Saturday morning traditions

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Saturday morning traditions

By Alex Roux

Editor’s note: This story is about the history of Block, an Illinois game day tradition. It’s the first in a series of three stories. Here are parts two and three.

Meyer, who owns KAM’S bar in Champaign, says he’s missed just five home football games in the last 44 years. That includes when he was a student at U of I in the early 1980s.

When he was an undergrad, Meyer’s Sigma Chi fraternity would buy hundreds of tickets, pair with a sorority and go to the game every weekend. Even back then, football gameday tradition was known as “Block.”

“That was back when they were drawing upwards of 15,000 students to a football game,” Meyer recalled while sitting inside KAM’S on an early October morning. “Now they’re lucky if they get 3,000 students to a football game, which is really a shame.”

Of course, as Meyer is quick to point out, the Illini football program was much better then. In the years since head coach Mike White had a winning team during the mid-1980s, Illinois football has been plagued by inconsistent play.

Fan support has wavered and at times cratered, and the student body has gradually become more disengaged from football as a whole.

The gameday tradition of Block still exists at Illinois, though it has evolved since Meyer and his classmates walked the campus. Not only did fraternities and sororities used to attend games in droves, but they had reserved tailgating spots near Memorial Stadium as well.

In 1982, the University began partnering with local businesses to incentivize a tailgating atmosphere around Memorial Stadium on game days. The tradition was known as “TailGreat,” and Greek life at Illinois was heavily involved as they partied on game days in tents near the stadium. Eventually, TailGreat died out.

“At some point, the University kind of took a more aggressive role supervising some of those tailgating tents,” Meyer said. “And at some point they pretty much went out and banned the fraternities having tents out there. When that happened, a lot of students migrated away from going to the games.”

Today, Block takes place almost exclusively at campus bars. Fraternities sign agreements with either KAM’S, Joe’s or The Red Lion, paying and pledging their gameday patronage in exchange for free entry and drink deals. Frats pair up with sororities, and the result is a daytime party that often begins in the early hours of the morning.

Meyer estimates that the current iteration of Block rose to extreme popularity in the last five years.

“It’s just like an exchange or any other (Greek) event,” said Scott Cochrane, owner of The Red Lion, Firehaus, The Clyborne and several other campus properties. “It’s a way for fraternities and sororities to get together and have a good time.”

Nowhere is Block currently more successful than at Lion, which has two huge outdoor beer gardens and a interior TV setup surrounding the main bar. With student support for football dwindling and a viable alternative unavailable for large groups of students, Lion, Joe’s and KAM’S have become the primary party spots for the majority of Greek students on game days. Block is now synonymous with the bars.

Meyer and Cochrane both acknowledged that the lack of football success over the course of three decades has led to the bars’ current dominance over Block.

But the bar owners believe other factors have contributed to the change. Meyer attributes the current state of Block to a lack of University investment in the student gameday experience, as well as within the overall gameday experience on campus and in the Champaign-Urbana community.

Meyer remembers a decade ago, when a bar band would play the University’s fight songs at KAM’S on Friday nights before game days with cheerleaders in tow. He tried to organize a similar effort for this season to re-instill school spirt, but said it fell through.

“There’s a big lack of that (spirit) right now in the community,” Meyer said. “I’ve got to blame a lot of that on the University.”

Illinois athletics’ Director of Marketing Brad Swanson acknowledged that mistakes and poor tactical decisions regarding student involvement were probably made in the past, which allowed a campus bars to fill the Saturday vacuum. He now is involved in efforts to bring more students back to the stadium to tailgate on game days, with a focus on enticing the Greek community.

“The current system of the Greek organizations going to Green Street for Block at the bars, that didn’t happen overnight,” Swanson said. “There was a progression over, I don’t know how many years, because that happened before most of us got here. For whatever the variety of reasons it happened. It’s going to take a similar process to get it back.”

Swanson is in his second year at Illinois, and many of those perceived errors came before he and much of the current staff was in place.

Even though he is relatively new to Illinois, Swanson and his colleagues believe they have a firm grasp on the current gameday landscape amongst students. He says the athletic department isn’t aiming to draw the entire student, or even the entire Greek population, to come tailgate. But he believes that Grange Grove, an expansive new grass tailgating area at Memorial Stadium that is free to use, will provide students a viable alternative.

“Grange Grove is kind of the impetus for that,” Swanson said. “It gives our students a natural spot for our students to tailgate, and we really didn’t have that before.”

Swanson met with the leaders of several Greek organizations over the summer to discuss the new student tailgating area, and hopes that Grange Grove will gain enough traction for it to eventually become a popular area for students. He says his immediate concern isn’t selling students tickets, it’s simply getting a large number of them to the stadium to taste the experience. The athletic department believes ticket sales will follow, he said.

While student attendance is on the decline nationally, at least one other Big Ten school has proved that having a successful football program and a great tailgating scene can be mutually exclusive.

Indiana University has been to just one bowl game since 1994, but Bloomington’s tailgate lots are packed with students (including a heavy Greek presence) on game day. Thousands of students tailgate in IU’s Red Lot on game days, and many student organizations rent out tents for tailgating during the season.

Jeremy Gray, Indiana’s Associate Athletic Director for Strategic Communications and Fan Experience, attributes the lively student atmosphere to a variety of factors. According to Gray, the Red Lot is very close to campus residence halls and fraternity houses, and the huge tree-lined area provides a scenic spot to tailgate.

“Our geography helps us,” Gray said. “Bars are walkable, but you’ve got to make a real commitment to walk from the bars to (the stadium). Where, at Illinois, it’s much closer and convenient. I think (students here) view their pre-party experience, tailgating-wise, as part of what they want to do here, more so than the bars.”

So while Illinois’ football success is somewhat similar to Indiana’s over the past couple of decades, there are still differences that have led to the contrasting game day atmospheres. Swanson believes Grange Grove could change the dynamic.

“We’re trying to get whoever’s interested, trying to get a small group who is frustrated with the bar scene, and with how much they have to pay (for Block), to get them to come back,” Swanson said. “(We want) to make sure they have a good time, and hopefully have it snowball and go back the other direction (toward the stadium).”

Block is a big booster of business at the bars, and above all, owners like Cochrane and Meyer are businessmen. As Meyer points out, they’re giving customers what they want at Block, and Block is a huge phenomenon enjoyed by a massive chunk of the student population. Still, both expressed a willingness to work with the University in the future on a version of Block that is beneficial for everyone involved.

“Absolutely (Block and tailgating) could co-exist with the correct formula,” Cochrane said. “And I’m willing to work with the University to make it work.”

Meyer thinks Grange Grove is a neat idea, and believes it will grow in popularity in coming years.

“There are students here today that go to Block that don’t know what that environment is all about,” Meyer said. “It’s sad that students are not experiencing that opportunity. I think we do need to bring back some sort of a tailgate presence at the stadium.”

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