Taking Attendance September 20, 2012
I feel like I have a pretty good finger on the pulse of Illini football. From July to December, it’s all I think about. I’ve memorized the roster. I could give you a solid two-deep from the 2007 Rose Bowl team off the top of my head. I could list all 81 scholarship players without cheating. I know that we only have 81 players on scholarship at the moment.
This does not make me great or impressive or anything of the sort. It’s a bit sad, actually. There’s hunger in the world, and I can tell you that Zeph Grimes switched from #15 to #33 so he could play on kickoff return with Darius Millines. Wow, I’m actually going to depress myself.
Because of this, I feel like I understand Illini football fans more than most. I’m at every game. I go to Rantoul. I attend spring practices and the spring game. And I interact with fans and message board peeps and parents of players and Twitter people and EVENT STAFF. All of it gives me a pretty good understanding of the current mindset of the Illini Football Fan.
So when I read this…
Illinois attendance: We understand that the opener was played in poor weather conditions, and last week’s opponent (Charleston Southern) wouldn’t get anybody excited. Yet the Illini are officially averaging just over 44,000 fans in their two home games, which is below such football factories as Indiana and Kansas. Reports say that actual attendance last week was closer to 30,000. No weather or opponent factors would create those types of poor numbers at football-crazy schools across the Big Ten or the country. Is Louisiana Tech enough to get the Illinois faithful invested this week?
…I feel like I’m qualified to tell you why.
(And yes, it’s true – Indiana has outdrawn Illinois this year. They played Indiana State and Ball State, we played Western Michigan and Charleston Southern. Oh, and they were 1-11 last year while we’re coming off a bowl win.)
So why can’t we draw? Let’s go back.
27 consecutive sellouts in the 80′s during Mike White leading into the John Mackovic era. Capacity was 72,000 at that time, and Memorial Stadium was bursting at the seams. Mackovic brought us to the level of five consecutive bowls (1988 through 1992), with the last one being the first year of the Lou Tepper era. I can remember the Houston game in September of 1991. I skipped out on my student tickets so I could sit with my mom, dad, and sister. And the best seats I could find were second to last row of the west balcony. Memorial Stadium was buzzing with our epic beatdown of Houston (was it 51-3? too lazy to research).
1993 was our first bowl-less season in a while, and the crowds were a bit restless, but 1994 was better, with a rock-solid defense and an eventual shutout of East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl. I don’t have any attendance numbers in front of me, but crowds remained strong into the 1995 season (no bowl) and 1996 (disaster). By 1997 they were starting to leave, and 1998 I remember as a lowpoint (although I did get to rush the field when we broke the 18 game losing streak).
Once 1999 started strong, crowds began to come back a bit, and by the end of that season, excitement filled Memorial Stadium again. The 2000 Michigan game remains one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever seen inside that stadium – two ranked teams on national TV at night in Champaign. That’s all I have to say about that game.
Crowds were hesitant to return in 2001, but that fell away quickly. I want to say we sold 19,000 tickets the week of the Penn State game to sell the game out. And we took a big crowd with us to the Sugar Bowl. 2002 saw a surge of fans and a dearth of wins. And by 2003, the fans were beginning to think they were fooled again. Bought in back in 1994, stubbed toe in 1995. Bought in after 2001, stubbed toe in 2002. When that got worse in 2003, the fans left.
Recruiting brought them back once Ron Zook took over. 2006 was a frustrating 2-10 season, but ticket sales pushed higher for 2007, mostly because in the fall of 2006, Martez Wilson and Arrelious Benn signed on. And with construction closing the west balcony and a capacity of around 55,000, we sold out four of our six games in 2007 en route to the Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl.
As Rose Bowls do, the fans returned in droves. I want to say season ticket sales jumped to around 44,000 for 2008. Ranked preseason, new stadium, throwbacks for the opener – Illini football is BACK. Back to disappointing 5-win seasons after bowl games. 5-7, and the fans had one single thought on their minds: were we duped AGAIN?
Never fear, 2008 was an aberration. The talent is here, and now it’s matured. If 2007 was 1999 and 2008 was 2000, 2009 was going to be 2001. A senior-laden team uses their experience to win the Big Ten and make some noise in a BCS bowl. Look out, world, here come the Illini.
That, right there, destroyed this fanbase. Destroyed. Bought in after 1994, were duped. Bought in after 2001, were duped. Bought in one last time after 2007 and hung on through 2009… duped. On a biblical scale.
What you’re seeing now is simply the radiation still emanating from the 2009 meltdown. I said to a friend after we lost to Fresno State but Zook was retained that it would be five years before the fans would return. Fool me once was 1995. Fool me twice was 2002. ARE YOU KIDDIN’ ME? was 2008/09.
To add insult to injury, we won a bowl in 2010 and then started 6-0 in 2011. Fans didn’t really start to come back (as we learned with the boos in the first quarter against Ohio State), but people started to pay attention again. And then six. devastating. losses. in. a. row. As each fan turned of their television in disgust during the Minnesota game last November (seriously, nobody could have watched that whole thing), they also swore off Illini games for years. Yes, we won our bowl game. Yes, for me, it was my favorite four days of Illini football ever. But the vast majority of Illini football fans had sworn off Memorial Stadium for a minimum of three years. Probably five.
So what has happened with Illini attendance? We’ve been cheated on. Three times. Maybe more, but we can’t prove it. And the first two times, against our better judgement, we took her back. This third time, we’re gone for good.
Well, not we. But you get my point. The Illini could go to the Big Ten Championship game in December and still see 44,000 for the opener in 2013. Until we prove that we can sustain success, the fans will remain forever skeptical.
Thankfully, we have an AD who understands that. And a head coach who has spent every year of his adult life compiling a manual on how to build a BCS football program. He’s three games into the implementation, and it will take time. But the hope is that by years 3, 4, and 5, you begin to see a growing, vibrant, football program.
Do that, and the fans will return. For good.