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How Illini Sports Got So Mediocre

Illinois is the richest, most populous state in the Midwest. So why are the Illini 0-2 against teams from Washtenaw County, Michigan?

Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters takes a sack against Minnesota earlier this month.   Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Illinois managed to make it interesting in the third quarter of last Saturday’s game against Michigan. After falling behind 28-0 at home, the Fighting Illini scored 25 unanswered points on the N. 16 Wolverines to bring themselves within a field goal of the lead.

Then, they coughed up a pair of touchdowns and lost 42-25, falling to 2-4 on the season. That was close enough to beat the spread, but it was still Illinois’s fifth straight loss to Michigan, and their 71st in 96 meetings. Having also lost to Eastern Michigan earlier this year, Illinois is now 0-2 against teams from the Great Lakes State. They have an excellent chance to make that 0-3 when they play Michigan State in East Lansing on November 9.

On the face of it, the chronic mediocrity of Illinois football doesn’t make sense. Illinois has always been the wealthiest, most populous state in the Big Ten. It contains the Midwest’s premier source of athletic talent, the city of Chicago and its suburbs. Yet the rusted out state of Michigan, which is so broke it can’t fix its own roads, has not one, not two, but three teams capable of beating the Illini. (Western Michigan, who Illinois doesn’t play this year, could probably take them too, having beat Eastern earlier this season.)

Illinois wasn’t always so bad. Between 1914 and 1927, the school won four national championships. During those years, Illinois produced the two most important football figures in Big Ten history, George Halas and Red Grange. Halas founded the Chicago Bears, using his alma mater’s navy-and-orange color scheme for his pro team’s uniforms. And Grange, a running back who later played for the Bears, was nicknamed “the Galloping Ghost” by a Chicago sportswriter after scoring five touchdowns against Michigan in the first game played at Memorial Stadium. In 2011, Grange was named the Big Ten’s greatest sporting icon. When he signed with the Bears, his presence on the roster helped validate professional football.

But since 1945, Illinois’s win-loss record tells a different story. Of the fourteen teams currently in the Big Ten, Illinois ranks twelfth, with a record of 337-431-21. Only Northwestern and Indiana are worse. Illinois hasn’t won a Rose Bowl since 1963. That team included Dick Butkus, the last Illini player to go on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

After Illinois lost 63-0 to Iowa last year, Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander called the school “a beige, middle-of-nowhere university when it comes to sports.” He suggested that Lovie Smith’s job as head coach was safe, despite his 11-31 record, because nobody else wants to coach the Illini. (A year later, Smith is still the head coach.)

So why can’t Illinois win? The answer may lie in a ranking inverse to its football standing. According to U.S. News & World Report, Illinois ranks #48 among national universities. That’s fourth-best in the Big Ten, behind Northwestern, Michigan, and Wisconsin. (The University of Chicago, which dropped out of the Big Ten in 1946 to focus on academics, ranked #6.)

Unlike other big state schools, Illinois has been unwilling to give athletes, who put in hours upon hours a week outside of the classroom, a break on admissions standards. According to a 2013 story by sportswriter Loren Tate of Champaign-Urbana’s News-Gazette, a top football coach once expressed interest in the Illinois job, on the condition he be allowed to admit any player approved by the NCAA Eligibility Center, which keeps a list of athletes who meet minimal academic standards for Division I universities. That was a big nope from the U of I administration, which wasn’t willing to adjust its standards for even five football players out of a freshman class of 7,000.

Wrote Tate on the advent of U of I’s admissions standards: 

[Some of those Chicago] high schools were graduating students who weren’t sufficiently prepared for the UI. Nothing kills recruiting quicker than having prospects flunk out, and that happened.

Some of the most outstanding football and basketball stars left [Illinois] essentially because the academic path was easier elsewhere. And when the UI displayed its awareness with the now-defunct summer bridge program, it served as an academic warning for some Chicagoans and displeased others when King [College Prep’s] super-guard Jamie Brandon and Peoria’s Willie Coleman left in midstream.

Over time, Illinois was viewed as a Top 10 public university that required its students to not only attend but also study. And more recently, campus admissions offices for the various colleges gained the reputation of being tough on marginal transcripts.

In recent decades, Russell Maryland of Whitney Young went to Miami, Mike Alstott of Joliet Catholic went to Purdue, and Donovan McNabb of Mount Carmel went to Syracuse. (The Illini did get Simeon Rice of Mount Carmel.)

It’s a problem in basketball, too. In 2018, Iowa State fleeced the Chicago area of three of its top seven seniors: Zion Griffin from Hinsdale South, George Conditt from Corliss, and Simeon’s Talen Horton-Tucker, who the Los Angeles Lakers drafted in the second round in June. (Morgan Park’s Ayo Dosunmu, from the same class, plays for the Illini.) 

The University of Illinois also doesn’t get as much attention from Chicago media as a state’s flagship college should. When I worked at the Decatur Herald & Review, our star sportswriter covered U of I sports almost exclusively. But here, in yet another example of Chicago’s alienation from Downstate, the Illini are in third place on sports pages, behind Notre Dame and Northwestern. (The latter even trolls U of I by calling itself “Chicago’s Big Ten team.") 

In fact, Illinois has more than twice as many graduates in Chicago (77,873) as Northwestern (37,326), or any other Big Ten school. But according to this Tribune map, only four Chicago taverns cater to Illinois fans — fewer than Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, and Northwestern.

Because U of I is not a big deal in its state’s biggest city, Illinois is less visible to Chicago athletes than Michigan is to students from Flint or Detroit, where maize and blue are so ubiquitous that its wearers are called “Walmart Wolverines.”

Even Illinois’s coaching staff admits that the failure to recruit Chicago talent has put the program in a downward spiral: the less they get, the less they win, and the less they win, the less they get.

“The kids we’re recruiting today were eight years old when Illinois was successful,” running backs coach Mike Bellamy, a Kenwood grad who played for Illinois in the ’80s, told FightingIllini.com. “The only Big Ten team I lost to when I was playing was Michigan, but these kids wouldn’t believe that. They find it hard to believe that we had a number one NFL Draft pick, a number two pick, a number three pick, and Butkus Award winners. Lately, we’ve been playing against the same kids that we want to play with.”

In the News-Gazette, Tate argued that Illinois should relax its admissions standards for athletes. A good football program, after all, can be an academic asset, making a campus culture more attractive to prospective students. Plus, a successful program can fund other aspects of campus life; for instance, Michigan’s $40 million a year in football ticket sales helps support its less lucrative sports.

“The three premier universities in the Big Ten are Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois,” Tate wrote. “The other two have found ways to be highly competitive in football without hurting their status. In fact, the other two have enhanced their brand via the gridiron.”

Illinois is currently in last place in the Big Ten’s West Division — the same spot it finished in 2017 and 2018. There is hope for the future, though: on November 2, Illinois faces Rutgers.

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