From the bench: A student-manager’s view of the 2004-05 Illini

By Sean Neumann

Crossing the Mississippi River, the St. Louis Gateway Arch began to peak over I-70. To anyone else at that moment, it was just a monument. But to the Illinois basketball team, watching the 630-foot symbol rise from the river’s western bank, it meant a dream accomplished.

“There’s the arch!” Deron Williams suddenly yelled from the back of the bus. “We did it. We made it here.”

It was the most vivid memory Chet Bandy had from the historic Illini run, right alongside the image of Illinois fans cheering the team from the overpass as its bus drove along the highway.

Bandy was a student-manager with the 2004-05 Illinois team. He saw, first-hand, the the 37-2 Illini team that reached the NCAA national championship game.

Now every time he walks down the stairs into his basement, Bandy’s reminded by a gigantic block-I — the same one that hung over Illinois’ locker room during the Final Four. It’s the centerpiece to the Illini shrine in his basement, surrounded by autographed balls at his home in Bloomington-Normal.

“I grew up being a die-hard Illinois fan, watching all the games with my dad growing up,” said Bandy, who purchased season tickets up until this year, when he and his wife Shannon had their first son, Deklin. “Not being good enough to play, but being a student manager was kind of a dream in a different way.”

The 2004-05 team’s dominant run is now mostly remembered by “the Arizona game.” The Illini erased a 15-point deficit in the final minutes to cap off one of the most memorable comebacks in college basketball history, sending them to the Final Four less than 200 miles away in St. Louis, Missouri.

“It seemed like destiny,” Bandy said. “It seemed like it was all meant to be.”

Bandy wasn’t working the regional final game, but he was watching from the stands with the other student managers off-duty that day. When the Wildcats stretched the lead to 15, Bandy said he thought was all over. Then came the comeback.

“When they went on that run, it was incredible,” Bandy said. “We were in the first row of the balcony and I thought we were going to jump off. We were going nuts.”

Without credentials, the group of students tried to make its way down to the court but kept getting stopped by ushers who didn’t know they were team managers. They were stuck in the stands until Illinois’ assistant coach Wayne McClain helped them get down to the floor and into the locker room.

The Illini were in shock when the managers got inside. The team had just closed out the final four minutes on a 20-5 run and won the game 90-89 in overtime.

Illinois defeated Louisville in the national semi-final and advanced to the national championship, falling short 75-70 to North Carolina — a team that had four first-round NBA draft picks in its starting lineup.

Championship or not, Bandy had a front row seat to one of the best college basketball teams to not win an NCAA title — a memory he cherishes to this day as a financial advisor.

“I learned a lot about, ‘You’re going to play the way you practice,’” Bandy said. “They practiced hard, they played hard, they were unselfish, and they just expected to have success — not in a cocky or arrogant way — but they knew what they wanted to accomplish and trusted in the hard work that they put in to each other. You can really carry that on to a lot of aspects in your life.”

[email protected]

@neumannthehuman