Tate: Don't laugh, but Illinois is a football state
This must be Silly Sunday. I’ve stumbled onto something that defies credulity. It’s nuts. It just doesn’t make sense.
Long known as a basketball state, where roundball activities operate the full 12 months, Illinois has only three FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) members — Texas has 10, Ohio eight — and yet is somehow becoming more accomplished collegiately for its football.
This can’t be. We see the majority of our best high school athletes, particularly in Chicago, hovering around hoops likes bees to honey. Parents are becoming squeamish about football after being consumed with medical reports indicating the possibility of long-term damage. Concussions are the talk of the day.
Think about it. The state is bubbling with hot young jump-shooters. For two years running, Chicago has produced the nation’s top-ranked high school players, first Jabari Parker and now Jahlil Okafor, with Cliff Alexander not far behind. And yet just one of 13 Division I teams reached .500 in their conferences last winter, Western Illinois tying South Dakota State at 13-3 in the Summit.
Turning to football, it’s clear the Illini have been lagging. But the other two FBS teams — Northwestern and Northern Illinois — are achieving more on the gridiron than everything accomplished by their basketball brethren.
Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats finally won a bowl game and are on a 14-for-17 run that has created wild expectations for their upcoming homecoming date with Ohio State.
NIU made it to the Orange Bowl last January and won its 15th straight regular season game by outlasting stunningly surprising Jimmy Garoppolo (34 of 49 passes for 450 yards) and Eastern Illinois 43-39 on Saturday night in DeKalb.
College basketball in this state has reached unprecedented lows. While other less-resourced Midwesterners like Butler and Wichita State have risen to the heights, while teams from nearby Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio have excelled in March Madness, the six-year record of this state’s teams in the NCAA shows two wins: The Illini beat UNLV in 2011 and Colorado last March.
That’s it. Two wins by state teams in six years. The Illini have been otherwise deficient in their conference, topping .500 in the Big Ten once in seven years.
Actually, the UI’s record is pretty good compared to DePaul’s five-year audit in the Big East, 7-83. Simeon might do better than 7-83. You could say the Demons are bedeviled. Sounds like they gave up basketball and nobody told them.
SIU has returned to hard times and neither the Salukis, Illinois State nor Bradley has topped .500 in the Missouri Valley in three seasons. NIU loses 20 games (5-25 last year) with regularity. The change in coaches doesn’t appear to be helping Illinois-Chicago or Loyola, and Porter Moser’s Ramblers asked for more trouble by joining the Missouri Valley.
Oh, and Northwestern still hasn’t qualified for the NCAA tournament. Select committees have been placing 64 or more teams in the event since 1985, and the Wildcats are perennial wallflowers.
On the rise
What more can be said? The record speaks for itself. NIU is awful in basketball and probably will be as far as the bird can fly. And yet the football program has been pulling off surprises all the way back to 2003 when Joe Novak’s gang rocked the world with early triumphs against Maryland, Alabama (yes, THAT Alabama) and Iowa State. The Huskies are 34-8 the last three seasons, although a 28-22 loss at Illinois in 2010 makes a fellow wonder how much the weaker schedule plays a part.
Truth is, when it comes down to NIU or Illinois, blue-chip players routinely favor the UI. An example is Jon Asamoah, who committed to NIU and changed his mind when Illinois offered (now a starter with 3-0 Kansas City). Defensive back and punt returner Tommy Davis starred for NIU, transferred to Illinois and was “just another guy” on the 2012 team.
But NIU has a culture going that should make the Illini jealous. The Huskies beat Iowa 30-27 with a late rally Aug. 31 to verify their presence.
How can this be? How can a team from DeKalb, basically taking recruits that the Big Ten doesn’t want, drawing just 16,000 for its first home game last season and only 18,000 to witness its win against Kansas, claim superiority over the University of Illinois? And how is it that Northwestern is able to build such momentum that the Wildcats are deemed Nos. 16 and 18 in the two major polls?
All I know is those two football programs have been accomplishing more on the national scene than all of the state’s basketball representatives combined. And that defies logic.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.