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Illinois eyeing more Chicago games

9/7/2011

Northwestern's new marketing slogan -- "Chicago's Big Ten team" -- didn't sit well with Illinois players before last year's clash at Wrigley Field.

Although the Illini technically were the road team, they staked their claim that day with a 48-27 victory. Afterward, linebacker Martez Wilson, a Chicago native, said Northwestern's slogan bothered him.

"I'm from here," Wilson said. "I also heard it said that they don't recruit the type of player Illinois does. Well, our game plan showed who was Chicago's Big Ten team, and we did a good job proving it."

New Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas could take things one step further.

Thomas told reporters Tuesday in Champaign that he'd like to play home games in Chicago in the coming years, saying, "you need to figure out a way to get in front of these people." Sensing a great branding opportunity in a major city filled with Illinois alumni, Thomas wants to schedule a game in Chicago as long as he has six others at Memorial Stadium.

"If the seventh was here [in Champaign] or in Chicago that would make a lot of sense," Thomas said. "Annually, I don’t know. It has to be the right opponent. It has to make sense. Us going up there by ourselves I think is great but we want to play someone up there that makes sense geographically as well. You can think who some of those players might be."

Northwestern makes sense. So do Iowa and Wisconsin. If Illinois wanted to play a nonconference opponent, Northern Illinois, which will face Wisconsin next week at Chicago's Soldier Field, is a good fit.

Illinois could explore games at Soldier Field or even at Wrigley, a place coach Ron Zook clearly enjoyed despite a field configuration that forced teams to use only one end zone.

I like the idea, especially with the Missouri game no longer on Illinois' schedule. The Illini must protect themselves with enough home games, but they should be looking to increase their presence in Chicago, which has a ton of college football fans despite their many allegiances.

Northwestern has generated more buzz in the city, and there's no reason why Illinois can't boost its profile as well.

you need to figure out a way to get in front of these people