CHAMPAIGN — During his playing days at Purdue, Brian Cardinal never lost to the Illini, going 9-0. Though he’s 14 years removed from his college playing days, Cardinal suffered his first loss to Illinois on Wednesday.
His 7-year-old son, Bryson, enjoyed the game between Dad’s alma mater and Illinois at State Farm Center wearing an orange Illinois hooded sweatshirt. Credit for that goes to longtime Illini basketball aide Rod Cardinal, Brian’s dad.
“He’s converting my son. His favorite colors are orange and blue. He’s got the sweatshirt on,” Brian Cardinal said. “We made sure he had the Purdue scarf on when we came over here, though.”
After a 12-year NBA career with the Pistons, Wizards, Warriors, Grizzlies, Timberwolves and Mavericks, Cardinal has returned to Indiana working for the John Purdue Club, raising money for the university.
“It’s been good. I enjoy being back and involved and around athletics,” he said. “I’m still competitive, so being around athletics helps me burn some of that energy off.”
The new job allows Cardinal the opportunity to get to games more often. He takes in plenty at Purdue throughout the season and enjoys getting back to the UI campus to check out the team he rooted for as a kid growing up down the road in Tolono.
“It’s incredible. It’s awesome because it gives me a chance to re-live that age and coming to games with my parents and cheering on the team,” he said. “The atmosphere and the music just brings back all sorts of memories.”
There have been a few coaching changes at Illinois since Cardinal left Unity High for his career at Purdue. The one constant in the Illini program has been Rod Cardinal. The one-time athletic trainer works in the basketball offices today assisting director of basketball operations Mark Morris and organizing reunions with former players, including the recent Flyin’ Illini celebration.
“He loves it, it’s in his blood. It’s fun to be around him,” Brian Cardinal said. “All the things he’s done with the ’89 team coming back and all the things he does around here with Coach Groce, he just loves it. He bleeds orange and blue, and I’m thankful that he’s still around because I love coming back here and seeing some hoops with him. He’s still pretty good at P-I-G. I can’t beat him as much as I’d like, but it’s still fun.”
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While at Purdue, Cardinal played for Gene Keady, whose staff included Bruce Weber, the former Illinois coach who is now in his second season at Kansas State.
Weber’s Wildcats spent a week in the Top 25 before losing to Kansas and another former Illinois coach in Bill Self.
Kansas State is 13-4 on the season and picked up a win against No. 25 Oklahoma and another former Illinois coach Lon Kruger on Tuesday.
“I’m not surprised. He’s a great coach. He’s a tremendous X’s and O’s guy,” Cardinal said of Weber. “He knows what he’s doing and I’m thrilled that he’s having success and enjoying himself over there and trying to take that program to another level.”
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Eulawnda Biggers looked forward to watching her son, Purdue center Jay Simpson, return to his hometown last season to play against the Illini. But a broken foot 10 games into the season robbed her of that chance.
She finally got the chance to see her son Wednesday on the State Farm Center floor, as the redshirt freshman big man from Champaign Central played in front of close to 30 friends and members of his family.
“It is very exciting. I’ve been waiting for this game,” she said. “He’s been looking forward to it, too. This is his chance.”
Earlier this week, Purdue coach Matt Painter talked about the progress Simpson has made on and off the court since his arrival at Purdue in the summer of 2012 after spending his senior year of high school at LaLumiere Prep in LaPorte, Ind. Mom has noticed a difference, too.
“It’s been very good. He’s maturing and he’s doing very well,” Biggers said. “I’m thankful for the coaches and everybody at Purdue for helping him out as much as they have.”
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For the second time in a month, the Illinois athletic department received a sizable donation from an alum to help fund the State Farm Center renovation project.
On Wednesday, the UI announced that 1968 graduate Jim Benson has donated $2 million to name the Fighting Illini Legacy Club.
“I’m so very grateful to the University of Illinois for the important impact it has had on the educational growth and the life successes of so many generations of the Benson Family,” Benson said in a statement. “My family and I are truly honored and privileged to give back to the university through this gift and provide a place in this historic facility where our family and so many other Illini families and friends can remember and celebrate the legacy of the Fighting Illini spirit.”
In late December, UI grad John Giuliani donated $5 million to what will be known as the John Giuliani Family Traditions Club.
“Jim is the epitome of a true Fighting Illini fan that has a very strong passion for the orange and blue,” Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said. “Jim’s naming of the Fighting Illini Legacy Club is consistent with the great desire to share the past with those that walk through the doors of this facility for years to come. He has touched the lives of many for several years and we could not be more proud and appreciative of having Jim associated with this outstanding project.”
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The three officials for Wednesday’s game were Gene Steratore, Ted Valentine and Mark Whitehead. Steratore doubles as an NFL referee, and he will be the man in charge during Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks.
Steratrore has been a college basketball official since 1995 and an NFL official since 2003. He was promoted to NFL referee in 2006.