Leave Us Be
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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.