"Our presence in Chicago is important to us, we are the state team, we need to bring ourselves closer to them for marketing purposes," said Illini Wide Receivers Coach Mike Bellamy- a former Chicago Bears player, native of the SouthSide (prepped at Kenwood Academy) and Illini wideout who played with Jeff George in Champaign.
"And we have a large alumni base in Chicago and sometimes they can't make it down, so why not bring the game to them?" Bellamy continued.
On Saturday, the Illini were competing for sports fan interest against the White Sox, NASCAR Nationwide, Northwestern, a Fire match and the BMW Classic. And they still drew 47,312 fans to the lakefront in Chicago. That attendance is higher than what Illinois drew at home for their first two games this season; and a solid figure when you consider how very low expectations were heading into this year.
Bellamy was a second round draft choice by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1990 and played at Soldier Field, against the Bears during his NFL career. He also spent time on the Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders and Chicago Bears rosters.
Of course, what will market the Illinois program best in wins; both in Chicago and in the rest of the state. And in the young season, the Illini look much improved in 2013. Much better than the 2012 abyss. The new coaching staff is thriving in their "sophomore season."
"The coaching staff is buying in as a unit, it's a family environment, and the coaching staff understands that, it's easier during the second go-around," said Bellamy.
"The improvement has to do with the commitment. The guys are very committed to the program, very committed to each other."
So what will it take to get the Illini back in Chicago more often?
Quoting Dave Wischnowsky of CBS Chicago:
"When Mike Thomas was hired as the new Illinois athletic director in August 2011, he spoke about boldly about making such changes by setting his sights on elevating the Illini’s identity, with Chicago as the bull’s-eye.
“I think we need to become better branded nationally, and that starts within the state,” Thomas said. “I think we need to be the king of the state. I think we need to be the king of Chicago … Our goal is to be a national brand, identifiable from coast to coast. But that really starts in the state and then we’ll work ourselves out from there.”
From the Chicago Tribune's Chris Hine:
"it may be a while before Beckman gets his wish, because working out the logistics will be difficult — especially when the Big Ten moves to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016.
But when the nine-game conference schedule takes effect, every other year Illinois will have five Big Ten away games, meaning the other seven on the schedule will be played in Champaign. That makes arranging a neutral-site or out-of-conference road game a mighty task in future years, according to a source.
Illini Head Coach Tim Beckman concluded his press conference with a statement about playing in Chicago. This season, he's made a habit about concluding all of his pressers with closing remarks on a topic of his choosing:
"It was a pleasure playing here. It was an experience for our football players that they will always remember. I think it's a great idea for us being here in Chicago. The fan support was excellent and it was really getting loud there in the fourth quarter so this football team was excited about playing at Soldier Field and it definitely was a blessing for us to be up here and have the opportunity to play. So thank you Chicago."
Listen to me every Tuesday at 10:30 AM CDT talking Illinois Fighting Illini and Northwestern Wildcats on 1620 The Zone
Paul M. Banks is the owner of The Sports Bank.net, an affiliate of Fox Sports. An analyst for 95.7 The Fan and 1620 The Zone, he also writes for Chicago Now. Follow him on Twitter (@paulmbanks) and Facebook
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