Staying true to Orange and Blue

By Mike Szwaja

Being an Illinois football fan has been a tough gig over the past two years. The 2001 outright Big Ten Championship seems like a fly on the wall of my freshman dorm room these days.

The Illini haven’t won a Big Ten game since Nov. 23, 2002, a 31-24 victory over Northwestern. In 2003, both Indiana and Northwestern managed to beat them. I can’t begin to imagine when that last happened to a team in the Big Ten.

Things got worse when ESPN college football analyst and former Buckeye Kirk Herbstreit put Illinois on his “Bottom 10” list prior to this season. How does a program go from being a Big Ten champion one year to being placed on a bottom 10 list two years later?

I don’t have the answer. Maybe Ron Turner has the answer, but he won’t share it with any of us. All we’ve heard over the past two years is something like this: “We have a great football team. I believe in our guys. We just have to keep trying to execute and the results will come.”

That’s been tough for me to hear week-after-week because I’ve remained a die-hard Illini football fan, waiting for that one magical Saturday when they actually manage to win a Big Ten game. In fact, you could argue I’m a bigger fan than I was three years ago when they were Big Ten champions.

Last season, Illinois went 1-11, and I was at nine of those games. My buddies and I traveled to Iowa, Michigan and Purdue to see our Illini fight for their lives. They lost those three games by a combined score of 140-34. But you know what? It was still a great time.

The most vibrant memory I have is a group of Michigan students sitting behind us in the Big House. Just as the third quarter was ending, we started conversing. I feared the worst, especially since they sat through three quarters staring at the back of my best friend’s shirt, which read: “You’re ugly and your mother dresses you in maize and blue.”

Much to my surprise, they praised us for making the five-hour drive. They told us we were true, loyal fans.

“If we were as bad as you guys, we would never drive to Champaign for a football game,” one of them said.

Sure, it was the Big House and every college football fan would love to make it there once, but we were still there, decked out in orange and cheering on a team that was having trouble getting a first down.

Big House aura aside, we were there at Purdue’s Ross-Ade Stadium and Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium, neither of which were as impressive as the Big House. The fans weren’t as kind at the other two schools, but you could see the amazement in the students’ faces when they saw us in the stands. They were looks that said, “Wow, I don’t go to any of our away games, and we are actually good.”

When someone looks at you like that, it’s a great feeling. Your school pride soars.

Still, it’s tough to watch your team get thrown around like boys against men, but you know what keeps me coming back? The hope that some day the Illini might surprise people like Herbstreit and actually win one of these games.

They came so close last Saturday against Purdue, close enough to believe that one of these Saturdays they will prevail. And when it happens, it will mean so much more to those of us who stood by the team during the dark days.

Sure, some will hop back on the bandwagon, but if they think they are true fans they are sadly mistaken.

I know I can’t wait much longer, so let’s hope it happens on Saturday.

Mike Szwaja is a senior in communications. He can be reached at [email protected]