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Reflections on a Howling Mob

U of I football fans flag the Big Ten

Illinois Times

May 15, 1981

The U of I football program had been caught cheating in recruitment and sanctioned by the Big Ten conference. The news left most of us wondering, how bad would they have played if they hadn’t cheated? Anyway, those loyal to the Orange and Blue saw being held to the rules as a grave injustice and demanded that the school withdraw from the Big Ten, which reminded me of the Southern states withdrawing from the U.S. after they were sanctioned for violating federal race laws. It was great fun for a while.


A lawyer involved in the case described it as a "thermonuclear attack," which will give you some idea of the way people have been behaving. The Big Ten's proposed sanctions against the University of Illinois for the latter's improprieties in the Wilson case—three years’ probation, a ban on post-season play, and loss of an estimated $1.6 million in conference TV revenues—might have been excessive, as many alleged. They might be hypocritical. They might have amounted to (as a Springfield reporter phrased it) "the death penalty for a parking violation." But nukes?


The public clamor that followed announcement of the sanctions on May 2 was akin to an explosion. Rumbling was heard wherever there was a heart that beat with the blood of a loyal Illini. Demands that the university withdraw from the Big Ten conference with which the U of I has been associated for more than eighty-five years were near-unanimous. What I'm trying to say is, people were mad.


Part spectacle, part debauch, Illini sports are big box office. For many students, taking classes is merely a way to pass the time between ball games. For alumni, Big Ten football games are occasions for drunken revels, conferring on the celebrant a temporary state of resuscitated adolescence. This season Gov. Jim Thompson—who attended the U of I in Chicago in the days when classes were held on a boat dock, and who has since confessed regret at never having attended classes at a big university campus—has lived the senior year he never had. More than once he has shown up at the Assembly Hall decked out in war paint to cheer on the Fighting Illini basketball team. It is one indication of the exemption of collegiate sports from most social rules that a governor parading around in war paint did not seem out of place.


Bumper stickers quickly appeared on the streets of Champaign-Urbana saying things such as "Back the Big 9." A C-U banker who belongs to the boosterish Quarterback Club earnestly swore to a TV reporter that his organization would attend an upcoming spring football scrimmage in force, and, there assembled, would unfurl a banner expressing its opinions on the case. The idea caught on; the practice game usually draws about 500, but last week it reportedly drew 13,000. It was described by a Chicago Tribune reporter as a "raucous party," while an onlooker called it, not uncomplimentarily, a "howling mob."


The Illini is the state's best known football team, if not necessarily its best one, and reaction at the Statehouse in Springfield was equally vigorous. The university's legislative delegation cosponsored a resolution scolding the Big Ten for its effrontery. The governor said, in effect, that the U of I was his university, right or wrong; he was backing the Illini 1,000 percent. Urbana state representative Tim Johnson actually suggested that the General Assembly investigate the Big Ten, though on what grounds or for which crime was never made clear. I was surprised to learn, after an investigation of my own, that the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy had not attended a Big Ten school but was a Marquette man.


A more dispassionate reading of the facts, however, reveals that Illinois bent so many rules in the Wilson case that it looked like the Nixon White House. In its statement of response to the Big Ten, the university said the case "does not involve illegal aid to athletes, forged transcripts, or other violations which have plagued intercollegiate athletics in recent years." This is like a mugger telling the judge that he ought to be let go because he didn't shoot the guy too.


Officially, the Big Ten insists that the fate of Dave Wilson is immaterial to its complaints about the failures of the U of I to oversee its athletes. To the university, however, Wilson's fate is paramount. Wilson is a passer, a damned good one. He means touchdowns, which mean TV appearances, conference titles, bowl bids, sold-out stadia. Much has been made of the $800,000 a year Illinois might lose as its share of the Big Ten's TV take. But if the school accepts the penalties and does not play Wilson in the 1981 season, it could lose a lot more. Anticipating reruns of Wilson's record-setting aerial performances, fans are already lining up for seats for 1981. The university reports "a noticeable increase in sales" over last year. "We've seen a lot of new orders," explained one official.


One of the points of dispute between the parties is Wilson's switch of majors from agriculture to physical education. This seems a moot point, since clearly his real major is football. The Big Ten was impolite enough to describe him in court as a marginal student, but Wilson himself seems to have his own priorities straight. When he broke his wrist during his first game as a junior college freshman, he quit school rather than risk losing a year's athletic eligibility. And he is suing the Big Ten and others for $72 million, claiming that his chances for a professional football career have been damaged by the conference's insistence that anyone who calls himself a student be a student.


Ray Sons, the sports editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote feelingly the other day about college athletes who would never have stayed in school if coaches and counselors had not "steered them through courses in the proper way to wear a jockstrap." Sons acknowledged that NCAA football is a business, and that some players go to school only to learn that business, so that football players aren't really very different from students who go to college to learn to be accountants or journalists. He suggests that athletes not be required to attend classes at all. This might create a subspecies of "mercenaries and mopes," he admits, but "I would rather cheer for an honest student of football than a youth who is majoring in sham under adults with advanced degrees in hypocrisy."


Most of the public comment was not nearly so innovative, however. TV station WC1A in Champaign, which hasn't run an editorial since the distant days when Dick Butkus roamed between the sidelines of Zuppke Field, ran one about the sanctions story; as cheerleading, the only way it could have been improved would have been for co-anchor Cindy Klose to have punctuated it with pompons and a couple of high kicks.


The piece fueled the conference-withdrawal hysteria. A few sober heads, however, recalled that the university needs the Big Ten a lot more than the Big Ten needs the university. Ralph Hahn, a member of the university's board of trustees, told Springfield's State Journal-Register, "I just can't imagine . . . that fans from Chicago or Springfield, on a cold November afternoon, are going to journey to Illinois to see Mississippi State or Houston and pay ten bucks a ticket, when they can sit in their living room and watch Ohio State and Michigan play."


As the story unfolded, nonpartisans were left to ask, "If the U of I did nothing wrong, why were the sanctions so harsh?" One commonly heard explanation is that the conference was miffed because the university was secretly an accomplice in suing itself when Dave Wilson went to court to obtain an injunction "forcing" the school to let him play in the face of the Big Ten ban. State Rep. Virgil Wikoff of Champaign, however, suggests something more personal, even elemental. Cecil Coleman, whom the university fired as athletic director not long ago, is close to Wayne Duke, the Big Ten commissioner. And Bo Schembechler, the Michigan football coach who occupies a position among Big Ten coaches analogous to that held by Leonid Brezhnev among the Politburo, is presumed to be bugged with the U of I because it fired the man whom Wikoff calls Schembechler's "fair-haired boy" (Gary Moeller) as football coach after the '79 season. There is more of Sicily than of Schaumburg in this affair. If I were [university president] Stanley Ikenberry, and Wayne Duke offered to kiss and make up, I think I'd plead mono and get the hell out of there.


Of course, there were a few people who, when told that the sanctions might destroy the U of I sports program, merely yawned, turned over another page of their New Yorkers, and said, "So what?" They didn't say so publicly, however, and even if they had they wouldn't have been heard for all the bellowing. "I suppose there are a few members of the faculty so thoroughly engrossed in their ivory towers that they would be perfectly happy if the university had no athletic program at all," said Wikoff, amazed. This belief that athletics ranks far from the top on a scale of the things that a fine university is good for would not be tolerated if it didn't come from physicists and historians and others known for their eccentricities.


Next to going to Rose Bowls, putting things in perspective is one of the things taxpayers pay universities to do. It is hard to do when the subject is oneself, however. But while it is true that compared to the U of I's total budget of $700 million-plus, the $5 million spent on athletics is (as one C-U columnist put it) "downright anemic," the fact remains that $5 million will buy a quarter-million books or hire 200 professors. Maybe one of them could even throw a football. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

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The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

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Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

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Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

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Journal of the Illinois

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Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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