Illini-Mizzou: Too big to fail?
You be the judge.
Lou Henson’s taste of early basketball excursions into Missouri were sour. In 1976, he thought the late-game calls in a 76-75 Illini loss in Columbia showed bias, and he had recurrent nightmares in a 1981 overtime loss to the Tigers in St. Louis.
Always the wily scheduler, Henson avoided the Tigers in 1982. He elected not to send his youthful squad (Efrem Winters and Bruce Douglas were freshmen) against a Mizzou powerhouse that had been 27-4 and welcomed back senior greats Steve Stipanovich and Jon Sundvold.
Clever move, Lou. Norm Stewart’s high-riding Tigers were poised to capture their fourth straight Big Eight title, burying Kansas home and away.
Fast-forward six or seven years. Stewart was suffering. Illinois had his number. His 10th-ranked Tigers blew an 18-point lead to the Flyin’ Illini in 1988, Kenny Battle erupting for 28 points and Lowell Hamilton 21 in the UI’s most memorable triumph in the series, 87-84. In 1989, Missouri had climbed to No. 4 and was packed with talent (Doug Smith, Anthony Peeler), but Marcus Liberty and Kendall Gill combined for 51 points as the UI rolled 101-93.
Stewart was looking for a way out. Becoming superstitious, he tried arriving the day before, then the day of. He experimented with every mode of transportation except dog sled. He finagled within the Mizzou athletic department to call it off. And for all his influential power — he got his way on most everything else — the game had grown beyond his ability to control it.
Illinois won again, 84-81, in 1990 as Andy Kaufmann racked a series-high 33. That made it eight straight before Stewart’s Tigers broke the string. Rolling along, Tiger confidence grew with seven wins in the 1990s, but Illini coaches Bill Self and Bruce Weber rattled off nine straight beginning in 2000. The 2005 game was marked by a Tigers fan throwing popcorn on Mizzou coach Quin Snyder after an 82-50 rout. It was THAT heated.
As we look back, those incredible games in the late ’80s, with Illinois peaking each time and the fiery Stewart becoming so frustrated, turned this event into the nation’s premier pre-Christmas event.
It holds multiple advantages over both conference and NCAA games: The fans are split, and they don’t like each other. Big Ten games are one-sided in terms of attendance. NCAA seats are set aside for multiple teams and include friendly neutrals.
This one has drawn at least 21,700 every year except two since 1994. It’s loud, and the colors clash.
Nothing can stop the annual Braggin’ Rights showdown now as Illinois carries a 20-11 edge into Saturday’s contest.
“We just signed a six-year contract,” UI athletic director Mike Thomas said. “It’s a sellout. The tickets went quick. In this country, I don’t know of a better annual game between teams from different conferences and different states (Indiana-Kentucky has been canceled). There’s Duke-Carolina, but they are in the same state and conference. There’s Kentucky-Louisville, but they’re in the same state.”
On the following Saturday (Dec. 29), Illinois will face Auburn in Chicago. Ticket sales increased recently, but the United Center was only about half-sold (11,000) as of Friday.
“We want an annual game in Chicago, and that will continue,” Thomas said. “We just need to find a quality team to play there each year.”
He mentioned that overtures have been made to Notre Dame and Marquette, but they have rebuffed UI inquiries for years.
“We’ll keep trying,” Thomas said. “The ideal situation is to play an opponent that would not require a return game, thus allowing us an extra home game.
“Coach (John) Groce and I have talked about future scheduling, and philosophically we’d like more opportunities at home ... and a balance of (major and midmajor) opponents. He has done some research showing that Illinois has played fewer home games than other Big Ten schools. We’ll look at that.”
Back to football
The Illini-Missouri football series in St. Louis would be comparable to basketball if the Illini hadn’t gone 0-6 against Missouri between 2002 and 2010.
Officials for the St. Louis Sports Commission blamed Missouri’s dominance for the breakup. Said the organization’s Mark Schreiber: “We got the series started when the NCAA moved to 12 games. This pairing was as good as we can get for this market ... ideal for this market. Our guarantee for each team reached $1.2 million, and we exceeded our guarantee at least once (peak crowd, 66,441 in 2008).”
There are no college football games in the Edward Jones Dome at this time. The commission runs numerous events including the USA cross-country championships at Forest Park Feb. 2, the Missouri Valley men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in March, and the Senior PGA event at Bellerive in May. Two rounds of the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament have been awarded.
“We’d love to have a college football game,” Schreiber said. “But in reality it’s hard. We’ve looked into the idea of hosting a bowl game (there are already 35). And we’ve seen some interest from the athletic directors (Thomas and Mike Alden) in renewing the Illinois-Missouri football series. We see Illinois paying a lot of money for teams to come there (for crowds of 45,000) and we have a lot to offer here.”
Said Thomas: “We’ve had discussions with Missouri, but nothing is solid. Future Missouri schedules are uncertain with the SEC playing conference games in September. And we don’t yet know how the Big Ten’s expansion to 14 will impact our long-range scheduling. We were close to nine conference games at one point then pulled back when we neared a collaboration with the Pac-12, only to see that fall through.”
In some ways, the season-opening trip to St. Louis provided Illinois with a “bowl game.” For comparison’s sake, 17 of 35 bowl games pay each team $1 million or less. This game offered a guaranteed $1 million-plus, and team advantages of convenient travel, a short hotel stay and an indoor stadium while also providing easy access for the divided crowd (just like basketball).
It made so much sense. And it would have continued if Illinois had won just once.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.