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Bob Hunt: Illinois treats Michigan as prime football rival

BY BOB HUNT: UNLEASHED

Published October 13, 2004

The Michigan football team will spend its
weekend in a town approximately equidistant from Chicago,
Indianapolis and St. Louis. It’s a town called Champaign,
where the corn fields start inside the city limits. Michigan
football fans may view this Saturday’s game as just a side
step to the following week’s clash at Purdue.

But in Champaign, it will be the biggest football game of the
year.

Unlike Michigan, Illinois doesn’t have a natural rival.
The Fighting Illini haven’t finished the season going against
the same opponent since the 1930s. They also don’t have
another in-state school that can cause neighborhood divides each
October. Yes, Illinois and Northwestern happen to be in the same
state, but that’s where the animosity stops (except for that
precious Sweet Sioux Tomahawk they play for). Illinois is a state
school that draws mostly from within state borders, while
Northwestern is a private school that draws from all around the
country. There is nothing to build rivalry.

So, with no definitive date to circle on their calendar, most
Illinois students and players pick Michigan. While football student
involvement in Champaign has decreased significantly with the
decline of the football program and the rise of the basketball
team, the Wolverines have always been a target. In Ann Arbor, games
against Illinois are quickly forgotten. But in Champaign, the
Michigan games still loom large. Fighting Illini fans remember the
2000 matchup, when Michigan won in a controversially officiated
game that caused the Big Ten conference to issue a statement of
apology the Monday following the game. They also recall 2001, when
Michigan won, but Illinois went on to the Sugar Bowl. Many Illinois
alumni still remember close games the two teams played in the late
1980s.

Trading e-mails with a number of Illinois students this week,
the one overall theme was that the Fighting Illini don’t
think too kindly of students from Ann Arbor. Many view the school
as arrogant and haughty. Some even went onto say that they hate
everyone from the state of Michigan. Others downplayed their hatred
for Michigan because of Illinois’ recent dominance in
basketball, saying that they get up for basketball games against
Michigan State and Wisconsin. But don’t worry, one basketball
win for the Wolverines, and those Michigan-haters will fly right
out of the closet. The website for the Orange Krush,
Illinois’ version of the Maize Rage, features a
behind-the-scenes look at how Illinois students lined up outside
Assembly Hall at 7:30 a.m. before last year’s game against
Michigan.

This Saturday, the students who attend the game (many will be
pre-partying for “Midday Madness” taking place
immediately after the football game) will be wearing orange and
blue “Muck Fichigan” T-shirts and bringing
anti-Michigan signs. They’ll view themselves as Red Sox fans
taking on the Evil Empire.

When the football team was more of an emphasis, hating Michigan
football used to be a source of school pride. In 2002 the Daily
Illini, the Illinois student newspaper, wrote an entire story about
students’ hatred for Michigan the day before Michigan’s
last game in Champaign. The story included quotes from students
saying that Michigan is the embodiment of all evil and that
Michigan students are the most arrogant they have ever met.

While one could probably find students at any Big Ten school
that don’t like Michigan because of its consistent football
success, Illinois is a unique case. Most schools that care about
athletics have a consistent rival. Indiana and Purdue have a great
basketball rivalry. Minnesota and Wisconsin have a big rivalry in
football and hockey. Illinois has nothing like this.

Illinois administration also views Michigan as a target to some
degree. Illinois competes with Michigan in a number of programs,
especially in the sciences and engineering. When Illinois needed a
chancellor in 2001, it got then Michigan provost Nancy Cantor
(Cantor recently left to become chancellor at Syracuse).

Illinois football has eroded in recent seasons from the teams it
had a few years ago (Braylon Edwards has said repeatedly that
former Illinois cornerback Eugene Wilson was the best he has ever
faced in a game), so the excitement surrounding football Saturday
has eroded as well. But this Saturday’s game will bring the
best atmosphere that Memorial Stadium will see this year.

So just remember, while you may not care about them, they
certainly care about you.

 

Bob Hunt can be found at "mailto:bobhun@umich.edu">bobhunt@umich.edu.