CHAMPAIGN — Two hours and 45 minutes before kickoff Saturday, the lush green grass that carpets the donor parking lot adjacent to Memorial Stadium looks like a golf fairway.
Well mowed. Drops of dew glistening in the morning sun. And stunningly empty.
There was one car in the lot at 8:15 a.m.
Too early, you say?
Nonsense. Anyone who has ever attended a game at Michigan, Wisconsin,
Michigan State, Iowa, Ohio State, Penn State or Nebraska can tell you that there’s no such thing as “too early” for enthusiastic Big Ten football crowds.
They arrive long before kickoff — even an 11 a.m. kickoff — and are neck-deep in barbeque and Bloody Mary’s by the time the traditional breakfast hour rolls around.
Parking at 8:15 a.m. on Game Day Saturday in Madison is a nightmare. In Champaign, it’s a dream come true, unless, of course, you’re AD Mike Thomas, who understands Memorial Stadium is the engine that drives his athletic department machine.
This is Tim Beckman’s biggest challenge – rekindling and retaining Illini football enthusiasm and attendance.
It’s not the new coach’s fault that attendance is wobbling near crisis levels. It’s not Beckman’s fault that empty seats sometimes outnumber those filled with orange and blue fannies. Beckman inherited this, but this is his beginning. And he absolutely must build the ticket-buying fan base back to profitable levels.
Actual attendance for the season opener was thought to be about 27,000. There were 30,000 or perhaps a little more Saturday on a postcard-perfect day.
What’s it like outside Memorial Stadium at 8:15 a.m.?
It’s like the perfect party setting in which most of the invitations got lost in the mail.
It’s a smattering of willing fans and supporters, waiting for the team buses to pull up on the corner of Kirby and First Street. It’s the intoxicating smell of grills starting to catch fire, but only a few of them. It’s the signs of a program that has been unable to sustain success, unable to mobilize a truly impressive portion of the student body, unable to convince people that being here on game day is infinitely more fun than fluffing up the couch pillows, flipping on the big screen and filling up the beer cup whenever it runs dry.
That’s an argument, of course, that home viewing has become so riveting and so high-tech that it trumps spending money for a stadium ticket. But if a school can make the in-person experience rich and rewarding, there’s no substitute for the way college football can assault the senses — the smell of those grilled brats, the sound of the marching band, the sight of the outrageous striped shorts being worn by what I assume was offensive lineman Jake Feldmeyer’s father, the taste of stadium kettle korn and the feeling of excitement that builds when a full house rises to its feet for the opening kickoff.
Full houses have become an endangered species at Memorial Stadium, but Illini fans have shown in the past that if you give them a product they can believe in, they will come.
Remember the way Memorial Stadium rocked in the 1980s during the Mike White resurgence?
That was before the stadium renovation reduced capacity down to 60,670.
In a stretch from 1982 to 1987, Illinois had 28 consecutive home crowds of 70,000 or more.
The top 10 home crowds in Memorial Stadium history came between 1983 to 1985 and every one of those bin busters was between 76,056 and 78,297.
Even though I attended those games, today it’s hard to imagine stuffing that many bodies into Memorial Stadium. But the pageantry and festivities around the stadium was off-the-charts fun.
It was appointment entertainment. You just had to be there.
And you can bet that two hours and 45 minutes before kickoff, there was more than one car in the most prime parking lot on the property.
Memorial Stadium is a little sad right now, a party hall begging for bodies. Over the next few years, Tim Beckman has to give fans a reason to return.