Tate: Chicago hope
Good luck. It’s a pro city but each collegiate enterprise is welcome to try. And they all do ... try.
Northwestern University, seated alongside Lake Michigan in Evanston, posted a bowl-winning, 10-victory season in 2012, confirmed its Top 25 ranking by devouring Cal in the opener at Berkeley, and yet drew just 38,033 (paid) in Saturday’s 48-27 home bashing of Syracuse.
That’s not much payback for Jim Phillips’ expensive billboards and marketing campaign geared to sell Northwestern as “Chicago’s team.”
Perhaps the Wildcats will get traction if they handle Ohio State at their Oct. 5 homecoming. Meanwhile, it’s the UI’s turn as the Illini welcome Dick Butkus and friends back to Chicago for Saturday’s 5 p.m. date with Washington’s 1-0 Huskies. A crowd larger than 40,000 is expected, the ultimate count aided by the fact that all UI students with a season ticket will be counted whether or not they actually attend.
Illinois rocked the landscape and undoubtedly awakened late-deciding doubters when Bill Cubit’s new offense produced 87 points and 986 yards in the first two games.
Question is: Did it cause Chicagoland’s prospective recruits to glance up and view the Illini any differently?
At this point, the so-called “prime recruiting territory” is shockingly unproductive for the state university.
Students flow downstate by the thousands for education, but the football pickings have become incredibly thin.
There are more than 3,000 varsity athletes in the 76-team Chicago Public League and, while there are three on the Illini basketball team, there’s not one on the 109-man UI football roster.
And of the 22 UI starters on offense and defense, there are only two from the suburbs: defensive tackle Austin Teitsma and converted quarterback Miles Osei, who shares time at receiver with juco transfer Martize Barr.
This does not include Joliet Catholic’s versatile Josh Ferguson, who leads the team in rushing and receiving yards, and deserves starter status as he rotates with Texan Donovonn Young at tailback.
Imagine: From the vast Chicagoland area, with its millions of people and hundreds of high schools, just two official Illini starters.
State your game
Never in the history of Illini football — to be honest, I only researched this for 30 years — have there been so few regulars from the Chicago metropolitan area.
Even when Mike White filled the lineup with Californians in 1985, the standout offensive line included suburbanites Jim Juriga, Mike Scully, Brian Ward and Scott Kehoe. Among those who drew starting assignments in the defensive front four for White’s 1983 champions were Illinoisans Don Thorp, Mark Butkus, Ron Bohm and Terry Cole.
If you retrace history, the UI has always been packed with standout athletes from northern Illinois. Ray Eliot’s 1951 Rose Bowlers, some of whom will be honored with the 1953 champs Sept. 28, had four starters from one school alone, South Shore ... quarterback Tommy O’Connell, center Dan Sabino, end Rex Smith and halfback Pete Bachourus.
In the 1950-51-52-53 seasons, 15 Illini were named All-Big Ten first team, and South Carolinian J.C. Caroline was the only non-Illinoisan.
To ultimately be successful, the Illini must return to these roots. In recent years, thwarted by Chicagoland’s best, the Illini have scrambled to seek help wherever they could find it.
Of the top six linebackers, none hail from Illinois, nor any of the four top defensive backs. Of the 11 listed defensive linemen, Teitsma and McHenry’s Jake Howe (just inside the Wisconsin border) are the only in-staters. Offensively, Michael Heitz of Vermont and Patrick Flavin of Benet Academy are the only Illinoisans in the two-deep line. And of nine players with at least three catches, Osei and Ferguson are the only state products who have been on the receiving end for Kansas Citian Nathan Scheelhaase.
So, in the case of Saturday, the Illini return to Chicago with a lineup of mostly foreigners trying to win back the city ... or at least change the flavor a bit.
One more chance to take a step where it is most desperately needed.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.