A Lion Eye Conversations: Will Leitch January 5, 2010
I kept my Daily Illini subscription in 1995 because some guy on the sports page made me laugh. I was a jaded upperclassman by then, and I hated the “President Stukel is trying to ruin the world” tone of the paper, but I loved reading Will Leitch, so I kept my subscription.
I didn’t hear his name again until the fall of 2005 when someone pointed me to Deadspin. Its editor? The same Will Leitch. I became a loyal Deadspin reader, mostly because Leitch worked-in the Illini and Zook-on-skis wherever possible. That, and he made me laugh.
I’ll start with the lamest Q&A question of all time: First Illini memory?
Losing to Kentucky in the regional final in 1984. I was eight years old, and that loss just DEVASTATED me. I think I cried for about two hours. (It kind of freaked my father out.) It just seemed so profoundly unfair. Illinois played their ass off in that game, and did everything right, but they still lost, because of some wretched calls and because they (insanely) were playing at Rupp Arena. (I believe that’s the last time they did that.) It was my first real introduction to injustice.
I cried after that game as well. I was 10 years old. I seem to recall Doug Altenberger hitting a shot after the final buzzer – a shot that wouldn’t have mattered as it would have made the score 54-53 – but I screamed at my dad “that should have counted! It’s a one point game, right? Can they go to overtime in a one point game?” I simply couldn’t accept that we lost. My dad couldn’t accept that Dicky Beal didn’t travel.
OK, so while on the subject of memories, first football memory? For me it’s the 1983 season, specifically the Michigan game. I watched it in my grandmother’s basement. I can remember playing catch at recess with a friend the following week, and giving the play by play (out loud) with each pass he threw to me: “Throws it to David Williams, he’s in the clear down the sideline…”
My first football memory is the goal line stand against Iowa that kept that shutout, that very season. I know I watched every game that season — it was the first football team I was old enough to watch — but that was the first game I remember watching all the way through. The end of that game was the best part. It was an exhibition of dominance.
That said: Unlike you, I’ve always been more of a basketball guy than a football guy. I think it’s because Mike White got us on probation around the time I started REALLY getting into sports, and there were no games on television. Television, at the age of 10 or 11, is the only thing on earth that matters. The Illini basketball team was always on WCIA, right before Jerry Slabe and Judy Fraser and Mr. Roberts on the news. So I never missed any of those games and became psychologically fused to the team. I wonder if the Big Ten Network allows such loyalty these days.
Let me tell you – this season has made me question my football-guy-ed-ness more than any season in my sport-watching history. 1997? 2003? I’d rather go 0-11 with George McDonald-Ashford than go 3-9 with Arrelious Benn. The wasted talent this year keeps me up at night.
But in the end, I’ll always be more drawn to Illini football, mostly because I think college football rules all. My personal sport chart goes CFB……CBB…MLB.NFL………..NBA…NHL. Oregon/Oregon State for the roses? Texas/Nebraska and a kickoff out of bounds? Alabama’s drive to beat Auburn? Can’t be beat by a walkoff or an overtime goal in my book. As I’ve said before in the blog, I had this realization not too long after I graduated in 1996 that A) College Football rules all, and B) I have a team – in a major conference, no less – that I get to follow for the rest of my life. I was a huge fan before that realization. Since then, I’ve been in love.
Speaking of love, and I’m veering off topic here, my favorite football player on the planet right now is LaRod Stephens-Howling of your Arizona Cardinals. I’ve casually watched two Cardinals games in the last month – the Titans game and the Vikings game – and he’s made no less than 5 fantastic special teams plays. His short-hop catch to down a punt at the one against the Titans was the greatest football play I’ve seen in years. I love this sport – the nuances are what makes it great – and watching a guy like that makes me want to be a better football man. I want to recruit for the Illini and find 80 of him.
Wait. This is supposed to be an “interview” or something. So lets go to an old standard: You can have a meal with 5 former Illini players. Basketball or football. Who and why?
Not that you asked, but here’s my chart there:
MLB … CBB … NFL … CFB NBA …. …. …. …. NHL.
We love LaRod. The key to that guy is that he was a backup in college. (To McCoy from Philly.) That made him learn how to make special teams an actual specialty: He’s been playing on special teams for years. He was such a nice steal.
Meal with five players. One football, four basketball:
Jarrod Gee – I never got a straight answer why he switched by Jerry.
Andy Kaufmann – When he hit that shot to beat Iowa, I was watching it in a tiny office at the movie theater I worked at. (I was 17.) It was so exciting that I jumped up and bashed my head on the low ceiling and knocked myself out. I’d want to ask him, you know, what happened after the shot went in. Because I was unconscious.
Richard Keene – I’ve never seen an Illinois player more universally loathed by Illini fans, even while they were still rooting for him (and even though he wasn’t all that bad). It’s still crazy to me that he chose Illinois over Duke. Few guys seemed more ideally suited to Duke.
Deon Thomas – I want to hear what he’d do to Bruce Pearl, if he saw him today. And what he thinks of his clown act today, in general. I’ll never, ever forgive Pearl for that. (Or Digger Phelps, for that matter.)
Jason Verduzco – My freshman year at the newspaper, I learned that he’d actually slept with four different DI staffers. I’ve always been curious to hear those stories. Plus, he was underrated. And short.
Good stuff. Current students and newer fans have no idea how much that Kaufmann shot meant. Bruce Pearl… probation… death of the Flyin’ Illini… and then to be losing that game to Iowa because a rebound went off Deon Thomas’ shoulder and into the Iowa hoop with 2 seconds left… such a gut-punching set-up to an exhilarating finish.
Staying along those lines – biggest gut-punch loss in your years watching the Illini (basketball or football), and most exhilarating win (non-Arizona 2005 category – everyone says Arizona 2005).
Considering I was too young to fully comprehend the Kentucky loss, gut punch wise, the one that killed me was the 1995 basketball team. I covered that one — Kiwane Garris, Richard Keene, Shelly Clark — for the Daily Illini, and they barely sneaked in the tournament. Another reporter, a photographer and I drove all the way to Albany, and in the first game, Old Dominion pulled off an upset, which meant the winner of Illinois and Tulsa (coached by a toupeed young coach named Bill Self) had a clear path to the Sweet 16. The Illini were a 12 seed yet led most of the game before losing energy late and losing. Afterwards, I talked to Clark — who had been arrested for an incident with his girlfriend earlier in the season — and he said, “We took these guys too lightly.” And Illinois was a 12 seed! That was Henson’s last tournament team. That seemed like a terrible way to end it. The drive back to Champaign, after that, was an endless one.
Most exhilarating, outside Arizona of course? It’s an easy one, but I have to pick it: Nick Anderson’s shot to beat Bobby Knight (the Leitch family antichrist at the time) at the buzzer in 1989. My dad and I leapt up and hugged each other, totally by accident. We were all embarrassed for a half second, like we’d accidentally seen each other naked or something, and then we just started jumping around and screaming again. Just an amazing moment.
Ah yes, the Shea Seals game. I watched that one in a hotel bar in Park City, Utah. The Friday night of spring break, if I remember correctly. There was a Purdue game on or around the same time, and some Purdue fans at the bar were sweating out a one point win over UWGB. I laughed when the Purdue fan next to me pumped his fist after their one point win over a 14 seed and screamed “One down, five to go!” Silly Purdue fans.
OK – hated rival. Iowa for me. I arrived on campus in the early 90′s expecting Flyin’ Illini II, and as I said before, I got Bruce Pearled. I’ll never get over it. I’m cheering for all of the Big Ten teams in bowls. Except Iowa.
Yeah, I have a different hated rival for hoops than I do football. It’s Indiana in basketball, and Michigan in football, which makes sense: They’re both schools that are traditionally much better than us … and both schools who certainly don’t think of us as their primary rivals at all. I know that Iowa is the ideal rival, but I just consider us so much bigger and better than Iowa, in every possible way, that including them as our primary rival is just depressing.
Alex Legion, we hardly knew ye. I mean, seriously: Who are you?
Who is he? The Theoretical Alex Legion is exactly what this team needs: a shooter with a quick release. He was supposed to come off the screen like Luther Head, spin as he rose to take the shot like Corey Bradford, and nail the three like Kevin Turner. Unfortunately, Theoretical Alex Legion doesn’t exist. Unless Isiah Thomas can find him.
OK, one more and we’ll wrap this up. A two-parter:
1) Will we ever win a national championship in one of the Big Two sports?
2) If we do, and you’re there for it, describe your emotions as compared to the 2006 World Series.
1. I think we have a chance in basketball, we really do. I would say that we have no chance of winning a national championship in football, but there is no national championship in college football, so it’s unnecessary. Illinois is one of the top 15 programs in the sport, and they back that up with resources. I have absolutely faith that will happen in my lifetime, actually.
2. I won’t be as euphoric as I was in 2006, but hang on, hang on, I mean that in a good way. It’s just a basic difference between professional and college sports. Titles just don’t mean as much: They’re not the WHOLE GOAL, not really. I cannot look at highlights of the 2004 World Series, but I could watch highlights of the ’05 NCAA Tournament all day, and not just the Arizona game either. The smaller victories, the comeback wins over Clemson and Northwestern and Seton Hall … I enjoy those more as individual moments, regardless what ended up happening that season. (This is why I still love that 87 team despite what happened with Austin Peay.) I loved Pujols’ homer off Lidge in ’05, but it ultimately didn’t mean as much, because they didn’t win the World Series. We expect more from our pro teams. In college, I can enjoy the experience of knowing that of all the 300-some odd teams in college basketball, this is the one that I cheer for, the one that I know backwards and forwards. The Illini feel like mine: They feel like family. (I told Kiwane Garris this theory once in college, and I’m pretty certain I freaked him out.) I don’t want my family to make a ton of money or become President of the United States: I just want my family to be happy and have fun. That’s how I feel about Illinois basketball.
That said: God, a title would freaking rock.
Yes. Yes it would.