November 09, 2002
Orange And Blue: Champaign On Ice
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It's nice, in a way, that Da Bears' temporary home won't mean a team color conflict.
Red Grange played here. So did Dick Butkus. And some quarterback named Tony Eason. You can shoot me later for using Eason's name in the same sentence as those other two immortal chaps.
The Patriots come to Big Ten country this week, as venerable Soldier Field is undergoing renovation. Tom Brady and Ty Law came here as Michigan Men. Rob Kelly and Mike Vrabel were former Ohio State Buckeyes who visited here every other year. Greg Robinson Randall played here for the green and white of Michigan State. Matt Light toiled for the Purdue Boilermakers and came here to play.
Nobody on the current Patriot roster is a former Fighting Illini. Ron Acks, Eason, John Gillen, Adam Lingner, Willie Osley and Mike Taliaferro are all former Patriots who call Illinois their Alma Mater. Suffice it to say that, when the Patriots play here on Sunday, Bob Kraft isn't likely to pay a call on the university regents and salute them on their school's contribution to the rich legacy that is the New England Patriots.
In the case of the Chicago Bears, it is a temp crib while the old place gets a facelift. Champaign-Urbana (we think the stadium is really in Champaign, but it depends upon which newspaper account you read) is about 135 miles south of the Windy City. Illinoisans don't really have to go out of their way to see the Bears, and residents of Chicagoland ought not to mind the 2-hour drive unless it is a raging blizzard outside. The Bears fan base is hardy enough and loyal enough to not mind this 2-year nuisance too much.
But many observers have looked at this situation as "The poor Bears are going to be playing 16 road games for the next two years!" They look at the U of I as a place to play rather than a temporary home. They look at this old and venerable college stadium (like we said, Grange played here), and think, "Jeez, the Patriots get this new palace, and we gotta play here?!"
"Here" is getting a bum rap. Calling it a "nuisance" is really a guesstimation of everyone's opinion. Being accorded the privilege of playing in this stadium is a great thing for the Bears, if they are willing to sacrifice a little comfort for a heaping helping of a different kind of tradition that few of the players don't understand or simply don't want to know.
College football has existed literally in three "eras". The first era was when the power base was in the northeast. The second era was when the power base was in the Midwest. The third era is today, with the power base being in the Sunshine State. Coming to Champaign and Illini country is a great experience for football historians and for fans who love the storied beneath and behind the game, as well as its heritage and traditions.
In the early 1900s, the football powers were largely in the Ivy League. Those were the days when the eggheads who went to Harvard and Yale were also good at football. In those days, the big men on those campuses weren't 6-7 and 330 pounds, and therefore small enough to be among the strong guys at their schools. Toss in the service academies (Army, Navy), and these schools were the dominant powers of those days.
Knute Rockne helped change the landscape, as well as the power center of college football. By working with Gus Dorais in developing the forward pass, and by advancing the program at Notre Dame, football in the Midwest became the big deal in the late 1920s. Thanks also to Fielding H. Yost at Michigan and the development of that great program, as well as the development of what would eventually become the Big Ten conference, the Midwest was the epicenter of college football for most of last century.
Now and then you had good things coming out of Los Angeles (USC), Austin (Texas) and Tuscaloosa (Alabama). But it was usually the Midwest schools who ruled the roost. Michigan and Notre Dame have the most wins of any other program. Nebraska, Oklahoma, Penn State, Pittsburgh, they were among the finest teams in the nation on a consistent basis along with the Big Ten teams. Michigan and Ohio State still remain one of the most compelling rivalries in the nation to this day. While the Ivy League tumbled down to lower divisions and concentrated more on producing the next generations of doctors, lawyers, politicians and CEOs, the Midwest rumbled on and provided the nation with some of the best college football you'd ever want to see.
Illinois doesn't have the history that their counterparts in Ann Arbor, Columbus or State College have. But when that Indian chief comes out during pregame and plants that spear of his at the 50-yard line, the crowd erupts in a frenzied, Orange-and-Blue cheer which can be heard all over the Land Of Lincoln. And the Illini fans are fiercely loyal to their players and their school; one of the school songs is appropriately named "Illinois Loyalty".
College football remains popular to this day, but it doesn't have the same vibrant feel as it did in the old days. With most of the power center of football now located at Florida State, Florida and Miami, it has changed the sport from a national treasure into a Florida treasure. The weather in Florida is always sunny and/or warm, thus you never get to see a Florida State-Miami duel in freezing cold or a raging blizzard. These teams are talented and have great fan support, but what was so endearing about college football just isn't there in Florida. It is there in Champaign, Illinois.
The Patriots come here to take on the Bears, and hope to ride the wave of their great victory over Buffalo last week towards a long win streak. The Bears will start Chris Chandler in place of Jim Miller. They will see the game's best linebacker, Brian Urlacher. They will see former UNH product Jerry Azumah at cornerback. And, if they are smart, the Patriots will have the memory of their last visit to this region, a stinky 24-17 loss in 2000 to the Bears, and realize that this could easily turn into a trap game in a second.
But while the Patriots are here, they should enjoy being a part of a great center of college football tradition.
That goes for the Bears, too. Orange and Blue!
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