Illini Nation: A United Front

<p>Illini fans have been through a lot lately. Just how much? Let us count the ways...

1) The coach we all thought would take our basketball program from a sleeping giant into a fully awake fire-breathing dragon bolted on us, leaving us in a state of unrest. How could this happen again? Every time we're on the verge of something great, destiny comes along and puts us back in our also-ran place.

2) Charlie Villanueva played it smart. He knew to wait before signing his letter of intent with the UI. It all seems like a dream now. Did a national top 5 player from New York (gasp!) actually pledge to play basketball at the University of Illinois? Impossible! This just does not happen. Do we show some class and hope for the best for Villanueva? Do we want to see him realize his dream of playing in the NBA some day? Or do we let the vindictive side that is in every Illini fan get the best of us and hope that he fails miserably at UConn?

3) Illini football...enough said.

4) Here we sit in the midst of the greatest recruiting battle fans of Illini basketball have seen since when? Villanueva? Laphonso Ellis? Ben Wilson? Never? As of this writing, I doubt any of us know one way or the other where this recruit will wind up. We watched as Marquis Johnson and Moe Dampeer shunned Illini football in favor of the greener pastures of the Big 12. When it comes down to it, who can blame them? We've seen one Illinois prospect after another decide to go out of state rather than wear the Orange and Blue of the Illini. Losing another top-notch Illinois prospect to Duke or Arizona might just be the one that pushes us over the edge.

Illini fans catch a lot of flak. A LOT of flak. We get it from opposing fan bases. We get it from players, coaches...even our own fans! We're fair weather fans, we're front runners, we don't support our teams in the bad times. We're the reason why Illini football has been bad for 100 years. If we would only show up and fill Memorial Stadium we'd have better coaches and players and better teams. Are Illini football fans any worse than fans of Michigan or Ohio State? Or have we just had a whole lot less to cheer about? Give Wolverine or Buckeye fans a 5-7 season followed by a potential 1-11 campaign, then let's have this discussion.

With all this negativity in mind, there are reasons for optimism. There are reasons to stand up and cheer your fellow Illini fans. We hear so much about how much of a negative impact we can have on recruiting by all of our nonsensical blabber on our infamous message boards all across the internet. What we never seem to hear is how much good we can do for our beloved university; how much good we HAVE done for our beloved university. Ask Frank Williams how much of a positive impact we had on his decision to stay for his junior year rather than enter the NBA draft. Ask Villanueva how much of an impact we had on his decision to pick Illinois. Ask a couple current Illini targets how much having a gym full of rabid Illini fans meant to them.

I was there. I was in the house one Saturday afternoon when a certain highly rated point guard from Peoria played pick-up with the current Illini basketball team. I saw the signs. I saw the enthusiasm. I heard the roaring chants. I saw what kind of impact this had on a much sought after recruit who had yet to make his college choice. We wanted to show this player that Illini fans have not given up. We have embraced our new coach, Bruce Weber, and we are bound and determined to make Illinois basketball the national power it deserves to be. We wanted to let this player know that it was not okay for him to give up on his home state school either.

Will this be enough to influence the decision of a high school kid who is just trying to make the most important decision of his young life? Who knows? I doubt it. But it certainly was enough to convince me that, no, just because a good coach left us, Illini basketball is not dead. Illini fans won't let it die. We will support our players and our basketball program and make it an elite program worthy of being in the same class as Duke, Arizona, North Carolina and Kentucky or we will die trying.

I like to steal a quote from John Wooden and transform it into my phrase. I heard Coach Wooden once say "If I am ever arrested for being a Christian, I hope they find enough evidence to convict me."

My phrase goes like this: "If I am ever arrested for being too great an Illini fan, I hope they find enough evidence to convict me." And if being a great Illini fan were a crime, the local police force would have to find room for roughly 800 criminals who were at the Ubben Basketball Complex one dreary Saturday afternoon to cheer for their beloved Illini.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories