Day 4: Illinois | Traveling Violations
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Loren Tate is a skilled print and radio reporter who has covered University of Illinois athletics for 38 years. The local media institution is a U of I grad and a lifelong follower of Illini sports.
Tate remembers when Illinois reached three Final Fours between 1949 and 1952. But he can't recall many seasons for which the expectations surrounding the Illini were as high as this one.
"The fans always get excited," Tate says. "It's just that this year they finally have something to get excited about. You'd have to go back to the 1950s [to find a similar circumstance]. But that was a world ago."
Illinois is starved for a national title contender. Not since the 1989 Final Four season has Illinois entered the season with a legitimate shot at winning it all. Multiple preseason polls have U of I ranked No. 1.
With the Final Four in nearby St. Louis – which borders downstate Illinois &ndash Illini fans are beside themselves. Tickets for the entire season already are sold out, and membership in the student booster club, the Orange Krush, is at an all-time high.
"It's pretty exciting," U of I coach Bruce Weber says. "[There are] a lot of positive things going on. Now we've got to finish it.
"For the kids it is a dream come true. They love to see themselves in magazines. They'd love to be ranked No. 1. It's a good thing."
On the ride from West Lafayette to Champaign we rolled through Wingate, Ind., a small, small town with a long, long memory. On the edge of town is a giant sign that reads, "Wingate High, 1913-14 State Basketball Champions."
Only in Indiana.
We got a strong group out to the fan event before the Illinois-SIU-Edwardsville exhibition game Friday. We held it at the venerable Tumble Inn in Champaign, which is our kind of place, a shot-and-a-beer joint without pretension. It was a lot of fun, with plenty of hoops talk and Tabmaster Bret Bearup working the check.
We met a guy there who calls everyone "Hoss" and who claims that in 1956, at the age of 17, he had his first beer ever at the old Tumble Inn. Forty-eight years later he was still going strong.
Also of note at the party were Illini fans Bill Davison of Springfield, Ill. and Heath and Beverly Crossland of Bloomington, Ill. If you want to know how seriously Beverly takes Illini hoops know that she was wearing her lucky U of I socks and earrings, and admitted nervousness, prior to an exhibition game against Edwardsville.
There is a spot in Illinois, cruising along Interstate 57, where you enter the town of Arcola. Then the town of Tuscola. Just when you expect Coca-Cola, along comes Champaign.
Arcola and Tuscola are huge football rivals and their gridiron battles are called "The Cola Wars." This bit of info comes from area resident Scott Rauguth who, along with co-worker Kevin King of Sports Publishing Inc., joined us for lunch in downtown Champaign at the excellent Great Impasta.
Assembly Hall is one of the nation's largest, loudest and most intimidating stadiums in the nation. It also looks like an overturned spaceship. A U of I marketing campaign has dubbed it "Weber's Grill."
At the game we were lucky enough to run into some media friends: Brett Dawson of the local News-Gazette, Lindsey Willhite of the Daily Herald outside Chicago and John Supine, who covers the team for Copley News Service.
Valued reader email
Your correspondence, and my response in italics.
Dan – What a shocker to see my home town in your article. Coach Shilling isn't the only one to put Logansport on the map. New York Met pitcher, Aaron Heilman also is from Logansport, as is Busch series rookie Boston Reid.
Our high school team name is, are ya ready for this, the Berries! Our mascot? Felix the Cat. Loooong story.
Feel free to make another tour next summer when big things are expected from the Cal Ripken team I coach!
Felix the Cat? Tony, please explain. It sounds worth a long story.
According to Matt Vautour, reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Massachusetts, Temple coach John Chaney admitted during A-10 media day that, not only can he not name most of the star players in the league, "I can't even name all the coaches."
Boy do we love John Chaney.
Also reporting from A-10 media day was Dave Scott, shoe salesman and new media director for And One, who reports Chaney was complaining about negative recruiting against him:
"You know, now, in recruiting, I've got two strikes against my ass: My age and what they tell the kids are '3 a.m. practices.'"
After hearing an advertisement for Absorbine Jr. on the radio, wheelman Bret Bearup wondered what happened to Absorbine Sr. and whether the mantle of arthritis relief will ever be handed over to grandson Absorbine III.
The plan Friday night was to cruise out of Champaign after the game and arrive late in Indianapolis to sleep. It worked well until, in a moment out of "Seinfeld," we arrived about 1:30 a.m. at the Downtown Courtyard Indianapolis and found that while we had rooms reserved – at least according to our "confirmation" number – there were no rooms left.
Apparently the Downtown Courtyard Indianapolis considers a "reservation" more of a suggestion. Maybe they thought we were just kidding.
It felt like when a shady coach signs about 20 recruits in one year, fully knowing he only has five scholarships.
The Downtown Courtyard Indianapolis was, after much consternation, able to find us two rooms at another property. Which, at that time of night, was appreciated but hardly the same.
We would like to take this opportunity to speak directly to the hotels at which we have reservations for the rest of this trip. So there is no confusion about what how we define the word "reservation," allow me to be direct:
We mean it. We are coming. We plan on arriving at your hotel on the agreed-upon date, paying the agreed-upon fee and then staying in the agreed upon room. We are serious about this.
About the only good thing to come out of the episode was that we didn't have to actually sleep at the Downtown Courtyard Indianapolis. We've been there a number of times before. Its top attraction is the T.G.I. Friday's in the lobby, which was closed by the time we arrived.
Otherwise, what we have noticed is a continuing decaying of the physical property, rooms that are a dump and not up to what was being charged. The place is a rip-off.
And its pillows are lumpy.
I feel much better now.
Total mileage thus far: 626.6 miles
Next campaign stop: Bloomington, Ind.