EAST LANSING, Mich. — Dave Wischnowsky sat through the first half of Saturday’s Illinois football game on a chilly fall afternoon at Michigan State’s Spartan Stadium.
But the 1998 University of Illinois graduate and longtime Illini fan, who hails from Chicago, decided at halftime, along with his friend, Harvey Henao, a fellow UI graduate from 2001 who also lives in Chicago, to leave with the Illini trailing 28-10.
“We were cold, and we were skeptical of a comeback, to say the least,” Wischnowsky said. “And we wanted to be near our cars.”
So the two headed to Harrison Roadhouse, a half-mile from Spartan Stadium.
“There were only about three Illini fans in the bar,” Wischnowsky said. “But we made sure they heard us by the end.”
Did they ever. So did the few hundred Illinois supporters tucked inside a section at the north end zone at Spartan Stadium, who were celebrating feverishly under the bright lights after the Illini pulled off the biggest comeback in school history with a 37-34 win at Michigan State. The sixth victory clinched the program’s first bowl game since 2014.
“It means the world to me to make a bowl game because my sister has been in the Marching Illini since she was a freshman,” said Yianni Laros, a UI freshman from Champaign who arrived Friday night ahead of Saturday’s game, “and the band deserves a bowl game.”
They’ll get one. Along with Lovie Smith, the players, assistant coaches, staff members and everyone else associated with one of the hottest Big Ten teams at the moment.
Wischnowsky, who attended the Illini’s 35-29 comeback win at Michigan in 1999 that helped current Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman play in his only bowl game of his Illini football career, said Saturday’s comeback against the Spartans was similar to what he witnessed 20 years ago at Michigan Stadium.
“It ranks right up there,” Wischnowsky said. “To say I’ve been in person for two of the biggest comebacks in Illinois football history is amazing.”
The Marching Illini made the trip from Champaign, too, for the weekend, standing along the crowded Illinois sidelines for the entire game in its first road trip this season before playing at halftime and then rushing the field after the game. While Smith was being hoisted onto his players’ shoulders near midfield, the band was chanting “Bowl game, bowl game.”
While that celebration was going on, Whitman was finding any and all Illini types to hug. He and his wife, Hope, flew into East Lansing on Saturday afternoon hours before kickoff after watching the Illinois men’s basketball team win 83-71 at Grand Canyon on Friday night in Phoenix. The plan is for the Whitmans to fly back to Arizona today to take in tonight’s game at No. 21 Arizona that tips at 8.
But football was the talk of Illini fans come Saturday night. And not even those in East Lansing or Champaign.
For Ashton Smith, Saturday meant a different kind of way to represent Illinois football. The 2019 Tuscola High School graduate is a freshman at the University of Alabama, majoring in advertising/creative media. And she got creative during “College GameDay,” stopping by the campus in Tuscaloosa, Ala., before the showdown between top-ranked LSU and No. 2 Alabama, displaying a sign that read “Roll Tide” in red block letters and “Go Illini” underneath that in orange and blue block letters.
The sign made a few appearances on the popular ESPN show, and Smith said she received positive feedback. She also had one of her friends, Nathaniel Lowe, an Alabama freshman from Chesterfield, Va., with a double major in physics and math, nearby to wave an Illinois flag.
“The reaction from the fellow fans in the crowd was amazing,” Smith said. “I got a lot of high-fives and even a few I-L-L chants. The best interaction was hearing two guys cheer behind us and ask for a picture with my sign. I didn’t get their names, but they said they were from Champaign. Such a small world.”
Smith said she plans to attend the Illinois-Northwestern game with her family on Nov. 30 at Memorial Stadium with Alabama on Thanksgiving break.
“My dad and I bond over Illini football,” Smith said. “In high school, my parents and I would drive straight from my Saturday morning cross-country meets to cheer on the Illini. Even though I decided to go to Alabama for college, I have been adamant about my Illinois pride every weekend in Tuscaloosa.”
None more so than on Saturday and also when the Illini upset then-No. 6 Wisconsin on Oct. 19. She may have even converted a few Alabama students into Illinois fans that day.
“I was watching the Illinois game on my phone, and one by one my friends pulled up chairs to watch it over my shoulder,” Smith said. “Finally, someone called out, ‘Can we put the Illinois game on the TV?’ They gave me the Apple TV, and I put it up just in time to watch the winning interception and field goal. The entire room went crazy. It was so much fun to see my hometown team gain fans from people all over the country.”
Even, maybe, some in East Lansing.
“We liked razzing the Michigan State fans a bit,” Wischnowsky said, “but they were honestly happy to see us have a win like that. It was a surreal moment.”