Archive for the ‘Chicago Cubs’ Category

I apologize for the lack of blog posts over the past month as my family and work obligations have been impeding on my ability to write pithy comments about the Bulls’ obsessive need to draft more tweener forwards.  (That being said, I haven’t really missed writing about the White Sox and the general awfulness of Chicago baseball this summer.)  The full-length posts will soon return, but in the meantime, feel free to follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter as I’m more able to squeeze in some 140 character thoughts these days with my new iPhone.  This is a public page (so you can read my musings regardless of whether you have a Twitter account or not) where the types of content will essentially mirror what’s seen on the blog (meaning that I won’t be boring you with inane details about the contents of my cat’s lunch even though I might find such Tweets personally amusing) – microblogging, as the digerati like to say.  So, check out the Tweets and have a great Fourth of July weekend!

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Chicago Blackhawks 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs Western Conference Finals

If you haven’t spent much time in Chicago, it’s almost impossible to understand how shocking it is to witness how quickly the Blackhawks franchise has been resurrected.  Apologies for another Bill Simmons reference, but I recall how he stated that the Patriots were the “Fredo” of the Boston sports scene almost all of his life, which in turn made their rise as a dynastic power in the NFL this past decade more flabbergasting than the fact that Red Sox have won two World Series in a four-year period.  Well, the Blackhawks weren’t even at the Fredo level for the last three decades in Chicago sports – they were more like the horse’s head in the bed.  From before the time I was born, the Blackhawks organization did everything possible to beat down its fans and thereby preventing the team to draw new followers.  The late franchise owner Bill Wirtz spurred the third most letters from ESPN viewers voting for the worst owner in all of sports (along with providing ammunition to The Worldwide Wide Leader to name the Hawks as its hockey representative to challenge the Clippers as the worst franchise in sports) and it was well deserved – even in a town that has rarely had sports owners that have befitted its major media market size, he stood out in terms of ineptitude and penny-pinching.  Most famously, Wirtz blacked out all the team’s home games on television in Chicago area with the stubborn belief that it was for the protection of its season ticketholders.  Of course, he ignored the Cubs and Bulls in the very same city leverage television exposure to build up wide-ranging fan bases, thereby allowing those teams to play to capacity crowds even when they’re playing horribly.  At the same time, in the early-90s, when the Blackhawks had a stable of young stars like Jeremy Roenick and Ed Belfour, Wirtz decided not to pay up to keep the core of a club together that made it to the 1992 Stanley Cup Finals.  This sent the franchise into a funk where it had only one playoff appearance between 1998 and 2008 in a sport where the majority of teams make it to the postseason.  Only two years ago, the Blackhawks ranked next-to-last in the NHL in attendance and played to around 50% capacity at the United Center.

Then, Bill Wirtz passed away in fall 2007, which meant that control of the team was left to his son Rocky.  I will never wish physical ill will upon anyone, yet Wirtz’s death and Rocky’s takeover has saved a franchise that I didn’t really believe could be saved.  Rocky immediately got deals into place to not only lift the television blackouts on home games, but even get a package onto over-the-air WGN.  The younger Wirtz hired Cubs marketing guru John McDonough (widely credited as the person that turned Wrigley Field into a recession-and-bad-team-proof destination – it’s easy to forget that up until the mid-1980s, Wrigley was more than half empty every game) to become team president and the franchise that was in the witness protection program all of the sudden became the most aggressive team in terms of marketing in Chicago sports.  McDonough used those Cubs connections to nab this past year’s NHL Winter Classic for Wrigley Field, which was a massive success for both ticketing and casual fan exposure purposes.  The team drafted two budding young superstars in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews while shelling out money for top tier veterans such as Martin Havlat.  Those horrendous attendance figures from two years ago have been turned around in meteoric fashion, where the Blackhawks vaulted up to first place in all of the NHL for average home attendance this season (and that doesn’t include the game at Wrigley Field) with every date being a sellout.  They’ve induced people like me to watch more NHL games, write more blog posts about hockey, and scroll through the DirecTV guide to figure out where the hell Versus is located over the past three weeks than the past three years combined.  After years of Hawks fans looking for any reason to keep interest in the team, the Original Six franchise is providing so many reasons to watch that the bandwagon is in full effect.  (By the way, a follow-up on my recent bandwagon post is forthcoming.)

All of this has culminated in a scenario so perfect that it is as if it were written by a suddenly clairvoyant Gary Bettman.  (Note that this is about as incongruent of a notion as a suddenly clairvoyant Bud Selig.)  The Blackhawks have made it to the Western Conference Finals after taking down the Vancouver Canucks and will battle for the right to play in the Stanley Cup Finals.  They’re in a great position for their potential opponent, where they’ll get either home ice against the Anaheim Ducks (the better situation purely from the perspective of giving the Hawks the best chance to advance) or a match-up versus the hated Detroit Red Wings (the better situation from the perspective of both long-time hockey fans that appreciate the rivalry and drawing in new fans with two marquee franchises).  (Personally, it’s hard not to get giddy at the thought of a Hawks-Wings series even though that’s a much tougher series.  When I ranked the various Chicago-Detroit rivalries a few years ago, I noted that the hockey rivalry used to be as intense on the city’s sports scene as Bears-Packers but the play of the Blackhawks had depressed it to the point where no one seemed to care about it anymore.  This has obviously turned around 180 degrees since that time, where our favorite phrase has some teeth to it again.  Frankly, in terms of historic rivalries, the Hawks playing the Red Wings for the conference championship would only be eclipsed by the following hypothetical postseason scenarios (in reverse order of insanity): (3) Cubs vs. Cardinals in the NLCS, (2) Bears vs. Packers in the NFC Championship Game, and of course, (1) White Sox vs. Cubs in the World Series that would be promptly be followed by Armageddon.)  With the Bulls’ playoff run over and the Cubs and White Sox playing a lot of mediocre baseball, the Hawks look to finally be at the forefront of the Chicago sports stage for the first time since the 1960s (even when they last made the Stanley Cup Finals in 1992, it coincided with the Bulls going for their second NBA championship).  Combined with the recent success of the Boston Bruins, which with the Blackhawks made up the two teams that I identified three years ago that needed new ownership in my “Modest Proposal to Save the NHL” (while it hasn’t happened for the Bs, the team actually winning games again is the next best thing) and a showdown between the two best players in hockey, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the NHL actually looks like it has some life again.  That doesn’t mean that it can continue to ignore my suggestions in my “Modest Proposal” post (if I were commissioner, the Campbell and Wales Conferences would be back effective immediately), but there at least looks like there are some building blocks in place.

Regardless of the rest of the NHL, Chicago finally has the hockey team that it has deserved for being such a passionate Original Six city.  For years upon years, the Blackhawks were the one sports team in town that couldn’t do a single thing right for the fans, but under the Rocky/McDonough leadership, they are now the team that can do no wrong.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

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With all of the people that have been jumping on the Blackhawks bandwagon (which halfway includes yours truly), it’s been easy to forget how many people still love the Bulls in Chicago.  In my opinion, when all things are equal (understanding that a less popular team that’s doing extraordinarily well in a particular year is going to receive more buzz than a more popular team that’s performing poorly at the same time), the Bulls are third in the overall Chicago sports pecking order behind the Bears and Cubs, but that’s been tough to observe these past few months with the team needing a surge after the All-Star break to secure a .500 regular season record and the concurrent Hawks renaissance and high expections for the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears.  However, the Bulls’ literally heart-stopping playoff series with the Celtics is likely going to return the pecking order back into normalcy as the general public starts to truly understand how special of an athlete Derrick Rose already is at 20-years old and that we’re witnessing a young team on the ascent.  Certainly, there are a number of issues with this club (as I’ll get to in a moment), but I’m really enjoying how the town is buzzing about the Bulls again (speaking as someone that followed this franchise intensely through a whole lot of dark days over the past decade and is anything but a bandwagon Bulls fan).  When I went to the Bulls-Lakers game at the United Center last month, it was apparent that the sold-out crowd (whether they were cheering for Chicago or L.A.) was mostly there for the chance to see Kobe Bryant and Company.  Now, though, the Bulls (and specifically the magnificence of D-Rose) are becoming an attraction unto themselves, which means that tickets at the United Center are going to become a whole lot harder to come by.  Here are my thoughts on the series that’s tied up at 2 games apiece so far:

  • I’m wondering where that significant contingent of people that thought that the Bulls should have taken Michael Beasley over Derrick Rose have gone.  That argument is looking as inane as the 1998 NFL Draft debate where Ryan Leaf supposedly had more upside than Peyton Manning.  (Of course, every upside has a commensurate downside.)  There’s been plenty of print about Rose’s performance so far, but it’s all deserved – here’s a rookie point guard that was attending his high school prom two years ago at this time completing already breaking veteran players down, in a playoff series against the defending NBA champs, no less, in a manner that legitimately has made impartial observers openly state that there’s no ceiling on what this kid can achieve.  This was why I was so excited when the lottery balls bounced the way of the Bulls a year ago – while there’s no 100% sure thing in sports, Derrick Rose was about as close to that as anyone could reasonably get.
  • The focus on Rose and also shone the spotlight on his counterpart on the Celtics, Rajon Rondo.  While watching the Celtics’ run to the title last season, I saw Rondo as a solid complementary piece to a championship team – someone along the lines of a more athletic version of Kirk Hinrich.  However, I’ve been completely blown away by Rondo’s performance during this series with the Bulls, where he’s been the best and most consistent player on either team over the first four games.  The jump in his game from last season to this year makes me believe that Rondo has gone from a supporting cast member to a cornerstone player that the Celtics can build around once the Boston Three Party has moved on.  Frankly, even as a Bulls fan, I’m miffed that the media swarm around Rondo has been relatively muted compared to his stellar performance – the storylines around Rose, the ability of both Ben Gordon and Ray Allen to swish 30-foot jumpshots while double-teamed by 7-foot defenders, and Paul Pierce’s overall game seem to have taken away a lot of print from the former Kentucky point guard.  This is a shame since Rondo’s play is the most surprising story in the first round of the playoffs.
  • I still have no confidence that the Bulls can make a key defensive stop when necessary.  Both of the Bulls’ wins would never have even gone to overtime if the team could have avoided a stupid foul and/or buckled down in man-to-man defense in the respective last possessions in regulation.  The defense at the end of game 3 was passable in the sense that Ray Allen made a ridiculous fadeaway shot over Joakim Noah that no one could have defended, but that also ignores the fact that Allen was the one guy that the Bulls absolutely couldn’t let get the ball in the first place.  This series is a Paul Pierce free throw and game 1 and a made open Celtics jumpshot in game 4 from being a Boston sweep as opposed to an even series.  Ultimately, the subpar defense in pressure situations is going to be the downfall for the Bulls whether it’s in this round against the Celtics or another team if they somehow move on.
  • It’s hard to believe, but Joakim Noah is actually growing on me.  I was a harsh critic of the Bulls drafting him two years ago, but his overall play in this series along with his performance over the second half of the season has at least given me some indication of his value.  If Tyrus Thomas can keep up his all-around production (which I have my doubts on – we’ve seen a whole lot of flourishes from him over the years and he always seems to recede shortly afterwards), then Noah makes a whole lot of sense on the floor as a disruptive defensive player.  For all of those people out there that are just starting to get back into following the Bulls and have a completely negative impression of Noah, whether it’s because of his days at Florida, ridiculous hair, or general d-baggery, I completely understand where you’re coming from.  However, if you can just focus on his basketball play, you’ll find that he actually has been a very good contributor and the Bulls are certainly a lot worse off defensively when he’s not on the floor.
  • It took up until game 4, but it appears that Vinny Del Negro has finally figured out that a timeout in the last seconds of the game might be a little bit useful.  I’ll repeat my mea culpa on my premature dissing of Rick Carlisle last summer (although I’ll note that I wrote that post before the Bulls hit the lottery jackpot) – it’s not that he’s a particularly great coach, but at least he’s not affirmatively making his team worse by his presence.  As everyone is witnessing now, this Bulls team is pretty talented and deep.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the Bulls would have won 9 or 10 more games in the regular season along with game 2 of this series with a halfway competent coach.
  • What’s the test of whether you’re a true Bulls fan that stuck through the down years?  If you saw the brief spat between Brad Miller and Glen “Big Baby” Davis in game 4 and immediately thought back to this legendary fight between Miller (during his first stint in Chicago) and Shaq.  Please note the irony of Ron Artest actually acting as the peacemaker in this brawl (plus Shaq gets tackled by Charles Oakley – honestly, there’s nothing that I don’t love about this video).
  • I wonder if I’m alone in this reaction, but I went from laughing out loud in watching this Burger King commercial featuring Sir Mix-a-Lot to being quite disturbed upon finding out at the end that it’s actually to sell kids’ meals (and I usually find a direct correlation between offensiveness and comedy).
  • Speaking of old school rap in commercials, I was delighted to see the marketing recognition of the genius that is Biz Markie.
  • The one thing that has surprised me above all else is that despite the defensive and coaching flaws of the Bulls so far in the series, this team has still been able to win games.  Prior to the start of the series, I was pretty convinced that the Bulls would need to play completely perfect games in order to take any games from the Celtics.  Part of me is disappointed in knowing that the Bulls ought to be seeded a whole lot higher (maybe even fourth so that they would have had home court advantage) if they had played up to their talent level all season, but overall I’m ecstatic that they’ve showed up at the right time and making the most of their opportunities against a depleted Boston team.

Boxing analogies applied to other sports are all too commonplace, but in the case of this series, it’s entirely appropriate.  Outside of the horrific game 3, these games between the Bulls and Celtics have been about withstanding multiple punches and who can throw the last knockout blow in the end.  As emotionally draining as these games have been, it’s the first time in a whole long time (maybe since 1998) where it’s a whole lot of fun to be a Bulls fan!

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

joey-harrington-matt-millen-detroit-lions-nfl-draft

A couple of quick thoughts on today’s NFL Draft:

(1) With the Bulls and Blackhawks in the playoffs, both the White Sox and Cubs not yet knocked out of the postseason race two weeks into the baseball season, and the fact that the Bears essentially have had their draft already with the Jay Cutler trade, it’s been nice to not have to deal with several weeks of babble of who the Bears will take in the NFL Draft.  In past years, the Chicago sports media would have been in all-draft mode for days on end with supposed life or death questions of the Bears’ future.  Sure, the Bears still need an arsenal of wide receivers for Jay Cutler to actually throw to and I’m very interested to see where various Illini players such as Vontae Davis will end up, yet these concerns pale in comparison to everything else that’s happening on the Chicago sports scene.  Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy draft talk as much as anyone, but I really love watching my favorite NBA team being competitive in the playoffs (notwithstanding this past Thursday evening) a whole lot more.  It’s great to have actual games on the field dominate the sports discussion in Chicago in April as opposed to the war room at Halas Hall.

(2) The NFL has compounded its mistake of moving the draft start time from its long-time slot at 11:00 am CT on the first day to 2:00 pm CT last year by pushing this year’s start time back another hour to 3:00 pm CT.  I understand that this move was made to draw in more viewers in prime time.  However, it takes away a lot of the allure of the NFL Draft as a television event in the first place.  To me, it’s a perfect “have the TV on in the background event” and an excuse to get together with your buddies to hang out for a whole morning and afternoon in a low-key manner while you invent creations such as bacon tacos (as Minneapolis Red Sox and I did the year that the Vikings forgot to get their draft pick in on time).  However, it’s far from a prime time edge-of-your-seat event (particularly when playoff basketball and hockey games are alternative options).  So, instead of the draft having already started in the late morning as a write this post, ESPN and ESPN News are in the midst of an 8-hour marathon of punditry (featuring the legendary hair of Mel Kiper, Jr.) on draft prospects, even though the world already knows that Matthew Stafford of Georgia is going to be picked first by the Detroit Lions.  (Let’s see if that pick works better than, well, every Lions pick since Barry Sanders.)  The NFL had a great all-day format for the draft, but its belief that this is somehow a compelling prime time event is misguided and, as a result, this will be the second year in a row where I’ll watch little, if any, of what was once one of my favorite not-on-the-field sports events of the year (next to NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday, the NBA Draft, and the NBA Draft Lottery) as someone that has always wanted to run a sports team.

(Image from The Nasty Boys)

blackhawks-flames-2009-stanley-cup-playoffs-game-1

I’ve always considered myself to be a complete purist when it comes to my sports fandom.  As much as Bill Simmons can be insufferable these days, his column on “The Rules For Being a True Fan” from earlier this decade is a classic and still holds up today.  I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, so I’m a die-hard fan of the White Sox, Bears, and Bulls.  When I went to the University of Illinois for my undergraduate years, the Illini became my college team forever.  I’m a huge believer in steering clear of sports bigamy or shenanigans with adopting popular teams in different markets just because they happen to be dominant or have players that date supermodels and music stars (i.e. Cowboys and Yankees back in the ’90s or any of the Boston teams today).  The only acceptable exception would be some direct family connection – for instance, if I had to move to, say, New York, I would insist that my future kids be raised as Chicago sports fans.

This also means that I have very little tolerance for bandwagon fans.  While I believe that Chicago has the best sports fans in the country (only Boston, Philadelphia, and Detroit fans can be allowed to debate this), there is also an unfortunately long history of bandwagoneering in this town.  The ’85 Bears, the Bulls dynasty of the ’90s, the ’05 White Sox, and every Cubs team that has finished above .500 have all drawn out the pink hat crowd in massive numbers.  These people took a sudden interest in these teams right when they were on the ascent without having had to endure the blood, sweat, and tears of missed expectations and painful losses.  Maybe that’s acceptable in places such as Los Angeles and Miami, but it’s infuriating to witness this happening in the legit sports towns like Chicago and Boston.

Having said that, I wonder if I’m being a complete hypocrite on this issue with respect to the Blackhawks.  For reasons that I’ve stated elsewhere, I never became anything more than a casual hockey fan.  While I absolutely love seeing the game live (making it a point to go to at least a game or two per year) and own a Blackhawks hockey sweater (which is my favorite sports jersey since it’s the only one that I can wear that doesn’t make me look like a complete tool), the combination of the half century of ineptitude of the Bill Wirtz regime and the fact that I have the ice skating skills of a Brachiosaurus means that I never cared about the Hawks in the same way as the teams that I listed in the first paragraph of this post.

The number of hockey games that I watched this past regular season is one-and-a-half: about half of the Blackhawks-Red Wings Winter Classic game at Wrigley Field (as I flipped between that game and the college football bowls going on at the same time) and then a Hawks-Kings game that I attended in person.  I know a handful of guys that are on the team: budding young stars in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Martin Havlat, and Nikolai Khabibulin (who, as the “Bulin Wall”,  was my lockdown goalie with the Phoenix Coyotes in marathon sessions of EA Sports NHL ’98 back in college).  The last time that I watched a hockey game that didn’t involve the Hawks was the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals when the Stars beat the Sabres on the controversial Brett Hull goal (where he may or may not have been in the crease) in overtime.

Yet, I’ve been juggling my schedule to watch the Blackhawks’ playoff games, as hockey this late in the year has been a rare occurrence over the past decade.  Thursday’s win over Calgary with Havlat scoring the game winner with 16 seconds into overtime was thrilling in terms of action and spurred me to look forward Saturday’s game (which turned out to be another win against the Flames to go up 2-0 in the series).

What I’m trying to figure out is if I actually start following the Hawks with some semblance of regularity, particularly if the team has a successful run in this year’s playoffs, would I be one of those bandwagon-jumpers that I despise?  Granted, I think that a lot of my contemporaries in Chicago are in a similar position as me since the late Bill Wirtz did everything possible to destroy the franchise’s fan base with bass-ackwards TV and marketing policies along with a reputation of throwing nickels like manhole covers (as Mike Ditka once said of George Halas) in terms of payroll.  With son Rocky in charge, it’s as if though Chicago received a completely new NHL franchise with a fresh start.  Still, I don’t want to be one of those guys that just hops onto a shooting star when it’s the easy thing to do.  That would be an injustice to the Hawks fans that still bought season tickets even when the United Center was barely half full (such as a mere 2 years ago, when I went to a Hawks-Red Wings game with Danny M and it was at about 2/3 capacity, with 3/4 of those people being Detroit fans).

Realistically, the Blackhawks will likely always be a team that I want to win (similar to my attitude toward the basketball team at my law school alma mater of DePaul), but never reach a level in my heart where I would be a die hard fan.  In contrast, earlier in the day on Saturday, I was screaming at the television for a solid three hours during the Bulls-Celtics game.  (It should be no surprise to you that my continuing man crush on Derrick Rose has been sent into the stratosphere.)  That type of emotional investment didn’t occur overnight or even over the course of a year or two – it was built up over nearly three decades of watching and growing up with the Bulls.  By the time the Blackhawks could catch up to that timeframe, I’ll be starting to take withdrawls from my 401(k) and hopefully be spending my winters in a place with a beach and palm trees.  (As a side note, I’m not foolish enough to believe that anyone in my generation will ever actually be able cash a  Social Security check.)  Plus, I’m not sure how much longer my wife would want to be around me if I started watching hockey on top of all of the basketball and football that I follow during the fall and winter months.  Thus, I envision myself being the hockey equivalent of the people that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago that don’t watch college basketball all year but then rabidly follow the NCAA Tournament, where my interest in the sport is pretty much limited to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  My promise is that I will cheer for the Blackhawks, but do everything in my power to not fall into the traps of the typical bandwagon fan (i.e. using the royal “we” when talking about the team’s performance).  If I still get called a bandwagon jumper in this instance, I’ll just have to suffer the consequences when I get judged by the sports gods.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

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There are essentially three types of people that watch the NCAA Tournament. The first set of people consists of the ones that don’t pay attention to college basketball the entire season but then rabidly fill out brackets at work and get engrossed by the tournament. Just like how most Americans don’t watch an iota of swimming or track and field except for two weeks every four years during the Olympics, these people don’t know the existence of college basketball other than for three weeks in March every year. There’s certainly nothing wrong with these short-term basketball watchers (as many of them are some of my best friends and I don’t mind dishing out well-intentioned gambling advice on Selection Sunday that invariably turns out to be wrong), but they are able to approach the NCAA Tournament purely as an entertaining reality television event in the same manner as American Idol and thus aren’t invested in its outcome in an emotional sense (it might be a different story financially).

Then, there’s the second set of people that are fans and alums of schools where simply making the NCAA Tournament is the end goal. These could be teams from tiny conferences whose only time in the national limelight every year is to get smashed by a #1 seed in the first round (for example, despite my continuing interest in studying the locations and conferences of every possible college out there, I have to admit that this year was the first time in my life that I had ever heard of play-in game winner Morehead State) or schools from large conferences that are largely devoid of any basketball success (I’m looking at you, Northwestern). While these fans have some more emotional investment in the tournament than the first set described above, they also can walk away from their respective teams’ losses with the comfort of knowing that they were playing the role of the proverbial Cinderella and thus look back at the tourney experience itself with some fond memories.

Finally, there’s the third set of fans and alums that are from schools where the NCAA Tournament is an expectation as opposed to an aspiration and satisfaction doesn’t come unless there’s at least a Final Four appearance and ultimately a national championship banner. While these people may participate in brackets and other gambling pools as much or more than anyone else (I’m looking at myself in the mirror), there’s also a sense of dejection and emptiness when your team loses that is a bit harsher than any other sport because everyone else around you that’s emotionally detached from the situation is still partying up and enjoying the tourney (especially in the first two rounds when games are constantly going on). The best comparable situation is the feeling of watching your favorite football team play the Super Bowl (the main sports event other than the NCAA Tournament that draws in a disproportionate number of non-sports fans) and they are getting killed on the field (or, in my case, Rex Grossman is chucking deep balls into triple coverage) – 99% of America is having a great time downing beer, nachos, and pizza at parties, while you’re part of that 1% that is swearing unmercifully at the television screen and questioning why you ever started watching sports. That’s what it feels like if you’re a fan of a basketball program that’s expected to actually advance in the NCAA Tournament and they end up losing, with the crucial difference being that your favorite NFL team probably doesn’t make the Super Bowl very often (if ever), so that lonely feeling is rarely or never experienced (except for those poor Buffalo Bills fans of the 1990s – how cruel is it for those people to now have the NFL openly nudge that franchise toward Toronto), while a fan of a top tier basketball school has to deal with this type of loss in the midst of a national party nearly every single year.

You have probably figured out that I’m in the third set of NCAA Tournament watchers. When Illinois lost in the 2005 National Championship Game to North Carolina, I couldn’t even watch that season’s “One Shining Moment” montage for several months (and I’m telling you in all seriousness that I hadn’t missed a “One Shining Moment” film since I was cognizant of the existence of the NCAA Tournament as a young child – this was like me ignoring Christmas for a year or not bringing up the John Tesh’s Roundball Rock and the 1990s NBA on NBC intros at every available opportunity on this blog). The pain from that day was so horrid for Illini fans that it was even encapsulated in a Nike Jumpman commercial that’s been running during this year’s tournament.

So, why would anyone be willing to deal with the type of constant dejection that I just described? The reason is that this emotional investment has a pay-off unlike any other in sports when it all goes right. When your team is on the winning end of one of those crazy games or buzzer-beaters and you see your school’s jersey in the “One Shining Moment” montage, it’s a direct connection that doesn’t quite exist to the same extent in other realms. Any person can wake up and decide to cheer for the Bears, Packers, White Sox, or Cubs, but there are only a finite number of people in the world that attended the University of Illinois, so there’s a certain sense of ownership when the Illini come through. I’ve been blessed enough to witness all three of my favorite pro sports teams – the Bears, Bulls, and White Sox – win world championships in my lifetime in dramatic fashion, but there’s only one sporting event that is on both of the DVRs in my house so that I can watch it at any moment on any TV: the 2005 NCAA Tournament Chicago Regional Final. The 15-point comeback by Illinois in the last 4 minutes of that game against Arizona was the most exhilarating experience that I’ve ever had (and probably ever will have) as a sports fan (even more than Michael Jordan’s brilliance in the last 41 seconds of the 1998 NBA Finals, which is a reel that I’ll show my future children over-and-over again as to how a perfect basketball player can take over a game by using explosiveness to drive to the rim to make an easy lay-up, come back down the floor and use defensive intelligence and anticipation to straight-out strip the ball from arguably the greatest power forward in the history of the game, and then dribble right back the other way and nail the iconic jumper in textbook form from the top of the key to win the NBA title – I have broken down those final 41 seconds more than Oliver Stone has watched the Zapruder film, yet it’s still just behind the 2005 Illini comeback as my favorite sports moment) where I honestly didn’t sleep that evening from shaking so much and how excited I was that we had made the Final Four in a way that it would be shown on ESPN Classic in perpetuity.

This year’s Illini squad obviously didn’t have anywhere close to the expectations as the 2005 team that made it to the national title game. In fact, Seth Davis pronounced Western Kentucky as the winner of the first round matchup between them and Illinois before the South Region bracket was even fully announced on Selection Sunday. It didn’t surprise me that Davis would engage in his typical Duke-baggery prognostications, but it REALLY irritated me when essentially every pundit in the country (other than Erin Andrews, who I will say is the only pundit that matters) also picked WKU and its nightmare fuel of a mascot. While it was certainly understandable that this would be a somewhat trendy 12-over-5 upset pick, I felt as if though Illinois was getting slammed for its high profile 33-point clunker against Penn State in February, yet no one was giving the Illini credit for hammering fashionable pick (and eventual Elite Eight participant) Missouri by 26 points (and the game wasn’t even that close – it would have been a 40-point spread if Bruce Weber hadn’t called off the dogs) on a neutral floor in the Braggin’ Rights Game, soundly beating another fashionable pick (and eventual Sweet Sixteen participant) in Purdue both at home and on the road, and finishing in second place in a resurgent (if not quite great) Big Ten. Bruce Weber picked up on this national media swarm, as well, and I thought for sure that Illinois would come in with the “nobody believed in us” card and frothing at the chance to kick Cinderella to the curb.

Alas, the national media turned out to be correct on this one, although I firmly believe that it was because Illinois played its worst game of the season (outside of the aforementioned Penn State game) as opposed to Western Kentucky’s play (which was spotty other than two separate two-minute spurts where they couldn’t miss from the three-point arc). I thought that we would miss the presence of Chester Frazier to a certain extent, but the way that we were able to handle a run-and-gun Michigan team (another trendy pick at the beginning of the tournament that was able to win its first round game) a week prior to that on a neutral floor in the Big Ten Tournament gave me a bit more confidence that we could at least get through the first round without him. (I must say that Frazier turned into one of my favorite Illini players of all-time and wish that he could get a fifth year of eligibility.  He endured such unfair criticism and catcalls last season from the Assembly Hall home crowd when he was thrust into a role he should never have been in when the Eric Gordon situation went down, yet he didn’t complain and came right back to solidify himself as the heart and soul of this team this season.  By the end, Illini fans couldn’t imagine this team without his leadership and defensive intensity as he played through.  While Frazier will never be in the discussion as one the best Illinois players in history from a pure talent standpoint, he may very well be the toughest.)  Of course, this is why I write this blog for free as opposed to being paid as a coach that supposedly knows what the hell he is talking about. After I was ready to swear off the team when it was down 17 points with four minutes left to go, Illinois charged back to within a possession provide me with some thoughts that this could be another 2005-like comeback that would live on in Illini history. However, it was the old “too little, too late” story, where the Hilltoppers hung on to win a sloppy game. As most others in the bar where I was watching the game were merrily finishing up their drinks and wings after a marathon opening day of the NCAA Tournament, TK, the other Illini fans in attendance, and I sat around wondering how this team could have come out so flat after talking about all week how they weren’t being respected.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that back in October, I didn’t think Illinois would even get a sniff of the NIT this season, much less the NCAA Tournament. So, logic should have put me and the rest of Illini Nation into the second set of fans this year, where we should have been just happy to be invited to the dance. However, while Illini fans were pretty realistic for the most part about the limitations of this year’s team, there’s a residual bad taste in the collective mouth for having ended the season on a downswing. At the same time, I’m not sure if there’s any fan base in the country that has a dying need to win the National Championship more than us. Illinois is almost always at or near the top of discussions of “the best programs that have never won the National Championship”, which is a dubious distinction that we want erased as soon as possible. We came about as close as you can get to the pinnacle without having actually reached it in 2005, so every entry in the NCAA Tournament that doesn’t end up at that pinnacle is another opportunity lost.

Still, the beauty of college sports is that players don’t get signed to 10-year $200 million contracts unless they attend Florida State or UConn. New blood turns into new hope, where Bruce Weber appears to have reversed his prior recruiting issues and secured elite classes for the next couple of years. At the same time, current sophomores Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, and Mike Tisdale showed a great deal of improvement this season and will all be returning, and hopefully Alex Legion will be able to live up to his hype once he’s able to spend a full season with the team.  All of this means that expectations in Champaign are going to be ramped up more than ever when Midnight Madness comes around in October, which in turn leads to even greater scrutiny next March. We just ask that there will be one year in our lifetimes where we actually get to celebrate on the first Monday in April.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

wrigley-field-chicago-bears-football

Believe it or not (because I’m a dork), I had been thinking over the past few weeks that a neutral site game at Soldier Field between Illinois and Northwestern would be a very positive option for the U of I football program when the Big Ten moves its final regular season games to Thanksgiving weekend starting next season (as opposed to the traditional slot of the week prior to Thanksgiving).  The main issue is that Illinois hosts the state high school football championships every year on Thanksgiving weekend at Memorial Stadium, which is an event that the athletic department doesn’t want to give up since it amounts to a campus visit to Champaign for many top in-state recruits without having to count against NCAA recruiting limits.  As a result, a great way to solve this problem is to move the Illinois-Northwestern game to a neutral site in Chicago.  The majority of Illinois students live in the Chicago area and are more likely to be home than down on campus in the first place, while also providing the school’s Chicagoland alumni an opportunity to watch the team close by every year.

Lo and behold, the front page of Saturday’s Chicago Tribune sports section splashed an article of Northwestern’s investigation of moving a game against Illinois to Wrigley Field on the heels of the success of the NHL Winter Classic.  Wrigley Field actually has a whole lot more football history than hockey as the long-time former home of the Bears from the franchise’s first season in Chicago in 1921 until 1970.  (On a side note, an oft-forgotten part of Chicago sports history was on prominent display this past weekend with the Arizona Cardinals reaching the Super Bowl, which brought up a multitude of references to the franchise’s last NFL championship in 1947 as a Chicago-based team that played at old Comiskey Park.  With the Bears having been the clear #1 team in Chicago in terms of year-in year-out fan support for quite awhile, as alluded to in this great commercial, it’s easy to forget that the old-time football fans in town lived through a time when the Bears-Cardinals rivalry mirrored the Cubs-White Sox split between the North and South Sides of the city.)

It turns out that this is purely a proposal by Northwestern to move a home game from Ryan Field at this point and it has been confirmed that the Evanston school doesn’t need the permission of Illinois to move forward.  Seeing that Illinois wouldn’t be giving up a home game in Champaign, there would likely be an incredible amount of national press coverage by playing at Wrigley, and this would likely turn what is already a “mild” road game (since the Illini usually bring a large contingent of fans to Evanston when they play there) into a neutral site game or even a real home field advantage (considering that I felt like I was back on Green Street with the number of people I ran into in Wrigleyville every weekend for the first couple of years that I was out of college), this is a fantastic opportunity for the program without having any risk.

There are a few items that would need to be cleared if Illinois were ever to agree to a permanent annual neutral site game in Chicago as opposed to just a one-time deal, though.  First and foremost, above all else, and most importantly (I can’t throw in enough emphasis on this point), the Illinois football program MUST have seven home games in Champaign every year before it should consider any type of neutral site game.  Seven home games is now the standard for any BCS program that wants to maximize its revenue and even more imperative for Illinois, which has just finished a massive renovation of Memorial Stadium.  Of course, Ron Guenther appeared to forget about this when he agreed to the series against Missouri at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis while at the same time scheduling home-and-home series against non-BCS teams.  The St. Louis games have been fine to get the border rivalry on the radar on the football side, but after a few years into the series, the neutral location is best left to the basketball side alone with the Braggin’ Rights Game.  (From a financial perspective, giving up a home basketball game has nowhere near the same impact as moving a home football game, while the Illinois-Mizzou basketball tilt is engrained as a St. Louis holiday tradition in a way that the football game probably never will be.)  Missouri would be great to keep on the schedule, yet it should be home-and-home.  The non-conference schedule after that should be filled out with three body bag home games against an assortment of MAC and Division I-AA opponents.  This is the modus operandi of essentially every power program in the country (one marquee non-conference game and then three home games against non-BCS opponents), so it would be in the best interests of Illinois to follow suit to keep up with its peers (or, more to the point, the programs that we aspire to be considered peers with).

Now, it could be argued that the Mizzou game could be kept in St. Louis with three non-conference body bag home games while the Northwestern series would continue home-and-home as it has for a century.  However, it would seem to me that it would be much more important for Illinois to have an annual presence in the Chicago market over St. Louis for numerous reasons.  I’ve already noted that the majority of U of I students and alums live in Chicagoland and even more significant is the fact that securing a place as the virtual home team in the nation’s third largest media market for marketing and recruiting purposes ought to be a no-brainer priority over the much smaller St. Louis market if it comes down to a choice between one or the other.

Finally, a one-time game at Wrigley Field is perfectly fine as a novelty for press coverage.  However, in order for an annual game in Chicago to be financially viable for Illinois, it must be played at Soldier Field.  For Northwestern, moving a game from Ryan Field (47,130 capacity), where the Wildcats almost never sell-out, to Wrigley Field (41,118 capacity), which would be a guaranteed sell-out and a premium could be charged for tickets, would likely be a net economic gain for that program.  Illinois, on the other hand, sold out Memorial Stadium (62,870 capacity) for all four of its Big Ten games last season, which means that the amount that we would get from splitting the gate at Wrigley (i.e. the equivalent of revenue from only around 20,000 seats) would not make any economic sense.  At least Soldier Field (61,500 capacity) would provide enough seats to make a neutral site move financially feasible from the Illini perspective.

Let me be clear once again – I absolutely DO NOT advocate Illinois having less than seven home games in Champaign.  As long as there’s seven home games, though, then playing neutral site games in Chicago on top of that makes a lot of sense.

(Image from Stadiums of the NFL)