I think I figured out why I enjoyed Mark Smith's commitment ceremony so much. You know, besides the fact that a 4-star guard perfect for Underwood's offense picked Illinois over Michigan State and Kentucky. I love the Metro East - Illini connection.
I grew up in the Metro East. If you're not familiar with the term, the "Metro East" is the term used to describe the Illinois portion of the St. Louis area. I was born there, raised there, graduated from high school there - it is home to me. This post is veering towards a country song very quickly. "I miss the old dirt roads where we used to meet up to fight after schooooool..."
Many Chicagoans view the Metro East much like they view Northwest Indiana -- that Belleville = Gary or something -- but that's not really the case. That would only be true if downtown Chicago was 30 miles to the south, laying right on the border with Indiana. In St. Louis, you can stand under the arch and hit a driver to Illinois (3-wood for me), which means that "St. Louis" - the arch, the brewery, the zoo - is often more accessible to Illinoisians than Missourians. The Missouri side sprawled out far to the west; the Illinois side is fairly well consolidated in a radius around downtown St. Louis.
In Chicago - from my "kid from the Metro East who went to Illinois while 80% of the campus was from Chicagoland" view - there seems to be a pattern you're supposed to follow. When you graduate from Illinois and move back, you are supposed to (forced to?) live in the city somewhere on the north side. Then you get married, have kids, fight moving to the suburbs, and then there's this split between the "we moved to the suburbs people" and the "we stayed in the city" people. I butchered that, but you get the gist.
In St. Louis, everything is regional, mostly by county. When people move back from college, there's no single area where they consolidate. You have five choices: St. Louis City, St. Louis County (burbs), St. Charles County (far-flung burbs), Jefferson County (pretty much Arkansas), and the Metro East. The debate over what "Metro East" means will rage on for centuries. To those on the east side of the river, it's "escape the backwards state that is Mizzurah", while on the west side it's "once you cross the river I'm pretty sure you're in Kentucky".
If you've ever wondered why the Braggin' Rights game is such a big deal to those of us down here, it's found in that debate. There is a very clear line drawn down the middle of that river, with each side thinking the other side is backwards. Most Missourians attempt to ignore the fact that there's an Illinois side to St. Louis, but the 700,000 people in the Metro East are too numerous to ignore.
Yes, 700,000. Actually, from the 2010 census, 702,579. After Chicagoland, the second-largest population density in Illinois isn't Springfield, Rockford, Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, Decatur, or Chambana. It's the Metro East.
And as far as fandom is concerned, I've always made the argument that after Champaign-Urbana, the Metro-East is the highest concentration of Illini fans in the state. The reason "Chicago's Big Ten Team" is such a joke is because Chicago doesn't have a Big Ten team - not even us. Chicago has every Big Ten team (besides Rutgers - nobody claims Rutgers). Growing up in the Metro East, I grew up in insane Illini country. Fueled by the yearly rivalry with the hated Missourians across the river, Madison and St. Clair counties are incredibly orange and blue.
Which finally brings me to my point. The gym at Edwardsville High School for Mark Smith's announcement had... maybe 250 people in attendance? And the cheer when he spun around in the Illini hat was LOUD. And the I-L-L chat started by the high school athletic director wasn't bad either. These were my people, and they were all excited that he was staying home.
I so love a kid from the Metro East going suiting up for the Illini. I've argued for years that any coach who arrives in Champaign should take trips #1, #2, and #3 to Chicagoland. But trip #4 should be to the Metro East. Because kids down here - from Malcolm Hill in Belleville to Richard Keene in Collinsville to Mark Smith in Edwardsville (everything is a 'ville, you see) - have often remained loyal to the Orange and Blue.
(I should note here that East St. Louis high school has always been a bit different. That golf ball I hit from the Arch steps landed in East St. Louis, and because of its proximity to downtown St. Louis, has always leaned a bit towards Mizzou. But that's a topic for another day - and something we're hoping Lovie and Underwood will change.)
I guess I don't really have a true point here. If there was one, it would be this: as much as Peoria people love Frankie Williams and Quincy people love Bruce Douglas, I heart Mark Smith (and Richard Keene and Malcolm Hill). I see the Metro East as my "town", and when kids from my "town" play for the Illini they hold a special place in my fan heart.
I live on the wrong side of the river now, but my heart is always on the other side. Those are my people, and to spend an evening with them watching their native son say no to Izzo and Cal and pick the Illini... I'm not sure it gets better than that. Recruiting-wise, at least.
Go Illini. Get back to the top of the Big Ten. Led by a fantastic scoring guard from the Metro East.