Tate: Has Illinois become small market?

The older I get, the more I wander. Here are some senior wanderings ...

— If you love football, how can you stay away from the TV set with Packers-Saints tonight, Missouri vs. Arizona State (the UI's upcoming opponent) Friday night, and Michigan-Notre Dame Saturday night?

For weak-kneed Illini fans who favored dropping Missouri, you're advised that Arizona State will be even tougher. The Sun Devils are a one-TD favorite over the Tigers.

Don't be fooled by Notre Dame's 23-20 loss to South Florida. The Irish doubled the Bulls in yards gained, 508 to 254; marched 76 yards to the goal line early, only to see a fumble returned 96 yards; and had two more marches of 61 and 44 yards fouled by interceptions. Turnovers told that story, and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly — who was wild to the point of being obscene Saturday — is making a quarterback change as a result.

Much of the Big Ten's reputation in 2011 will be determined by how Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue handle Notre Dame. Since 1978, the Wolverine-Irish series is tied at 13-13 (one tie).

— Has Illinois football evolved, in terms of major conferences, into a small market operation?

That's the harsh reality when you see Memorial Stadium seating capacity decreased to just more than 60,000, and more than a quarter of it left unfilled in early-September games.

The gap between Illinois and the Big Ten's upper division is greater with each passing year. In non-attractive games Saturday, Iowa drew 70,000, and Michigan State attracted 75,000. Five other conference members drew more. With an announced figure around 45,000, Illinois has tumbled into the same category with Purdue (42,000) and Indiana (40,000).

In what became a bowl season in 2010, the Illini drew over 50,000 for SIU, NIU, Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota. Illinois has a stronger home schedule in 2011, but there isn't much new director Mike Thomas can do from a marketing standpoint unless Ron Zook's team wins big ... which is how Kelly turned Cincinnati's attendance from half-full to 97 percent of capacity.

— What is the first major task Thomas will tackle?

In terms of evaluating coaches and surrounding staffers, he'll need time, and said exactly that.

But he's diving right into the Assembly Hall business. The UI Board of Trustees will not finalize a project manager and an architecture-engineering firm Friday, preferring to postpone those decisions until Thomas has been brought up to speed on the proposed renovation.

— Is North Carolina State transfer Russell Wilson poised to shake up the Big Ten football race?

"He was very efficient," said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, quashing concerns that he might have problems adjusting. The quarterback showed exceptional speed and was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week.

Wisconsin opened early against UNLV (won 51-17) to get extra preparation time for Oregon State on Saturday. That may be unnecessary, Oregon State losing its home opener to Sacramento State 29-28 when the underdogs went for two in overtime.

South Dakota State's foe, Southern Utah, also went for two and failed in a 29-28 result.

— Has there been a worse September for major league baseball?

In a bit of a stretch, what we have is roughly 850 windup games that don't matter. You win, you lose, so what?

The wild card was invented to keep the races interesting and the fans attending, on the assumption that there would always be a close battle behind each league's three divisional champions.

Not so in 2011. Atlanta, far behind Philadelphia, has been the National League's runaway wild card leader. Meanwhile, the loser of the Yankees-Red Sox chase is assured in the AL. The playoffs are virtually set with most of the slots cemented since mid-August.

There's not much to get excited about unless you're attracted by the Los Angeles Angels' quest to catch Texas. As of Wednesday morning, they were 3 1/2 games behind in the AL West, and that doesn't exactly tickle the fancy of the slumbering fans in the Midwest, South and East.

— What did new Indiana coach Kevin Wilson think when he watched tape of Saturday's loss to Ball State?

You'll recall Wilson didn't view 2010 Hoosier games, preferring to give everybody a clean start. What he discovered Saturday was a lack of "energy, passion, aggressiveness and bounce in our step" as Ball State outscored the Hoosiers 13-3 in the second half of a 27-20 result.

If I heard him right, Wilson made the point that it'll be up to the players because "the crowd is not going to energize us."

— How will Ohio State coach Luke Fickell handle players coming off suspension?

Fickell gets four players back Saturday for Toledo, and will get four more after the fifth game. He said: "Getting the four guys back will be assets Saturday, but the guys who stepped in did a good job, and they're assets too. We'll have competition for positions."

Any way you figure it, the Buckeyes will probably have an advantage in talent in virtually every game they play this season. We'll see if that holds true in the Buckeyes' first four Big Ten games against Michigan State, Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin.

— How can national champion Auburn be out of the Top 25 while carrying a 16-game win streak?

The answer is that Cam Newton is gone, and Saturday's lucky 42-38 win over Utah State was the seventh in a 16-game span by a margin of four points or less. Dating to a 38-35 Outback defeat of Northwestern two years ago, Auburn has won nine games by eight points or less.

It sounds like Illinois in reverse. Question is: Can Auburn keep it going? Mississippi State invades Saturday.

— Will coach Mike Locksley last out the season?

New Mexico's Lobos are 2-23 since he arrived in Albuquerque. Little more than 21,000 showed up Saturday and they were grumbling again because the Lobos nearly doubled the first downs, 22-12, but fell 14-10 to Colorado State. New Mexico was in position to pull it out but lost a fumble on the 15-yard line with 23 seconds to go.

New Mexico started last season with a 72-0 loss to Oregon, and finished with a 66-17 loss to TCU.

— Should I send Minnesota's Jerry Kill an apology?

For those of us who thought the Gophers were getting in over their head, they came within 19-17 of Southern Cal and might have pulled it off if they hadn't missed two field goals and thrown an interception at midfield with 53 seconds on the clock.

Kill will start speedy veteran Marqueis Gray at quarterback against New Mexico State even though freshman Max Shortell went 7 for 13 for 98 yards after Gray left with leg cramps late in the third quarter at USC. Minnesota outscored the Trojans 14-0 in the second half.

That's more proof that USC ain't what it used to be. The Trojans have dropped five of the last 10 games including lopsided losses to Oregon 53-32 and Oregon State 36-7 last season.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports

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chrispatton33 wrote on September 07, 2011 at 9:09 pm

I'm one of those weak-kneed Illini fans who favored dropping Missouri. Yes, I know that Arizona State will be tough, but:

1. This year, the game is in Champaign, not a neutral site like the Missouri game.
2. It's the third game of the season, not the opener.
3. It's the only BCS opponent of the non-conference schedule.

In the same article where it is stated that the only surefire way to turn around attendance is to win, yet another shot is taken at people who want to see the program schedule so that they can win consistently.

If Illinois can get into bowl games consistently over the next five years, then by all means, they can feel free to get more aggressive with the scheduling.

jjohnson wrote on September 07, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Boy, Loren, sometimes the truth does hurt us. As much of a Guenther backer as I have been, I hate the fact that the seating in the stadium is down. The 70,000+ crowds we saw as recently as the 2000 season (I'm failing to remember 2001) would have come back with winning -- though one can hardly expect enough excitement coming off recent seasons for an Arkansas State or South Dakota State or Western Michigan. Fans sitting behind glass might enjoy the game (and put a lot of money into the till, isn't that what college football is now all about?), but they sure do not contribute to noise and atmosphere.

RAM wrote on September 08, 2011 at 2:09 pm

RE: the Missouri football series...One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.

gbw wrote on September 08, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Loren,
I could not agree with you more. In Chicago you can't believe how hard it is to get folks interested in visting Champaign for a game. I practicely have to twist arms! At the same time a colleague of mine who throws out Notre Dame game tickets has a line waiting even given their lackluster last couple of years.
There needs to be a better marketing program to get alums down to the games. I don't go to but one or two games a year and won't waste my time on attending a game against South Dakota State.
South Bend has no attractions in town either other than their Stadium but it is all about the atmosphere and branding that Illinois lacks. You go to the Illini games the last few years and feel that the place is half empty and no real enthusiam or traditions that matter. Let's not even get started on the Chief's exit from the games but little else really matters.
The University needs to work better with Champaign and Urbana and create a better campus town and stadium environment. Very few events before or after the games outside of homecoming possibly.

Tom Menacher wrote on September 08, 2011 at 5:09 pm

"— Has Illinois football evolved, in terms of major conferences, into a small market operation?

That's the harsh reality when you see Memorial Stadium seating capacity decreased to just more than 60,000..."

Yup, that will be guenther's legacy, reducing his beloved alma mater to a "small market operation.".

Thanks Ron.

wellsbestilliniqb wrote on September 08, 2011 at 8:09 pm

Just going to bowl games will not result in the attendance going up. If they're getting wins against crap non-conference teams and beating the bottom half of the Big 10, the fans recognize the team is average. Loren is accurate in saying they have to win big to get the attendance to increase. I'm assuming he means 10+ wins and play in the conference championship game. With the 2-star and 3-star talent coming in, average may be the best they can achieve under RZ.

myattitude wrote on September 08, 2011 at 9:09 pm

I do believe the elimination of the Chief has removed some of the interest in UI athletics and UI itself. I know people who will no longer attend games because of it and I know donations are down because of it.

I will make this comment. If Mike Thomas wants to make the situation worse, try to implement a new mascot. I believe it will cause more people to desert UI. The administration is not helping with its crude attempts to eliminate all private references to the Chief and his performances at the Assembly Hall.

Winning is key to bringing back spectators for football and basketball. Both suffer the same problem but the impact is worse in football for now. Thomas sounds like he wants to improve conditions with the Chicago fandom which needs a lot of work given all the 11:00 am football starts. TV and other media have reduced the attractiveness of UI events for locals which is not really big enought to support a sport like football on its own.

It would be nice if it was efficient as decades ago to charter buses or a train from Chicago for game days to reduce the driving.

palosparkbob wrote on September 08, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Strangely enough, lower attendance in FB was part of Guenther's "strategy". When his skybox plans reduced the rank and file seats to about 62,000, it was clear that building the fan base to 80,000, a reasonable goal considering proximity to population and a HUGE alumni population, was not in his plans. The UI powers that be decided that 1)Their focus would be courting big corporate and "fatcat" sponsors for the boxes instead of broadening the fan base,and 2)The fan base they'd be seeking would come from far and wide.. as far as Rantoul and as wide as Bloomington.
The fact is that I remember when 70,000 to 80,000 fans would pack MS back in the 80s when there were far fewer and less prosperous alumni. The potential for Illinois fandom is no less than Wisconsin, MSU and Iowa. The problem is there are light years of difference between administrative tolerance for failure at Illinois and those schools, as well as a far greater "provincial" attitude at Illinois.

palosparkbob wrote on September 08, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Another poor "investment" is this Assembly hall boondoggle.It's not about improving the quality of the team. If that were the goal, investing in a better staff and scouting operation would be where the money would be spent. The stadium is serviceable as it is, and building a 24,000 seat new stadium without a team good enough to fill it is nonsense. this stadium deal is more about construction pork and patronage than need. Fans want good teams. Politicians want pork projects built and couldn't care less about the fans. Guess who wins?

kzimmer001 wrote on September 09, 2011 at 9:09 am

If Illinois is indeed small market, we can thank the great Ron Guenther for making us the University of East Central Illinois.

peterborich wrote on September 09, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Hmmmm. . .Loren spends his time attacking Illinois fans who like sensible scheduling and attacking the program as "small potatoes."
Must be the start of another season of Tate Hate !!!

P.S. Isn't Loren calling Illini fans weak-kneed like the pot calling the kettle black considering since he is soon to turn 80?

IlliniOllie wrote on September 09, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Illinois didn't have a problem drawing 60,000+ (or 70,000+) in the 1980s up to 1992. A program that could pack over 78,000 fans into Memorial Stadium for a game now has 60,000 seats and can't sell them out. What happened? Ron "88-132-2" Guenther happened.

As far as what was worse for Illinois football, Ron Guenther gave the slush fund scandal a run for its money. Hopefully Mike Thomas can quickly reverse the damage that 19 years of Ron Guenther did to the program.

illiniphil85 wrote on September 10, 2011 at 11:09 am

Nice job Loren. After being the DIA mouthpiece for well over a decade while your buddy RG drove the football and basketball programs into the ground, you now demand better? You got more moves than a chameleon.

read the DI wrote on September 12, 2011 at 8:09 am

He's an AD, not a miracle worker.