Column: Gators got nothing on Illini

By Mike Rodriguez

Shortly after watching the Florida Gators win the National Championship game earlier this month, a friend of mine uttered a statement that really upset me.

“Man, I should’ve went to Florida, all our teams are so bad,” he said angrily. It took me a second to digest his thought process but I quickly reminded him how dumb his statement really was.

Sports in the state of Illinois have been nothing short of magnificent in the five years that I have been a student at the University. People are so quick to forget that just two years ago the Illinois men’s basketball team was playing for a National Title themselves.

Anyone who has had a chance to be a part of Illinois, and Chicago professional sports in he last four years has had the opportunity to witness excellence in almost every team.

Not only was Illinois’ 37-2 season that featured 29 straight wins and a flawless example of the motion offense amazing, other Chicago sports teams have enjoyed success since I’ve been in college.

“Don’t Stop Believin'” became a mantra for all White Sox fans as they marched into the postseason in 2005 with a 99-63 regular season record. Ozzie Guillen and his wacky antics amused fans and distracted opposing teams, as the Sox breezed through the postseason in 12 games to capture their first World Series in 88 years. Fans here flooded the bars to watch every game and I swear I saw even a few Cubs fans cheering on their Chicago counterparts.

Speaking of the Cubs, there was a time when the unluckiest team in all of sports was four outs away from the World Series when Steve Bartman decided to play left field. The Cubs had a very good season in 2003, winning 88 games and the NL Central title. They also had two promising star pitchers in Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, who combined to boast a 32-19 record for the season. Every Cub fan knows the agony that involves cheering on the team from the North Side of Chicago, but they never give up. I guess that’s why the Cubs are called the “lovable losers.”

While the rivalry will always exist between Cubs and Sox fans, one team all Chicagoans support is the Bears. Fans of the Bears can be seen all over the Illinois campus and they were especially noticeable during last season’s Super Bowl run. The Bears’ blue-collar work ethic and overall tough attitude completely personifies Chicago. Watching Brian Urlacher single-handedly shut down opposing offenses is what Bears fans enjoy most. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to attend a Bears game in Soldier Field, fans live for the defense. Bathroom breaks and beer refills occur while the offense is on the field.

The last four years have been filled with memories of sports achievements for Illinois. The announcement that Chicago is the U.S. contender for the 2016 Olympics may be the product of all the success Chicago sports have had. Fans show up in droves for any Chicago team. Their support and especially their knowledge of their team and their sports are unmatched compared to any city. Even now, as the Chicago Bulls are turning up the heat on Miami and enjoying a (3-0) playoff series lead, fans are digging into their drawers for their Bulls shirts and old jerseys.

This is a special time for me, as I am graduating and moving on to the next step in life. I am happy that I spent the last five years in Champaign, cheering on the Illini and watching all the success teams from Chicago have had. We have been truly lucky to be a part of a Championship caliber basketball team and all the other accomplishments sports teams from Illinois have achieved.

So to my friend who said he should have gone to Florida, and to any other sports fans who have attended the University for the last four years and think we have nothing to cheer for: we are lucky to be a part of Illinois and Chicago sports history. Times change and people graduate but memories are what we use to connect to our past. I’m happy to say I’ll look back on my years in Champaign and think of Green Street flooded with orange-clad Illini fans, celebrating and relishing their youth and favorite team’s success. I can’t think of a better way to remember the best five years of my life.