Illini Championship - 2005 vs. 1989
I swear I didn't plan for this to end on March 26th. The original plan was two posts per day so that the Sweet 16 would end last Thursday, the Elite Eight on Friday and Saturday, the Final Four on Sunday, and this game on Monday. But the recap posts for each team took too long to write, so this thing pushed out to... March 26th, the date when both teams made the Final Four.
We all knew it would come down to these two teams. I mean, we didn't know know - there was still a chance that 2001 or even 1984 could have pulled an upset - but when you put these things up to vote, honestly, nobody is getting past these two. Fans are voting, and Illini fans see a vote against 2005 or 1989 as a vote against America.
But what happens when you put them against each other? I'm excited to find out. First, two March 26ths.
March 26, 1989
I know it was a Sunday in the early afternoon. The first game of the day, I think? You could tell it was a day game because the fabric roof of the Metrodome during a day game made it look like you were in someone's kitchen with skylights. A white glow from above.
For me, I was watching at the family lake house. The lake house was split between aunts and uncles and grandparents (we put the family in family lake house) and we (my mom, dad, sister, and I) were usually in charge of going down on Easter weekend to de-winterize the place. So it was a tradition: some time in early April, with my sister and I off of school on Thursday, Friday, and Monday, we'd take five days and go get the cabin ready for the year. There was always a boat show at the lake that weekend, so that was part of the tradition as well. If you're wondering why I'm so "and then every Friday night before I go to sleep I write the Stream Of Consciousness post.." it's because that's how things were when I was growing up. On Easter, it was this:
Go to the cabin at the Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri. Friday was always a work day, uncovering deck furniture and scrubbing the knotty-pine walls (why, mom?) to get ready for the spring. Saturday was a trip to Tan-Tar-A Resort for the boat show. We would walk around and look at the boats - my dad always wanted a Regal - and then we would go bowling. Yes, bowling. Tan-Tar-A had bowling lanes, and it was the one time per year we went bowling. Why one time per year? Because my dad couldn't stand the smoke in bowling alleys and the bowling alley at a resort in central Missouri was the only one we knew of that didn't smell like an ash tray.
On Sunday morning, we'd go to the Passion Play put on by a local church down there. They built a stone tomb on the hillside behind their church (it's still there to this day - I drive by it when I'm down there) and would put on a surprisingly well done sunrise service with disciples racing to the tomb and everything. We'd get there early to get a good spot on the hillside above and I never saw the actor playing Jesus go into the tomb to wait for the play to start. So he had to be in there for a long time - well before sunrise. Even as a 15 year-old I wondered what his thoughts were - waiting in a dark tomb for at least an hour.
That was every Easter weekend. Clean - boat show - bowling - passion play. On Easter weekend 1989, it was clean - Illini Sweet Sixteen - boat show - bowling - passion play - Illini Elite Eight game.
That game is the first time I remember pacing. I'm sure I paced during Illini games before that, but I can remember wearing a path in the carpet that Sunday. I was probably wearing my Battle To Seattle shirt, and if the Flyin' Illini's run ended in the Elite Eight, then Kenny Battle wouldn't get to Seattle and the whole season would be lost.
When Marcus Liberty missed the front end of a one-and-one, up one with 15 seconds left, I probably collapsed. When Kendall Gill somehow got that rebound, preventing Syracuse from being able to hold for the final shot, I'm sure I passed out. I have a very specific memory of walking out the front door of the cabin and down to the lake right after they won, my head spinning with the fact that we had FINALLY made the Final Four. I was convinced we would get there in 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988. We were legitimate contenders each year. So to finally get there - that was just about as relieved as I've ever felt in my life.
Probably just as much as the guy playing Jesus when he finally got to come out of the dark tomb.
March 26, 2005
Hey look at that - Easter Weekend. Easter is rarely in March, but in 1989 it was, and in 2005 it was. And yes, I looked: the next three Easters in March: 2024, 2027, and 2032.
I've told my March 26, 2005 story many times before, so if you've heard it already, just skip to the bottom and click on the poll. If not, here's how I watched the game.
First off, I was getting married in May. That Easter, well before the brackets came out, we made a plan to have a Saturday evening Easter dinner with my inlaws-to-be and my wife's extended family, some of which were meeting me for the first time. I figured I'd be fine - Illinois would either get Friday-Sunday games or, if it was Saturday, it would likely be Saturday afternoon. The schedule comes out and... Saturday night game.
So I decide to go dark. I'm not going to skip or ask to reschedule a dinner where I'm more or less the guest of honor. My only option is to turn off my phone, tape the game (like, on a videotape - what's a DVR?), and watch it when I get home.
It's been years and I can't remember the exact times, but I left the dinner very late. And it was more than an hour drive home. I avoided all radio (what if one of the St. Louis radio DJ's said "boy, did you see that Illinois game tonight?"), and I even kept my head down as I drove through neighborhoods (what if a bunch of people hung Illini flags outside and that meant we won?) in order to stay un-spoiled. I don't believe I started watching the game until after midnight.
This part I know I've written before - it's just the worst game to watch on video. To the point where I started to watch on FF (I had one of those fancy VCR's where you could fast forward while still watching) once Arizona got up 15. I just couldn't watch.
I can't exactly remember when I stopped it and started watching at regular speed. I think it was when it was 80-75. It was so impossible to wrap my brain around. You saw the comeback happen over, like, seven minutes. I saw it happen in 45 seconds as I'm fast-forwarding to just get it over with.
The rest of the game I watched as quickly as I could, fast-forwarding through the commercials and the play stoppages. Once Arizona missed their final shot to win, I rewound all the way back to down-15 and watched the whole thing at regular speed. Then I turned my phone on to see all of the voicemails (way more voicemails than texts - it was 2005). I don't think I went to sleep until 3:30, and I had to be up at dawn for church.
I took the VCR tape to my now-wife's house that morning and played the comeback for the boys (they were 8-10-12 at the time). This was their first real true exposure to Illini sports (and first real exposure to me, the "I know it's Easter Sunday but put those baskets down we'll look for eggs later check out this basketball game on tape" guy). It's just so insane that they're all in their mid-20's now and Illinois has won three NCAA Tournament games since. I promised them that March Madness would be part of their fan experience every year and they've seen three wins. And now we're finally back and we don't get Tournament games.
OK, this isn't about that. This is about the great debate. We've all discussed it before. In (most of) our lifetimes there have been two Final Four teams: 1989 and 2005. Both were ranked #1 during the season, both were seen as legitimate title contenders, both still show up on "best team that didn't win the title" lists.
But which one was better? If they matched up head-to-head, who would win? Well, that's for you to decide.
The poll is here. Think long and hard. The greatest Illini team is..........