Grange Grove an opportunity for new Illinois football tradition

By Charlotte Carroll and Michal Dwojak

The Illinois football team will not only enter the Bill Cubit era when it starts the season against Kent State on Friday night. Players, coaches and athletic department officials hope Friday marks the start of a new gameday tradition.

Illinois’ new decorated team buses will drive onto First Street and stop at the entrance of Grange Grove, the new tailgating area west of Memorial Stadium. Players will exit the bus and walk down the new brick road, surrounded with cheering fans, toward the Red Grange statue where the Marching Illini will greet them with music.

“The atmosphere will be exactly what we want,” said Brad Wurthman, associate athletic director for marketing and fan development. “It’s everything we’ve hoped it was when we planned it, and a lot of it from this point on will lean on our fans. If there are things they want changed or altered … the goal is that it rocks.”

The new tailgating area is a University initiative to create a better fan experience, especially among students. The Block I platform on the north side of the stadium, which is the student section, has noticeably been mostly empty during recent games, often encouraging nationwide ridicule. Student attendance during last season averaged 1,506 people per game. The Homecoming game against Minnesota was last season’s best with 2,655 students and the Penn State game was the lowest with 314 — this game took place during Thanksgiving break.

Players have noticed low attendance during recent seasons. Although every player would love to play in front of a packed house, the student section is of particular importance.

“Any time you can get your classmates out there with you it’s a huge boost of confidence,” quarterback Wes Lunt said. “It’s a great home-field advantage. The more students we can get out there the better. We know they’re busy but we’d love them to be out there every day.”

Players know that the team’s record plays a big role in fans’ interest in the team. The Illini hope there is a new buzz among the fan base with the coaching change. Fans from all over the nation called Cubit voicing their support; on Friday, those in attendance will have a chance to do the same.

“I’ve always said we have some of the best fans in the nation and we haven’t given them the best show always and we have started to pick it up in the past two years, but it’s huge,” offensive lineman Ted Karras said. “When we pack the Block I, you can see the stadium atmosphere go up a bunch of notches.”

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IFC pushes for more student interest in football

In a push to get more students invested in this year’s Illini football team, the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics will be hosting fraternity and sorority members at Greek Night this Friday. With a percentage of the $10 student tickets going to the non-for-profit Circle of Sisterhood and a pre-game recruiting tailgate, the event is another chance for Illinois to market the newly installed Grange Grove.

Last year’s Football 101 for international students and the start of a Mandarin broadcast this year are just some ways Illinois is additionally reaching out on campus to attract more students.

According to Brad Wurthman, associate athletic director for marketing and fan development, having one-in-eight Illinois students at Memorial Stadium on game days — regardless of Greek affiliation — is the goal

Greek Night will be a two-part event. The first aspect is the recruiting tailgate, sponsored by the Interfraternity Council. The second is the discounted tickets in an effort to get more students to see the game.

Michael Sterne, IFC’s vice president of recruiting, said the tailgate, which starts three hours before kickoff, will feature 900 free sandwiches from Cracked in an added push to get students to come out.

“I love football,” Sterne said. “I’ve been upset that we don’t have the kind of atmosphere that Alabama, or even Ohio State, has where everyone gets excited on Saturday morning to go to the game, regardless of how the team is every year.”

While many fraternities and sororities participate in Block, a tradition where these students go to bars on Saturday mornings rather than games, this week will be easier to reach both groups because Block does not begin until the next week, and the game is on a Friday.

Sterne said Block likely plays a role in attendance from the Greek community, but that there is an increased interest in both football and basketball as the athletic department plans more events with specific groups on campus.

At the end of the day, Wurthman and the Illini sales team aren’t distinguishing between students — they just want people to show up.

“Are we ever going to be able to tell the masses ‘hey don’t go over here, come over here,’” Wurthman said. “No, that’s not the world we live in. Our goal is that they have an opportunity where this is a better alternative.”

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