SAN FRANCISCO — The second-largest Illini alumni base has settled around Silicon Valley, home to Google, Facebook, Apple and more.
The “tech capital of the world” has attracted more than 19,000 University of Illinois graduates to the Bay Area, and that makes Kyle Bendsen a busy man leading up to Monday’s Illini bowl game against Cal in nearby Santa Clara.
Bendsen, a Pinterest executive with UI degrees in engineering and business, is co-president of the San Francisco Bay Area Illini Club and co-host for the visiting Illini contingent. The former Marching Illini trombonist “couldn’t be more excited” to have his alma mater playing nearby: “I think it’ll be a huge celebration, and I know a lot of people are coming out from the Midwest.
He offered a word of advice for visiting fans: “Don’t be surprised at getting a random ‘I-L-L’ if you are walking down the street with Illini gear,” as there are 25 alums at Pinterest alone. “I run into them all the time.”
The Bay Area Illini Club has worked closely with UI alumni and athletic officials on the itinerary for the Redbox Bowl.
The group typically hosts two events a month, including picnics, happy hours and “watch parties” for Illini games — though unfortunately not the upset of Wisconsin, which had a 9 a.m. start Pacific time.
“It’s very hard to get people out at 9 o’clock,” Bendsen said. “I actually watched from my apartment and screamed.”
The UI has planned a pep rally at noon Sunday near the team hotel in San Francisco.
A free “Bowl Bash at the Bay” is set for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Public House in Oracle Park, home to the San Francisco Giants. It will feature a special bowl radio show with Illini announcers Brian Barnhart of WDWS and Martin O’Donnell.
A 10 a.m. Monday pre-game brunch will be held at the Santa Clara Convention Center, across the street from Levi’s Stadium ($25 for adults, $10 for children under 12).
The Bay Area Illini Club has also set up an event from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday at a local brewery featuring a podcast with reporters covering the game, including Barnhart and News-Gazette sportswriter Scott Richey; Doug Bucshon of Orange and Blue News; and Isaac Trotter and Jeremy Werner of IlliniInquirer.
The alumni club organized a “game watch” party for Saturday night’s football championship semifinal between Ohio State and Clemson. And Bendsen was scouting bars in South Bay for an Illini post-game party Monday, “depending on how we do.”
Joining him for the game will be his parents, Deanne and Chris Bendsen of Decatur, who “made me bleed orange and blue from age 5.” At least five of his former Marching Illini band-mates are also flying out.
“I think we’re going to get a good turnout,” he said. “It’s our first bowl game or NCAA tournament for five years.”
Bendsen, a 2012 UI graduate, went to two bowl games, one NCAA tournament and one volleyball Final Four as a member of the Marching Illini. He was among the lucky few sent to the last Illini bowl game, the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco.
He earned a master’s in technology management after deciding he didn’t want to be a full-time aerospace engineer. He worked in Champaign and Dallas before moving to the Bay area two-and-a-half years ago and is technical program manager for infrastructure at Pinterest — and also leads “Pintunes,” the company’s a capella group.
He comes home at least twice a year to visit family but hasn’t seen a game at Memorial Stadium in several years. He likes taking his parents to see the Illini play elsewhere so they can visit different parts of the country while he gets his Illini “fix” — including last year’s Maui Invitational and the Illini football game at Purdue this fall.
Bendsen loves meeting people from all over the world in San Francisco, which reminds him of the UI, and the many places to explore. But housing is expensive — $1.5 million for a two-bedroom, two-bath condo. He misses the prices of the Midwest — and the friendliness.
“It is something you take for granted living there but it is something to treasure,” he said.