Through the Trifocals

The success of Illini baskeball has had a profound effect on many people throughout the country and world. Illinois fans are holding their heads high and their wallets open. Illinisports discusses how people are buying and selling Illini merchandise and memorabilia at record rates.

There are many wonderful benefits to having a basketball team so universally admired as this year's Fighting Illini. All the recruiting and publicity benefits cannot be purchased at any price. The university in general, and not just the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, benefits financially through increased donations, and its glowing overall image makes the recruiting of top faculty as enhanced as the recruiting of top basketball players.

A few faculty will continue to scoff at the importance of intercollegiate athletics for the overall welfare of the University, but there is no doubt that winning on the basketball court or football field helps everyone. People do tend to think more highly of a university when it receives positive sports publicity. No scholarly or other extracurricular endeavor has the same potential to cast the UI in such a bright, conspicuous light. Even classroom instruction is easier when so many students and faculty are in a positive mood.

The overall Champaign-Urbana area is also feeling these positive vibes. Everyone has a little more bounce to their step, a little extra width to their smile, a little less likelihood of erupting negatively at the first hint of problems. The entire community has something great to share, which helps neutralize that which might otherwise divide us. Even natural born enemies can share space, at least momentarily, when the Illini are winning.

These same wonderful feelings are being experienced throughout the state of Illinois and even nationally, especially wherever there is an Illinois fan in residence. Even some of the more vitriolic newspaper and TV sports commentators are having a hard time finding fault with us. At least momentarily, we have drowned the vengeful firestarters, gagged the acidic tongue-lashers, and handcuffed the backstabbers. Isn't life grand when people like Digger Phelps and Jay Mariotti have to praise us or risk a loss of credibility?

Illini everywhere are wearing their Illini apparel, flying their Illini flags, attending games in their areas, pestering sports bars to switch channels to Illini games, and gaining bragging rights with their friends and coworkers. They are celebrating their own version of "Paint The Hall" by filling their hall closets with orange. At least for this basketball season and hopefully beyond, fans of every other top school in the country must hold their tongues in the face of the smiling, uplifted Illini fandom. Some have even begun to praise us as the ideal college basketball team.

Of course, Illini fans with open hearts are vulnerable to the enterprising entrepreneurs who have dollar signs dancing in their heads rather than basketball championships warming their hearts. After all, fans want to BUY ILLINI, and the sales people are eager to oblige. It is encouraging to hear that Illini apparel can now be purchased in many areas of the country outside of Illinois, especially since we have been shut out of that merchandising gold mine for so long. Now young fans, some of whom are future sports stars, can begin wearing Illini apparel and claiming Illinois as their dream school. It prepares the way for a positive future for the U of I.

Ticket sales to Illini games has become a boon to scalpers. Demand to see the Illini and their rock-star level celebrity has become so great that some people are willling to spend hundreds of dollars for tickets. Game-day hawkers and auction house advertisers are making a bundle despite most games being on TV.

It is said that Illini basketball players have provided literally thousands of their signatures for adoring fans, as well as a few greedy individuals disguised as Illini fans. This latter group takes advantage of player generosity by placing same-day ads on the internet auction websites for their newly acquired autographs. Some are making triple digit profits from a free gift from the players.

One cannot fault those who bid up these autographed memorabilia such as balls, floor boards, programs, photos, etc. After all, many people want a tangible remembrance of this magical season, and they are willing to pay for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But the players and the U of I get nothing in return. It is hoped the UI is not forced to limit player autographs because the players love the fans and wish to fulfill their wishes. But only such intervention can prevent the ripoffs that now are occurring with some regularity.

Another misuse created by pure greed is the private individuals and companies who profit by selling counterfeit or unlicensed products. The more we win, the more nonapproved products are being produced. Only licensed items return a portion of profit to the UI, an important fund raiser to help ensure the financial health of the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics. It is hoped that all Illini merchandise buyers will ask for proof of licensing and purchase only those items approved by the UI, but many temptations are available.

Some items are so unique and made with such creativity they can be hard to resist. This writer cannot fault a craftsman who makes a wooden Illini clock, as long as it doesn't incorporate the round Chief logo, the official insignia of the UI. If someone wishes to produce a light switch cover with a block "I" on it, who will complain (although player names is another matter)? And what canoeist could possibly live without a canoe paddle in orange and blue? Some items are in too short a supply to be a threat to Illini coffers.

Besides the long-term shops that exist to sell Illini items, one other consistent source of Illini memorabilia is through internet auctions. It is amazing how many different items have been created since the beginning of UI sports more than 100 years ago, and it is equally amazing how popular some of these items have become.

Among the most frequent items found on ebay and other auction sites are homecoming buttons, Chief Illiniwek items, football and basketball programs, ticket stubs, wire photos, magazines, pennants and banners, old postcards, dolls, and autographs. There are far too many additional categories to include here. The UI has produced many marketing gems over the years, and some sell for handsome amounts. But the usual sales level of these items has skyrocketed this year.

A year ago, one could search for "Illinois" on ebay and find around 50 pages of items available for auction, with about a fifth of those being UI or sports related. At this writing, that number is approximately 200 pages, with many of the items being brand new. Even if one wishes to keep up on a daily basis for new additions, it might take a half hour or more to trudge through the 20 or so new pages. And if one misses a day or more, the chance of catching up becomes increasingly hopeless. No known study has determined what percentage of these Illini items is actually sold, but it is significant enough for auction sellers to try again and again.

Over the years, more items have been produced for football than basketball, and homecoming buttons top the list. Supposedly, there has been at least one button made for every homecoming since 1910, although this reporter hasn't seen anything before 1914. The UI does not even have a full collection. Produced by the Alumni Association, these buttons are sold mostly on campus in the week prior to each year's homecoming game, and extras are often destroyed or dumped rather than saved for posterity.

Of course, this makes them more appealing to collectors as they try to obtain at least one of each. Some even try to hoard several of certain years to upgrade the condition of their collection and/or to trade for years they lack. And like with baseball cards and other seasonal items, the most valuable are the ones produced or at least sold in the least quantity.

One can extrapolate much about the history of Illini football by studying homecoming buttons. And this history sometimes parallels closely the historical cycle of the USA. For example, buttons from the war years of 1917-1918 and 1942-46 are made from cheaper material since metal was scarce. And fewer people had the funds to purchase them. Buttons before 1919 are rare, but there are many more available from 1919 than many of the years that follow. Perhaps people were in a celebratory mood after the pain of World War I. The buttons from 1947 and 1948 are also extremely plentiful, possibly resulting from the end of World War II.

Many of the early buttons were made with attached orange and blue ribbons (or close proximities). The "Roaring 20's" was a time of excess, and some of these pins demonstrate that extravagant time. Surprisingly, the thirties contined to include ribbons with the pins despite the Great Depression. Perhaps those who could afford college could afford much more. Regardless, the buttons from those years are attractive and relatively numerous.

Buttons from down periods in Illini football were not popular at the time they were produced. As predictable, Illini fans were not eager to brag of their Illini loyalties during the 1970's. There are far more buttons available from 1920-1940 than from 1970 to around 1981. Things began to pick up again during the Mike White years, but the mid to late nineties, as well as the early 21st century, showed another downturn. Of course, no one knew at the time that buttons so cheap to purchase when new might have more value with age.

There are a number of other types of pins and buttons as well. Anyone still possessing an "I Like Harv" button has something of value. The same can be said for gems like "No Mo Bo", "Muck Fichigan", "Bear Bryant Eats Quishe", "The 80's Belong To The Illini" and all manner of pins showing an Indian face in profile. Even the Kilroy image from the end of World War II was copied to produce a pin and flag of Chief Illiniwek's nose hanging over an Illini insignia. Illini creativity has produced a wide range of attractive or timely memorabilia to pin to one's chest or coat.

Chief Illiniwek items are always good sellers because so many people fear his demise as a symbol for the University of Illinois. Among the most valuable items are a series of liquor decantors created from 1979 to the mid 80's. Standing around a foot or so tall, these five decanters show Illiniwek in full regalia demonstrating different poses during his performances. Their value continues to increase with age and will continue to do so as long as the controversy over the Chief remains.

During the good times, everyone seems to desire for purchase any items that remind them of their Illini loyalties. And they display them proudly for all to see. People who live in states like Michigan, Ohio, Iowa and Indiana now have bragging rites after many years of listening to the braggadocio of fans of our Big 10 opponents. Car flags, bumper stickers, mailbox covers, orange and blue Christmas lights (still used after victories well past December), and all manner of clothing all tell the world who we are. Times are indeed good.

This writer is above such silliness. If we have Illinois firmly in our hearts, we have no need for ostentatious displays, right? And if we have memories of Illinois' best moments planted firmly in our highly stimulated if not highly educated brains, who needs tangible memorabilia?

But if someone has some homecoming buttons from 1910-1918, 1941-1945, 1970-1981, or 1991-mid 90's, and you would be willing to part with them, contact Or, look for the one at an Illini game wearing orange from head to toe.

Go Illini!!!


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