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It’s hard to find someone who personifies a living, breathing history of Illinois men’s basketball in nearly the last 50 years more than Rod Cardinal.

The former longtime Illinois men’s basketball staffer is still nearby. Still living in Tolono, where he and his wife Mary have called home for decades.

And the father of former Unity standout, Purdue standout and 12-year NBA veteran Brian Cardinal is sure enjoying what the fifth-ranked Illini are accomplishing this winter.

The feeling is mutual around Champaign-Urbana and the surrounding communities. Cardinal knows for a fact from what he’s witnessed in the past among fans in small towns — like Tolono, Fisher, Paxton and plenty more — throughout the area.

“Since we came here in 1973, Mary and I have lived about 44 of those years in small towns,” Cardinal said. “One thing that we always thought was so amazing was the sense of loyalty and belonging to Fighting Illini Nation that permeates many of the citizens in our smaller communities. Sometimes they are overlooked, but they are so incredibly important to the overall support and success of our basketball program.”

Cardinal had an up-close view to the last two Illini teams to reach the Final Four. He was the head athletic trainer on the Flyin’ Illini team that reached the Kingdome in Seattle in 1989. And he was the program’s director of operations when Illinois played for the national championship in 2005 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.

“Small towns travel well,” Cardinal said. “It is impressive the numbers of fans from small towns that traveled to the 1989 Final Four and the 2005 Final Four. Huge numbers.”

Cardinal ultimately retired from his long-standing stint with the program in 2019, having worked for Harv Schmidt, Gene Bartow, Lou Henson, Lon Kruger, Bill Self, Bruce Weber, John Groce and Brad Underwood.

But he still has fond memories from some of those successful Illinois teams that captivated attention on the local scene before doing so on the national stage and what it means to Illini fans in close proximity to C-U.

“It can be crazy when Illinois is good and winning championships and going to the Final Four,” Cardinal said. “The small-town support is off the charts. Just walk into the barbershop, post office, hardware store, printing business, local grain elevator or Casey’s, and you will see and listen to or participate in a lively sports discussion about Illinois basketball. It seems like everyone knows the players and coaches personally, and it is fun to participate. Everyone has an opinion and a plan.”

Of course, this winter has featured a scaled-down version of those discussions at local establishments because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just like it has limited attendance for home games at State Farm Center to only the players, coaches and other essential personnel.

This year’s Final Four is closer to Champaign County than any of the Illini’s previous trips, and good news regarding fans in the stands transpired Friday. The NCAA will allow spectators at the venues hosting tournament games, capping capacity at 25 percent. That means if the Illini were to reach 70,000-seat Lucas Oil Stadium on April 3 for one of two national semifinal games, roughly 17,500 people would actually be in the building.

Or, essentially, the combination of a handful of small towns in and around C-U.

But even if those fans can’t be there, they’ll most certainly be watching.

Just like Cardinal.

Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at mdaniels@news-gazette.com.

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