CHAMPAIGN — Fake crowd noise is a thing of the past at Illinois as fans will once again be allowed to cheer on the Illini in person.
The school announced Friday that it will allow 100% capacity at all of its home venues for the 2021-22 sports season, a decision that is in conjunction with the state moving into Phase 5 of its Restore Illinois plan Friday. The five-phase plan was implemented last year for the safety of the public at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and came with several crowd and capacity restrictions. Those restrictions have finally been lifted as vaccinations increased and COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths decreased dramatically statewide over the last few months.
Last season, the Illini football team was only permitted to have family members at home games and general admission was not permitted. After a year away from its home fans, the program will try to put that in its rear-view mirror by selling out its season opener against Nebraska on Aug. 28 under first-year coach Bret Bielema. According to StubHub, Memorial Stadium seats 60,670 fans at full capacity.
"To have the chance for the opening kickoff of college football to be here in Champaign, no one else in the entire world of college football has that opportunity. I knew it was going to be something we wanted to capitalize and maximize," Bielema said Friday in a Zoom press conference. " ... I just couldn't be more excited about the opportunity for us as a football program but more importantly for our fans.
"I've said from day one, 'We have to represent our fan base.' We're here in Champaign-Urbana, we have kids from all over the country, but just to even see their social media (Friday), to see the way they reacted and talked about having fans in the stands, it's just really an exciting time. I can't promise or guarantee where it's going to go, I just know it's going to be good."
Illini athletic director Josh Whitman expressed his excitement as well via Twitter, while all of the Illinois sports programs posted celebratory tweets regarding a return to full capacity.
Illinois' season-opening football game will mark the program's first home game with fans since a 29-10 loss to Northwestern on Nov. 30, 2019, which was played in front of 35,895 fans.
Aug 28 we’re planning the largest #FamILLy reunion you’ve ever attended! The sights & sounds of tailgating & @IlliniFootball at Memorial Stadium are back! 1st major FB game in America. Kickoff at high noon to start the @BretBielema era. #100%Capacity #Phase5Life pic.twitter.com/r0zVNitV1e— Josh Whitman (@IlliniAD) June 11, 2021
"Aug 28 we’re planning the largest #FamILLy reunion you’ve ever attended! The sights & sounds of tailgating & @IlliniFootball! at Memorial Stadium are back! 1st major FB game in America. Kickoff at high noon to start the @BretBielema era. #100%Capacity #Phase5Life," Whitman tweeted.
Although the Illinois men's basketball team's 2021-22 schedule hasn't been announced yet, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Illini sold out their season opener with a full capacity of 15,544 fans at the State Farm Center.
The team is coming off of one of its most successful seasons in program history. During the 2020-21 campaign, Illinois went 24-7, won its first Big Ten Tournament championship since 2005 and clinched a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The only issue is that fans were hardly able to see it unfold in person. No fans were allowed at homes last season, while limited fans were permitted during the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament, which were both held in Indiana.
Illini men's basketball guard Trent Frazier and coach Brad Underwood are eager for a return to normalcy.
"Wow!! Excited to get the farm back rocking. LETS GOOOO," Frazier tweeted.
Tweeted Underwood: "Excited to have State Farm Center rockin' next season! We have missed you, Illini Nation!"
Bielema said he has a lot of respect for Underwood and the men's basketball team, and he shared a story Friday about him and Whitman driving by State Farm Center last year when no fans were allowed inside.
"I remember Josh and I were driving outside of State Farm the night before or the day of one of their big games at the end of the year, and Josh just said, 'Man, it's just a shame that this year was a COVID year because this place would've been rockin,'" Bielema said.
If all goes as planned, the Illini won't have to experience that again when the 2021-22 sport season begins in the fall.
Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid