CHAMPAIGN — It doesn’t matter if the leaves are turning orange, if the corn is rattling in the combine or if the frost is on the pumpkin.
Tulips can be reaching toward the sun or fireworks can be pointed skyward waiting for a lighted match.
Spring, summer or fall, the season just doesn’t matter.
Around here — in Decatur or anywhere in Central Illinois — if the sun rises and falls, it’s Illini basketball season. Always has been, always will be.
It’s a curious phenomenon how, when it comes to Illini sports, basketball always trumps football.
What’s curious is that the University of Illinois can boast some of the most powerful names in football history. Red Grange. Dick Butkus. George Halas.
If those three statues flanked Memorial Stadium to the west — and they should — those three game-changing names would be strong candidates to be chiseled on a national football Mount Rushmore.
Grange brought the college game to national attention. Forty-four years after he retired as a player, Butkus still resonates as the one name that defines “football.” Halas brought the sport to a professional level, which led to the billion-dollar NFL juggernaut that dominates the landscape today.
Despite all that history, it’s basketball that makes Central Illinois sit up and pay attention. It’s basketball that makes grown men cry and mature ladies scream.
Today marks the second game in football coach Lovie Smith’s second season. The official start of basketball practice is still three weeks away. The season opener isn’t for another nine weeks.
And yet if I sit down and have a 15-minute conversation with new Illini basketball transfer Mark Alstork — which I did this week and which will be the subject of my Sunday column in the Herald & Review — it’s likely to command more Web page interest than anything I could possibly fabricate about football.
Even in the fall of 2007, when coach Ron Zook’s Illini football team was beating No. 1-ranked Ohio State in Columbus and was punching its ticket to the Rose Bowl, fans were itchy about the start of basketball, even though the starting five ended up being Brian Randle, Shaun Pruitt, Trent Meacham, Chester Frazier and Demetri McCamey.
Illini fans who care about both teams weren’t in mourning on Jan. 1, 2008 when Zook’s Illini took a 49-17 beating from Southern California in the Rose Bowl. But real concern was already building regarding Bruce Weber’s basketball team.
Two days before the Rose Bowl, the Illini basketball team had lost to Tennessee State, the first of what would be five consecutive losses.
By the time that basketball season ended, the record was 16-19, a dismal three-season plunge that had taken Illinois on a dizzying descent from the Final Four to a 5-13 Big Ten record.
Over a period of 40 years I’ve learned when an Illini basketball season skids sideways, there is open anguish, sometimes anger. My phone rings and the callers are not pleasant.
The surest way to get assaulted in a restaurant is to be covering an Illini hoops team that turns the ball over, can’t make a free throw or plays slow-down offense.
People are polite, but they often seem frighteningly close to picking up the salad fork and plunging it into my neck. And I just chronicle the results.
Think how it must have been in the darkest days for Bruce Weber or John Groce.
Ironically, I bumped into Trent Meacham on Tuesday. People probably weren’t happy with him during that awful 2007-08 season, but if I brought him to a gathering of Illini fans today, they’d stand and cheer his arrival.
Why? Because he played basketball at Illinois.
Excitement is high for the coming season with new head coach Brad Underwood taking control. He’ll be in Decatur on Sunday, Oct. 8, the 27th consecutive year the Illini head coach has come to do our radio show to help generate enthusiasm for the coming season.
He’s an honest guy, frank and funny, and he’ll tell you why the excitement level seems so high. “Of course,” he said, “I haven’t lost a game yet.”
When basketball goes sour, doom and gloom reigns.
When football goes sour, we simply start the countdown to basketball season.
Football may inevitably pay the bills for a college athletic department, but Illinois is decidedly a basketball school.
We love the echoes in the gym, the history of hardwood heroes and the promise that one day we’ll know what it feels like to be a national champion.
With football, we have trouble manufacturing hope.
With basketball, it’s always just around the corner.