Illini football should aspire to Iowa standard

By Peter Bailey-Wells, Sports editor

In the waning moments of Illinois’ 29-20 loss to Iowa Saturday, the ESPN2 television crew showed some fan shots of a happy Kinnick Stadium crowd, filled to the brim with Hawkeye fans.

The camera lingered on an orange-clad man slumped in his seat, looking down — he might have been checking his phone, but nevertheless, he projected a sad image at the end of Saturday’s tightly fought game.

Never fear, anonymous Illinois fan. Things are alright for the Illini. They dropped a physical game to a top-25 team celebrating its Homecoming. That’s OK. Bill Cubit’s team took some knocks, but as long as they use the bye week accordingly, all should be ship-shape when Homecoming returns to Memorial Stadium in two weeks.

Now about that Homecoming. Iowa has a standard — it was on full display Saturday — that Illinois should aspire to.

First of all, the homecoming game was full. But most games at Kinnick Stadium are pretty full. They’ve topped 55,000 fans in each of their four home games, including 59,000 fans who came out to watch the Hawkeyes play Illinois State, an FCS team.

There’s no real reason Memorial Stadium shouldn’t be jammed when Wisconsin comes to town in two weeks. Make like Iowa fans, and come to the game. Speaking of Wisconsin, that’s another program worth looking up to, but this is Iowa’s day — we’ll talk about the Badgers in a few weeks.

Not just in terms of fan support is Iowa worth acknowledging. Since 2000, the Hawkeyes have missed a bowl game once: when they went 4-8 in 2012. In that time, they’ve beaten programs like LSU, Florida and Missouri in bowl games. For perspective, Illinois has been to 18 bowls in its history. Since 2000, Iowa has been to 12. That’s a standard worth aspiring to. The Hawkeyes have consistent, passionate fans and a consistent, tough football team.

Iowa’s success starts and ends with Kirk Ferentz, the Big Ten’s longest tenured coach and is one of four coaches in Big Ten history to win be the conference’s head coach of the year at least three times. One of those four is former Hawkeye coach Hayden Fry. The other two? Bo Schembechler and Joe Paterno. That’s pretty elite company.

The Illini might have a Kirk Ferentz in Bill Cubit — both have their sons on their coaching staff, both are reserved coaches who turn to humility when possible and both seem very loyal to their school.

Cubit has to have lots more on-field success before a comparison to Ferentz is valid. And he needs to be free from wrongdoing in the impending Franczek Radelet report on Illinois football player abuse. But he might get there. He’s smart, professional and clearly cares a whole lot about his football team.

I wrote last week that Saturday was a win-win game for Cubit and Co. As long as Geronimo Allison isn’t hurt in the long run, that statement stands. And Illini fans and players alike can look to Iowa as a model of what this program might be.

The next step in that journey comes in two weeks, at Memorial Stadium, versus Wisconsin.

Peter is a junior in Media.

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@pbaileywells