Illini Athletics Increasing Visibility in Chicago; Every NCAA Tourney Win Helps

Illini Athletics Increasing Visibility in Chicago; Every NCAA Tourney Win Helps

Remember when the Illinois Fighting Illini spent most of the 2004-05 season ranked #1 in all of college basketball and went to the National Title game? And during the Final Four, the Chicago skyline included buildings lit up to spell "Illini?" And the Sears Tower had one antenna glowing orange, while the other was blue? Chicago was an especially Illini town then, every station and newspaper extensively covered the Illinois run through March Madness with great detail.

The Final Four clinching victory was in Chicago too. (suburban Rosemont actually, but close enough) The amazing, improbable comeback win over Arizona made Deron Williams a man-crush for a generation of Illinois basketball fans. Making deep NCAA Tournament runs every March is the best way for Illinois to once again capture the minds of the journalists working in Chicago, the nation’s third largest media market. Lots of NCAA Tourney wins will capture the hearts of Chicagoans as well.

University of Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas is aggressively promoting the Illini athletic programs in Chi-City, and Illini hoops coach John Groce has re-opened the recruiting pipeline to the Chicago Public League. Dyeing the river orange, hosting an Illini football game at Soldier Field, having a Chicago Homecoming and landing star CPL recruits will all help to make Chicago more of an Illini town.

But the best way to market your product is through victories. And the best way to obtain more publicity is by winning on the brightest stage.

The Illini beat a very tough Colorado team Friday in the NCAA opening round. Meaning John Groce has as many NCAA Tournament victories in his first season in Champaign as his predecessor, Bruce Weber had during his final six.

The current team has four sophomores (Mike Shaw, Myke Henry and starters Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu) all hailing from Chicago. And freshman Mike LaTulip is from suburban Arlington Heights.

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At NCAA Tournament media day, I asked star Illini guard Brandon Paul what it means to have such a local flair on the team. How much winning in the big dance means for all the Chicago area products.

“I think it means a lot.  Especially as a kid growing up you always want to play for your home state team,”  Paul, a native of suburban Gurnee answered.

“As a recruit, that’s what I loved seeing about Illinois, they recruited inside the state a lot. For the younger guys it just shows that they get a lot more, I guess, press and it gives hope for other hoopers growing up, thinking that they can make their dreams come true.  So I think the personality of Coach Groce as well as Mike Thomas, it’s really good for the program.”

Paul is the only out-going senior from the Chicagoland era. The Illini connection to Simeon high school on Chicago’s south side is once again active. Highly rated recruits and Simeon Wolverines Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate are on their way to Champaign next year. It’s clear, Groce knows how to recruit the Public League. Tate and Nunn continue the tradition of Nick Anderson, Ervin Small, Deon Thomas and Bryant Notree.

And he knows how much the Illini winning matters to sports fans in Chicago. I posed a similar question to Groce.

“It means, obviously a lot for our alums and all the Illini Nation and Chicago’s a huge part of that,” Groce said.

“That’s our largest alumni base or network of people. I’ve always said success breeds success.  I think that it gives credibility for sure. We still have a long way to go.  We haven’t arrived by any means, and you mentioned our athletic director and just our whole administration.  We understand the importance of our state and of Chicago and I know he’s working very diligently, our staff is as well, we’re all doing our part, to connect.  And I think that’s the most important thing.”

Illinois has the largest alumni base in the nation, and Chicago is the capital.

And winning over the non-affiliated Chicago college basketball fan will be much easier than winning over the non-affiliated Chicago college football fan. Illinois has a MUCH better tradition in basketball than football. Even though it’s in another state and time zone, Notre Dame is the city’s favorite college football team. It’s not much of a college football town to begin with, but the large amount of Catholics and Irish in the second city gives ND a built in automatic windy city fan base. Although don’t count out Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern. He’s truly built that program into a consistent, solid winner. NIU doesn't seem to register for some reason.

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In basketball, the Illini have almost no competition.

Loyola and DePaul have tradition, but have been down for so long that people hardly remember the glory days. UIC and Chicago State are mid-majors, and Northwestern is still in building mode. And absolutely NO ONE cares about Notre Dame basketball. Therefore, Illinois can own college hoops in the second city by becoming a March madness fixture. And then the Chicago media will extensively cover the Illini as much as they did when Bruce Weber was fired and John Groce was hired.

“Every day I get up, I love going to work because every person that I come in contact with at the University of Illinois that’s around our program wants to get better every day. Certainly our push in that area is one of those areas where we’re attacking aggressively,” Groce said.

Paul M. Banks is the owner of The Sports Bank.net, an author and regular contributor to MSN, Fox Sports , Chicago Now, Walter Football.com and Yardbarker. Banks has appeared on Comcast SportsNet and the History Channel, as well as Clear Channel, ESPN and CBS radio all over the world. President Barack Obama follows him on Twitter (@PaulMBanks)

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