Leave Us Be

Oct 16, 2019

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That's my main emotion these days. Perhaps it's yours. The college football world goes on discussing it's fake problems ("will our young defense prevent another title game appearance?" says the Bama fan), while we sit here with real problems. And nothing, absolutely nothing, seems fair.

I got an email about BTN Tailgate being in Champaign on Saturday. That's BTN's own "College Gameday" show where they go to a campus and do a live show at 9:00 am. It was announced before the season that they'd be in Champaign for the Wisconsin game but I forgot about it until this email. Now, it just seems cruel. Why put our faces on TV? Haven't we suffered enough?

I'm probably already losing you. Let me try to explain.

Everyone around our football program, including those at Big Ten headquarters, act as if it's a football program. They pretty much have to. The Big Ten has to spread the love evenly, so if Penn State gets a pregame thing on BTN, Rutgers should get the same thing.

This is seen on social media as well. Northwestern might go 3-9 this season and Ohio State might go 12-0, but when they play in Evanston on Friday night, the people who run Northwestern's social media are going to behave the same way that the Ohio State social media people will behave. Pregame, act like it's going to be a game. The game might be 48-3 by the end, but pregame, the tweets will be the same (go team, let's do this, "fight, boys"). Has to be done. I get it. Everyone behaves as if they have a winning program. You can't have the official Twitter account tweet "destruction is at our door, gentlemen".

For me (and probably for some Rutgers fan out there), that kind of thing feels increasingly insulting. For the other 12 fanbases in the conference, "fight, boys" is more or less true. Northwestern might go 3-9 this year but last year they were in the Big Ten Championship Game. Even schools like Indiana have climbed to a "at least competing for a bowl game" rung on the ladder. Everybody fights. For us (and for Rutgers), we increasingly have zero chance on Saturdays.

Which means that when BTN blasts out "heyyy Illini fans we're coming to your city!", I want absolutely nothing to do with it. I'll likely time my drive on Saturday so that there's zero chance I'm anywhere near this BTN Tailgate thing. I'm sick to my stomach just thinking about it. My overwhelming emotion is "please, for your sake, keep your cameras away from us".

Like, they're going to ask a bunch of Illini fans to stand in the background and hold up signs and wave orange and blue flags (or whatever). Do they not understand how hard this is? We have three (THREE) seasons above .500 in the conference since I arrived on campus in the fall of 1991 (and the one where you're saying "what was the third?" was 1993 where we went 0-3 in the non-conference and missed a bowl at 5-6). We've been beaten down for nearly three decades now, and you want to prop us up in the background and act like we're Wisconsin fans or something? "Stand there and cheer and hold some signs - it looks good for our show".

I need you to know something about those of us who still show up every Saturday (and there aren't many of us left). We do it out of loyalty to our school and to our players. The administration has made nearly 30 consecutive years of bad decisions and left us without a program to support. But we do it anyway, because they can't make us quit. We have vowed to be there when the corner is turned, so we're going to keep showing up and keep showing up.

But when you shove a camera in our face and ask us to act like we're enjoying this, it's hard, man. Yes, this is homecoming, but please realize that, at least for me, this is the most difficult build-up to homecoming in any of those 28 years I mentioned above. 31-point underdogs on homecoming. It's so hard to drag ourselves to Champaign for that. The smiles are only going to be quarter-hearted.

Look, I know that it's not possible to cancel Homecoming nor is it possible to cancel a BTN Tailgate asking Illini fans to dance in the background and pretend like everything is OK for two hours. I'm just saying I want everyone to understand where we're at: leave Britney alone.

Here, I'll give you some perspective, since this has apparently become an "open letter to BTN and other Big Ten fanbases peering in on Illinois football". Attendance on Saturday was 37,275. For Michigan. Thus far, the average attendance this season is exactly 36,800 through four games. Here's some perspective on that.

The 2017 season dipped below the 1998 low water mark (1998 average attendance: 39,590; 2017: 39,429) to be the lowest average (paid) attendance since 1970 (37,659). Then, last season beat that number (36,151), meaning it was the lowest attendance since 1962 (35,295). If this year dips below that (and it's quite possible, with Rutgers and Northwestern still on the schedule in November - the last Saturday-after-Thanksgiving Northwestern game in 2017 drew 30,456 paid, so this one will almost certainly be less), then this season will be the lowest attendance in Champaign since World War II.

I need to put that in one paragraph for emphasis. The post-war low mark is 1962 when the average attendance was 35,295. That's one year after the winless season (1961) that Dick Butkus was talking about on stage last Friday. Right now the average attendance is 36,800, and that average will get a boost from a homecoming crowd on Saturday but a dip from both Rutgers and Northwestern, and if it dips below 35,295, it will be the lowest since 1945. And the 1945 attendance was war-related. 1946 saw an average attendance of 59,437, but the year before, in 1945, it was 24,011. So "since the war" will be accurate.

Since the war.

That is the fanbase you're encountering when you pull up to Champaign on Saturday. We're beaten and bludgeoned, man. Those of us who still drag ourselves to Champaign for seven Saturdays every fall completely understand why the other tens of thousands decided to quit. "Diehard" means exactly what it says, and this been hard enough that even diehards died.

So just know that you're filming a funeral, not Mardis Gras. Sure, it's an Irish funeral (heh), and the tailgating is great with so many grass fields immediately around the stadium (and so few people, meaning we can spread out and really flex our tailgating muscles), but this is not Iowa or Penn State (or even Minnesota or Purdue). This is a group of people who watch football games through their middle and ring fingers while covering their eyes.

I can't speak for all of us, but for me, I mostly want to be left alone with my grief. I'm a St. Louis guy, so I want to see the Cards win, but I could barely handle the last week. The Cardinals are in their 10th (tenth!) NLCS since 2000 and the fanbase is in an uproar. I get that fans are going to be fans and getting swept without ever having the lead in any game is bad, so I understand the immediate anger, but it's so hard for me to see a fanbase complain that much (especially before the series). I would give anything - seriously anything - for a 6-6 season and an insignificant bowl. And here's a fanbase angry during their 10th Final Four in the last 20 seasons. I just can't be around it.

I'd imagine, say, a Reds fans would feel the same way. The Cards have won 18 playoff series since 1996; the Reds haven't won a single playoff series since 1990. This win over the Braves last week where the Cards scored 10 in the first inning to take the NLDS? That would have been the single greatest Reds game in 30 years. Yet there was still so much angst among Cardinals fans.

Again, I get the immediate fan reaction. If it's Nats/Astros in the World Series and the Astros win, Nats fans will be angry immediately afterwards and then look back in a few months and say "greatest season of my lifetime". Everyone wants to win it all, and the losses hurt immediately, but with time, there are levels below "win it all" which are satisfying.

For me, I just want a few years at the absolute lowest level of "success". I'm a fan of the sport that gives out more participation trophies than any other sport (I believe the bowl game total moves to 41 this year, which means that 82 out of 130 teams get to go), and we haven't been since 2014. I don't even want that filet - someone, anyone, just give me some porridge. I'll love it I swear.

That's the fanbase you're peering in on this Saturday, BTN. We're as defeated as any fanbase you've ever seen. According to this email here, you're setting up a "sign making station" where fans are encouraged to create signs which can be held up in the background.

I'm not sure "I AM DEAD INSIDE" is going to make for great television.


orangeandblue on October 16, 2019 @ 02:28 PM

So here's an idea. Let's have a tailgate party during the game and have an old game on the big screen that we actually won. We'll put up a sign that says we'll come to the game when there is the hope of winning. BTN should have fun with that.

OrchestratedPerfection on October 16, 2019 @ 02:55 PM

Last time was we beat Wisconsin was 2007, right? Zooooooooooooook!

Sweetchuck13 on October 17, 2019 @ 09:27 AM

This is actually a great idea. Usually the tailgate is the best part of the day....before we actually saunter into the stadium for our medicine.

IlliniBobLoblaw on October 17, 2019 @ 09:39 AM

"Free Robert" seems pretty appropriate. "Save Robert" is a close second.

The Olaf Rules on October 16, 2019 @ 03:36 PM

Thank you for being there to support the athletes. I’ve given up. Will be back whenever this turns around. As you’ve documented, 90% of hires eventually get to a bowl, so I like our odds with the next guy. It would take epic intentional stupidity to get four hires in a row wrong. I think Josh goes with a more traditional hire that will bring at least some modest success.

HiggsBoson on October 16, 2019 @ 04:19 PM

Ron Zook was fired for reaching what Robert is hoping for as a goal for the program: 6-6 and a mediocre bowl. A goal, which I now think is unattainable by Lovie Smith no matter how many years you give him.

Dr. Chim Richalds on October 16, 2019 @ 06:30 PM

Great post, this articulates something I've felt for awhile but haven't thought through this clearly. The social media / unlimited coverage era definitely exacerbates the extent to which schools are forced to participate in this type of thing, but it always feels like we're playing pretend.

Nevertheless, thanks for always being there to support the athletes (and often to provide under-the-radar players a platform and to recognize their accomplishments).

H/t the leave Britney alone reference, made me laugh.

IlliniOllie on October 16, 2019 @ 09:20 PM

Great column, Robert. You nailed it; any and all promotion of this program has felt increasingly insulting, and it has been going that way for years.

I don’t want to see BTN or Fighting Illini Football trying to pump up this game on Twitter when we’re -31 and +2500. I don’t want to hear about how we showed “fight” coming back after Michigan completely outclassed us romping to a 28-point (and nearly a 35-point) lead. I don’t want to hear about how it’s a great opportunity to get exposure for the program playing Week Zero in Ireland, when I assume we’ll just give up 363.2794 meters rushing to Nebraska in front of 15,000 Husker fans across the pond and a national TV audience at home.

I know the media staff and AD has to do it, because it’s their job, but it all rings so hollow and insulting. And, as a result, we reflexively crap all over anything that Illinois puts out there. The program tweets a picture of the covered Butkus statue before it’s unveiled, and the replies ask when we’re firing the coach. We announce that we’re going to Ireland, and the response is that we can lose games just as easily here as we can overseas. BTN Tailgate is coming to town, and the immediate suggestions are what signs we can make to express our agony to the rest of the world.

I’m sure I’ll get new coach syndrome just like i get August syndrome every summer, but it gets a little milder with every relapse. Until then, though, I agree with your request: please, just leave us alone.

Joe Edge on October 17, 2019 @ 12:11 AM

'The administration has made nearly 30 consecutive years of bad decisions and left us without a program to support.' ... Are you sure it's not 50 years of bad decisions ?

I feel your pain Robert... And the fact that we have indeed made epically bad decisions over these past 30 (or 50) years, suggests a pattern that can't (and won't) stop repeating itself. For me its beyond insulting...

'But we do it anyway, because they can't make us quit.'

neale stoner on October 17, 2019 @ 09:44 AM

Last line is one of your best. Tells it all.

thumpasaurus on October 17, 2019 @ 10:43 AM


Parliament: Let Me Be

thumpasaurus on October 17, 2019 @ 12:17 PM

We've won four of our last sixteen homecoming games.

But at least it's not Senior Day, where 2014 represents the only win in the last 10 years

Boneyard Surfer on October 17, 2019 @ 08:57 PM

I’ve made the point before that P5 wins are a zero sum game. Not exactly, since P5 teams load up with Eastern Michigans and then beat them (or not), but once they get to conference games, there’s a winner and a loser for each game (exception might be Notre Dame muddying the water occasionally).

Alabama, tOSU, etc will get more than their fair share of those wins, leaving the Illinis of the world to scrape for what’s left over.

A permanent sea change like Wisconsin under Alvarez is more and more unlikely as the digital world and massive TV coverage serves to cement the current power structure.

The best Illinois can hope for in the immediate future is a range between 4-8 and 8-4. The competition is too well entrenched, and inertia is what it is. As is Lovie.

CraigG on October 18, 2019 @ 09:09 AM

I'm not sure this is true forever. Things get wonky when truly innovative schemes come into play and the early adopters pull themselves up. It really gets wonky when an early adopter is a somewhat traditional power. This iteration of football is absolutely becoming cemented, and it is harder for early adopters to hide the changes then previous, but it still happens. Things are locked in now until some new great idea rolls over football. The wishbone, Air Raid, 4-3 defense are all examples people used to great success in prior iterations. The last time Illinois hit on one was Mike White, and then they squandered it.

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