Speaking as a full-fledged member of Illini Nation, I believe that we’re bordering on the neurosis of Red Sox Nation circa December 2003. Even though the Illini are coming off of one of the best regular seasons in modern college basketball history and its first national championship game appearance, the fact that the year didn’t culminate in the school’s first NCAA Championship has driven Illini Nation into a state of paranoia regarding the program’s stature in the college basketball world and recruiting.
All of us Illini fans have been fortunate enough to witness a resurgence in the basketball program over the past decade. Big Ten championships and NCAA Tournament berths have become the rule rather than the exception, while most of us are old enough to have seen the Illini reach the Final Four on at least two separate occassions.
Still, the Illini have never reached the summit of the college basketball. This can be said of the vast majority of schools across the country, but few, if any, of those schools that have never won a championship have had as much success as Illinois over the years. It’s getting so close but never making it that has driven the Illini fan base batty.
If you don’t think we’re collectively turning neurotic, just take a look at the message boards on IlliniBoard.com or the ESPN Illinois Clubhouse. There, you’ll find microanalysis of high school kids (many of whom won’t be graduating for 2 or 3 more years), vitriol spewed at said kids who dare to choose Duke or Kansas over Illinois, and, of course, hate-filled potshots at Bill Self. This is even after Bruce Weber’s successful landing of top Class of 2007 recruits Eric Gordon and Bill Cole.
I’ll be the first to admit to having a lot of these feelings – I just believe that it’s seriously unhealthy for us to become the college basketball version of the Red Sox fan base. As of right now, we’ve turned Bill Self into our Roger Clemens (the guy we once loved who spurned us for an enemy) and Coach K into our George Steinbrenner (the master of the evil empire).
Sure, it hurts when Self continually waltzes into Chicago and picks out the area’s top recruits. And yes, I have a recurring nightmare about Coach K telling me that he considers himself a leader who happens to be paid millions of dollars by American Express.
The thing is, we in Illini Nation need to get over it. Let’s aim to be considered the classiest fans in college basketball rather than the most petulant. Hopefully, unlike Red Sox fans, we can do this before we win a national championship instead of waiting until afterwards.