Something tells me UI graduate Jim Phillips won’t attend the Illini caravan reception at World of Beer bar in Evanston next Wednesday.
Phillips, who roomed with Flyin’ Illini star Kendall Gill in the late 1980s, is on the other side these days. He is taking his Northwestern AD job seriously to the point of engaging in a mighty marketing struggle with his alma mater. It’s a showdown of mottos and advertising sign boards between “Chicago’s Big Ten team,” which the Wildcats dream of being, and the Illini’s new cry: “Our State. Our Team,” which is also a stretch.
The rivalry, frequently overlooked through the years, is heating up through marketing initiatives. The Wildcats are benefiting from Phillips’ deal with Wrigley Field, and it’ll get better when the renovation is completed. UI athletic director Mike Thomas has signed with a 50,000-watt radio outlet — WSCR-670 The Score — and has put together a new athletic advisory board to analyze needs and help promote the Sept. 14 football date against Washington in Soldier Field.
There’s nothing wrong with the Illini invading Greater Chicago, but this particular bar — three blocks from Northwestern’s campus — is deemed sacred ground by the Purple. It’s like stomping on the team logo or tackling the mascot.
So their dander is up, and some Northwestern students reportedly are preparing for the 7 p.m. event in a way you might expect from the Orange Krush if the Wildcats brought Pat Fitzgerald and Chris Collins to Kam’s.
Plenty of competition
While the old foes lock horns, they’re forgetting something. There is a third party involved. It’s the same rival that has slowed Tiger Woods. It is called Everybody Else. And Everybody Else is feasting on Chicagoland recruits, which is what this lightweight UI-Northwestern wrestling match is all about.
Or haven’t you noticed?
While the state schools landed blue-chip quarterbacks in the upcoming class — Bolingbrook’s Aaron Bailey to the UI and Maine South’s Matt Alviti to Northwestern — the area’s best football players joined Everybody Else ... Crete-Monee’s super receiver Laquon Treadwell (Ole Miss), Joliet Catholic speedster Ty Isaac (USC), Simeon linebacker Reggie Spearman (Iowa), and linemen Ethan Pocic of Lemont (LSU), Colin McGovern of Lincoln-Way West (Notre Dame) and Kyle Bosch of Wheaton St. Francis (Michigan).
It looked like a cavalry charge by the region’s most prolific players to join Everybody Else. And it’s already started for next year. Just last week 275-pound defensive tackle Enoch Smith of Chicago Mount Carmel, the one school where the Illini have an “in,” chose Michigan State over Notre Dame, reacting as though Northwestern and Illinois didn’t exist.
And so it has been in basketball. High-ranked stars like Anthony Davis (Kentucky), Wayne Blackshear (Louisville) and Ryan Boatright (UConn) didn’t give either state school a sniff, any more than Jabari Parker (Duke) did or Jahlil Okafor (undecided) will.
Northwestern shows a current 16-man basketball roster with just three players from the state, most prominently Dave Sobolewski and Drew Crawford, both of Naperville. The UI awarded no scholarships to freshmen last year and took two of Parker’s teammates at Simeon as the only Chicago additions this year.
So, by all means, Northwestern and the UI need to upgrade their presence in the state’s great metropolis. But it remains unclear, considering how the city and suburbs overflow with beer, why the Illini chose a bar in Evanston for their Chicago stop.
Is this the kind of advice they’re getting from the new advisory board? Or, maybe, hey ... any publicity is good. So what’s wrong if it comes attached to a little controversy? That’s one way to get the TV cameras out for an event that would otherwise be private.
We’ll miss these guys
The Big Ten’s new East-West alignment, pitting Illinois annually against such natural rivals as Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin and Iowa, should be beneficial to the football program beginning in 2014. The geographical alignment clearly throws Illinois into the weaker division.
But there’s a downside. Indiana will come to Memorial Stadium only once every five or six years. It’s the same for Michigan and Ohio State, two historic rivals that have outgrown the Illini on the field but nevertheless generate the most fan interest.
In tracing the bumpy Illini football history, the most significant seasons — dating to the 1924 dedication of Memorial Stadium — revolved around showdowns against these two perennial powerhouses. The UI’s best seasons are marked by those engagements.
The Buckeyes, for all their advantages, have frequently drawn out the best from the Illini. Dating to 1983, when the Illini went 9-0 in the conference, and moving through the 28-21 upset of top-ranked Ohio State in 2007, the Illini showed 11 wins and 12 losses in a 25-year period.
What were once annual dates against Michigan and Ohio State, circled in red on calendars, soon will fall into the occasional category.
The addition of Rutgers and Maryland brought about this geographical split. But don’t look for the conference to make the anticipated jump to 16 teams any time soon. The likely institutions in the expansion race — Florida State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia — are virtually locked in to the ACC until 2027. That is the length of a unanimous 15-team agreement in which broadcast rights by any departing school will remain with the ACC. With the ACC closed — and it probably will develop its own conference network — where else might the Big Ten look?
In case you missed it, the Illini tied Penn State for the Big Ten’s most drafted football players with four, and they still show the league’s most first-round NFL choices since Rashard Mendenhall was tabbed in 2008. That distinction held fast because the conference was virtually overlooked last week while the SEC (12 first-rounders out of 32) and other sunshine states (Florida State had three) dominated the selections.
If Dallas hadn’t taken Wisconsin lineman Travis Frederick at No. 31, the Big Ten would have been shut out in the first round for the first time since 1953. To make it worse, the trio of Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska combined to produce one draftee in the first three rounds.
And this is a conference that has a 14-game winning streak against Illinois.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Movin’ up — and on
On the day the NCAA tennis tournament brackets were announced — remember, the nationals are in C-U later this month — the UI’s men’s track team broke into the Top 25:
Reaching the round of 16 has become common for the Illinois men’s tennis program. It’s happened 10 of the last 11 years.
UI coach Brad Dancer sure hopes it happens again. That way, his 16-10 Illini — who open first-round play May 10 against Georgia State (15-10) in Nashville, Tenn., — are guaranteed to have at least one more match back home.
“Something between enormous and another massive adjective,” Dancer said when asked what that would mean for his program. “That’s been something that’s been on our guys’ mind since we found out three years ago we’d host.”
Thanks to their strong showing at the Drake Relays, Mike Turk’s Illini jumped 16 spots to No. 22 in this week’s U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll.
“We have made a lot of progress as a team this year,” Turk said. “We have a lot to do in the championship portion of the season to fulfill our goals. This ranking is an indication that we are getting closer.”
The UI’s women’s team is No. 16 in this week’s rankings.