Fan base "Line" Getting A Little Old
The best times of the year for college football fans are opening weekend, rivalry games, and bowl season. This year, the Fighting Illini will play in a bowl game somewhere, but the destination has yet to be determined. For some reason, there's been a lot of talk about the Illini dropping down a level or two in the bowl hierarchy because of their fan base.
The last great season of Illinois football came in the 2000-2001 season when the Illini played in the Nokia Sugar Bowl where they lost to the LSU Tigers 47-34. Illinois finished the year with at 10-2 record, but prior to that season, the last Big Ten Championship came in 1990 when they finished 6-2 in the conference and 8-4 overall.
Some "experts" make the argument that because of all the losing seasons Illinois fans have endured, that explains why they never attended the games. Here's what Illinois has done since the 2001 season.
2002: Big Ten (4-4) and (5-7)
2003: Big Ten (0-8) and (1-11)
2004: Big Ten (1-7) and (3-8)
2005: Big Ten (0-8) and (2-9)
2006: Big Ten (1-7 and (2-10)
The last five seasons Illinois Big Ten record was 6-34 in conference with an overall record of 13-45. With those numbers, I'd like to know which college football fans would sellout or travel a great deal to watch a team play. My guess is not too many.
Since were talking about traveling, let's take a close look at the University of Iowa. Everyone in the country knows they will travel anywhere to watch their Hawkeyes, but even this season when they started to struggle fans didn't show. I was in attendance when Illinois played there this season and the student section was not full.
When the team wins, and does it consistently, the Illini fans have proven they will follow their team and do it with big numbers. We're talking football right now but I remember when the men's basketball team made that magical run and got to the national title game. That season fans traveled all across the country to see them play, some paid a large amount of money for tickets. Actually, some of the opposing fans became so upset that so many Illini fans were in attendance they tried to keep Illini fans from buying tickets. Illini fans got clever; they called and used a different mailing address to get tickets. The opponents tried a different track, telling ticket sellers on game days not to sell tickets to fans wearing orange. So, what did the Orange Crush do, they wore the school colors of the away team just to get tickets and once the game started they pulled them off and wore their orange and blue with pride. Does that sound like a fan base that wouldn't travel to watch Ron Zook's boys in a bowl game?
Memorial Stadium is under construction right now so it's a lot easier to sell out their games as some of the seats are not being used. This season, Illinois averaged 55,023 fans per game and sold out the Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ball State games at 57,078. Getting tickets for those games were tough and I believe it is safe to say that once Memorial Stadium is finished next season it will be full once again.
Before "they" write-off the Illini fans and their holiday travel plans, the bowl committees may want to re-think which Big Ten team they chose. Bottom line, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin football fans have a more established tradition than all the other Big Ten schools. They seem to follow no matter where their team plays. But the fans of the other schools, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue, Indiana and Michigan State, have shown they are somewhat fair-weather when their teams struggle, so it's not an Illinois thing.
Going into the season, not one person other than the coaching staff or players thought this team would win eight games. But now they have surprised the country and people are taking notice. So should the bowl committees, as the "Illini Nation" is packed and ready to go, looking forward to spending the holidays cheering on their boys in Orange and Blue in a top-notched bowl in sunny Florida.
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