the Krush. Taunting is fine. But bad language is banned/discouraged. You won't hear a popular profane chant after an official makes a bad call.

Step over the line and the Krush members face the worst possible punishment: Getting thrown out of the game.

Unhappy faces

Tipoff arrives and the black sweatshirts fly off. They are all orange the rest of the game. And they are standing the rest of the game.

Dubnow wears a No. 11 Dee Brown jersey and orange headband. As Purdue moves toward the basket, they start a 'Defense' chant. Dubnow puts up an Illinois flag on the wall. It doesn't help.

The Boilermakers jump to a 12-4 lead and the Krush members are getting worried. They can control their trip details, the pizza order and conduct. But they can't control the outcome of the game.

'It's still the team playing defense,' Dubnow said. 'It's still the team making baskets, not turning the ball over.'

As the Purdue advantage goes to 21-4, Benz shouts 'Unbelievable' over and over again.

Every call that goes Illinois' way, no matter how small, draws cheers from the Krush. They plead with the officials to 'call it both ways.'

It's 25-4 Purdue when Rich McBride ends a long drought with a threepointer. The Boilermaker lead hovers at about 20 points for most of the opening 20 minutes.

During a timeout late in the first half, a Boiler Brain Buster quiz is shown on the scoreboards. The Krush members ignore the messages, starting chants of their own. Turns out, free speech isn't a priority in northwest Indiana as an usher tells them they aren't allowed to cheer during the breaks. Huh?

Despite the poor timing, the Krush members restrain themselves and don't start screaming 'We don't like you' at the usher.

Illinois cuts into the lead in the final minutes, making it 34-20 at halftime. There is hope for the Krush, albeit miniscule.

Spread across the tops of three sections, the Krush members continue the chants during intermission.

Bruce Weber picks up a technical, actually begs for a technical, early in the second half. It seems to wake up the Illini, who cut the margin to 11 with 15 minutes left. A call goes against Purdue and the crowd uses a profane chant. The Krush chimes in with 'Have More Class.'

Purdue's David Teague ends the suspense, nailing four three-pointers in the final 12 minutes. Late in the game with the outcome long decided, Dubnow gathers as many Krush members as he can and tells them to 'Be good sports.'

With 1:48 left and Purdue leading by 16, the Krush members remain standing. All the way until the end.

Long way home

They quietly put on their coats and head for the doors. Some go to the bathroom to wipe off face paint. Others take a quick look back on the way out the door.

They meet again at the Boilermaker statue, this time all in orange. It's the After picture they will put on their cell phones and laptops.

As they arrive back at their buses, the Krush members quietly climb back aboard. Benz is tracking down the delivery driver from Papa John's, who is bringing 34 pizzas to the hungry crew.

The split up the grub, three people per pizza.

The cost of the trip for the Krush members: $0. The tickets, transportation and pizza is paid for by the organization. Same for the undisclosed next trip.

There is one request for money on the drive home. Benz passes a stocking cap, asking members to tip driver Jan Niccum. The students are generous.

Dubnow offers two viewing choices on the way home: 'The 40 Year-Old Virgin' or the 2005 Illinois-Arizona regional final. He gives 'Old School' to the other bus.

The group settles on 'The 40 Year-Old Virgin,' but the plan fails because the DVD isn't working. So, Dubnow pops in Illinois-Arizona.

Tired after the long day, many of the Krush members sleep or listen to music or talk on the phone. Maybe a third are paying attention to the game replay.

Snow falls as the bus reaches Linden, Ind. Interstate 74 is a few minutes away. Then, another hour back to campus.

'It's the quietest I've ever seen it,' Benz said.

'What our road trips try to do is help pump up the team,' Dubnow said. 'They say, 'Orange Krush came all this way.' Maybe it gives them extra firepower. I guess it didn't work.'

Not this time. But there are other trips ahead. Other bus rides.

'The game wasn't the best in the world,' Castree said. 'But being with all the guys, the whole covert factor and getting into Mackey, yelling at the Paint Crew, that's a lot of fun. Yelling for the Illini is always a good time.'

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