The gameday experience: Homecoming Block

By Alex Roux

Editor’s note: This story is about the experience of Block at Campustown bars on Homecoming 2015. It’s the third in a series of three stories. Here are parts one and two.

By late Saturday morning, beer gardens at KAM’S and Joe’s Brewery were teeming with students, alumni and even a few Wisconsin fans.

Block begins in the morning for students, and dozens were still filing into Joe’s at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. Many were wearing customized Block shirts, with their fraternity or sorority’s Greek letters worked into the design of their shirts.

If you walked to Block, you heard Joe’s before you saw it.

Its beer garden along Fifth Street was blasting everything from Drake to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” while patrons sang along.

Inside the Joe’s beer garden, the majority of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd was comprised of students, some of them with parents in tow.

Unseasonably warm temperatures and dry skies forced the throngs of people outside, with most people only retreating back indoors if their bladders were full or drinks were empty.

Craig Geeverbr, a freshman pledging Sigma Nu, attempted to explain the draw of the bars for students Saturday morning.

“The bar scene’s kind of all-encompassing here,” Geever said. “Even on a Friday night, not even a Saturday morning, if you’re not at the bar, there’s not a lot of other options to do. So Block is basically just convenient for everyone.”

Orange and blue were the dominant colors worn by the Joe’s crowd less than four hours before Saturday’s 2:30 kickoff against Wisconsin. But according to several students, participating in Block doesn’t usually translate to attending the football game or tailgating near Memorial Stadium.

Another Sigma Nu brother who did not wish to be named — he didn’t want to “speak for his house” —estimated that 90 percent of the brothers in the house go to Block, while about 40 percent go to the game itself. He called the Block experience at Joe’s “great,” but said he did wish there was a heavier emphasis on tailgating near the stadium.

“I know personally, when I go home, we always tailgate,” he said. “I prefer tailgating, but (Block) is also fun, it’s kind of our own tradition, so it kind of sets us apart.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by other students mingling at Joe’s.

Mary O’Donnell and Hayley Andersonbr are sophomores and members of the Pi Beta Phi sorority. Both said they were having a good time at Joe’s, and both acknowledged that Block’s thin association with football is noticeable. According to Anderson, “barely any” of her fellow sorority sisters go to the games, but a large amount attend Block.

“I feel like that’s pretty common for everyone to just skip the games,” O’Donnell said. “We don’t have as much school spirit as other schools, which is sad.”

They planned on attending the Wisconsin game, which was Anderson’s first.

A lack of game day school spirit was apparent from at least one outside perspective, as well.

Ryan Schmidt graduated from Wisconsin in 2014 and was in town for Saturday’s game. Schmidt said he went to a lot of football games during his time at Wisconsin and immediately pointed out that the tailgating scene there was vastly different.

“It’s a city in Madison, and you can feel it swelling up,” Schmidt said. “It feels kind of isolated here. Feels like less school spirit than at Wisconsin. (It’s because) they’re all here (at the bar). People just walk around in the streets in Madison.”

Emma Ritz, Martha Motoyama and Suzanne Hemwallbr were enjoying Block together at Joe’s Saturday morning, and all three are members of the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority. Similar to other houses, they said that most of AOPi goes to Block, but very few of them make it to Memorial Stadium. They agreed that while Block is fun, they’d like to see a heavier focus on student tailgating at Illinois.

Ritz, a freshman, compared Saturday’s scene to another Big Ten school.

“I do wish we tailgated more,” Ritz said. “I went to Indiana and went to their tailgate for their homecoming, and it was crazy. And it would motivate me to actually go to a game. I’ve still never been to a game.”

The crowd at KAM’S took a little bit longer to swell Saturday morning, but by 11:30 a.m. the beer garden facing Daniel Street was nearly full. To get there, you had enter through the historic bar’s Illini-themed interior, past a Bloody Mary station and navigate a mix of students and alums gripping beers and Blue Guys. Given its historical stature, the alum-to-student ratio was higher at KAM’S than Joe’s.

Despite the change of scenery between bars, the sentiment at Joe’s was shared by pair of students interviewed at KAM’S: Students in Greek organizations enjoy going to Block at bars, and a much smaller percentage leave for football games.

Nomi Mandhanbr, a sophomore member of the Delta Zeta sorority, attributed this phenomenon to a mix of convenience and culture.

“I think the bar scene is just so big here that it’s easier for everyone to come here and hang out,” Mandhan said. “A lot of people I know, including myself, really like tailgating a lot. I wish we did it more. I wish we had huge tailgates like they do at other schools.

“If (the Illinois athletic department) does reach out (to students) people will come.”

Mandhan noted that she still has a lot of fun on gamedays at KAM’S with her friends and members of the Delta Upsilon fraternity, which DZ pairs with for Block. According to Cole Hoeppel-Tranterbr, a junior in DU, his fraternity switched its Block patronage from The Red Lion to KAM’s this year because KAM’S offered a lower price.

The Red Lion did not respond to The Daily Illini’s request to attend gameday block on Homecoming.

“I like (Block); it’s good for what we’re trying to do,” Hoeppel-Tranter said. “In the sense of going to the game and that kind of stuff, it definitely steers people away from that. Like, you’re not going to go to the game because you’re not next to it, or close to it at all.”

Hoeppel-Tranter said he personally would prefer tailgating as opposed to being inside a bar.

According to a pair of Illinois alums sipping pre-game beers at KAM’S a couple hours before kickoff Saturday, students packing bars on game days goes back at least 40 years.

“We went to the bars,” said Bob Plecki, a 1974 graduate. “We didn’t have cars, so there was no tail to gate! You could drink when you were 18 (by law), so there was even more drinking (at the bar).”

Plecki’s friend Scott Hughes of Jupiter, Fla., got his undergrad degree in 1974 and a graduate degree from Illinois in 1976. Hughes said he went to every football game as a student and makes it back to campus every three years or so.

Hughes and Plecki said that even though the football team was bad during their time in school, they attended games with regularity with many of their fellow students.

If you left KAM’S a couple hours before kickoff and headed toward Memorial Stadium, you would walk by Grange Grove, the stadium’s new free tailgating lot. You would see the lot packed with students, many of whom are in Greek organizations, participating in a massive student tailgate.

The bars were packed. Grange Grove was packed. And perhaps for the first time, it was proven that Block and student tailgating do not have to be mutually exclusive.

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