Smile Politely

Hang the banner: Illinois also won the Big Ten championship

In his Sun-Times column yesterday, long time reporter and columnist Rick Morrissey let loose about Illinois AD Josh Whitman’s open letter regarding the injustice of his team being denied the right to claim co-champion of the Big Ten Men’s regular season championship. 

He opened in the most asinine way, if we’re keeping score about the written word. And we are.

Somebody help me here. Was it Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Josh Whitman who declared that Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, would be ‘a date which will live in infamy?’”

He was referring to Whitman’s assertion that, “History matters in college athletics, and this is an outcome that will forever live in infamy amongst the Illini family.” 

Morrissey is a great writer, and I have long admired him and the rest of the Sun-Times staff in Chicago. In my lifetime, they’ve been the superior paper up north, by a long shot, and that’s not really up for debate.

But Morrissey’s assessment of Whitman’s letter, entitled “Whining Illini: Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman writes a sob story” was embarrassing, not only because he ignores Whitman’s argument, but because he put words into his mouth.

Yes, the Illini also won the regular season Big Ten championship. The notion that they didn’t is absurd. But for a Big City reporter to diminish Whitman’s letter because it used rhetoric that happened to ring a bell with him isn’t just absurd, it shows how erroneous his assessment of Big Ten sports is in general.

If history matters in college athletics — and it very much does — literary devices matter in writing.

I loved Whitman’s letter, just the same way I loved the way he hugged Kofi Cockburn after the last win at Ohio State. I loved it in the same way he addressed the media and die-hard Illini fans near and far when he had to make the hard choice to let go of John Groce. Seriously, if you haven’t already, take the time to watch this video below, so you get a better understanding of who Whitman is and how he operates. He’s an Illini through and through, but more importantly, a man of principle, who doesn’t mince words. 

In this year, at this moment, as a reader, and an editor in this case, I don’t really feel like Whitman’s use of a familiar rhetorical scheme should be classified as hyperbole. But even if it were hyperbole, who fucking cares, this is college sports we’re talking about, in a season that has defied hyperbole time and time again. If Whitman’s rhetoric was elevated, if he was being hyperbolic, it was for good reason, because beneath the bluster, his argument aligns numbers with sentiment. 


Image from ESPN.

They are literally +0.5 games up. The regular season is over. 

So, yes, the Illini also won the regular season Big Ten championship. I do not care what the teams agreed to in summer or later in fall or in winter, or two weeks ago, either. Things change. Games are played. People make decisions based on new data all the time. 

In a year where the rules seem to be as rigid as an Illinois river eel, there was nothing stopping the conference from analyzing the records beyond what had been agreed upon. Woosh! See, right there? I used a literary device. A simile! And I even threw in a little light alliteration for good measure. Shit, I did it again. It’s fun! 

How’s this for hyperbole?

Illinois was denied the chance to play their scheduled game at Michigan after they paused their season for COVID-19 related issues. Not because Michigan wasn’t cleared to play, but because they wanted extra time to prepare. No other team in the conference pulled that sort of hen house shit. Instead, it had to be rescheduled, inside of a stretch that would put it in the middle of road games against teams ranked from the beginning of the season, Wisconsin and Ohio State.

And then, please indulge me, let’s look at the absolute devastation the Illini laid on that very well rested Michigan team, the number #3 team in the country and a shoe-in for a #1 seed in The Big Dance? 

Is the entire college basketball season not defined by this sort of data? Or are we no longer looking at data? 

I know some people who will be doing just that this weekend leading up to Sunday at 5 p.m.

And if you are concerned about precedent, we need not look much further than Bloomington, IN to determine how a fanbase feels when the agreed upon rules changed on them this year, and fast. 

They are still reeling. They will be reeling about it forever. Because college sports are, in some ways, the very definition of hyperbole. The history of each program matters.

This amount of advertising money doesn’t lie. 

And Morrissey should understand that, by now, this deep into his career.

I’ve never been a true Illini sports fan, due to being raised by a lifelong Purdue fan while growing up in Urbana. Genuinely, I am more interested in seeing how Jaden Ivey and Zach Edey perform alongside Trevion Williams this weekend. Truly.

But for those who care, and I do a little, the Illinois Men’s basketball team also won the regular season Big Ten championship, and I think they should claim it. As long as we are being dramatic, why not fly a banner above Lou Henson Court like rogue pirates?

Only they didn’t have to steal anything. They earned it. They won it. On the court. On more courts than anyone. 

On Michigan’s court. 

Just the way you are supposed to.

Top image from State Farm Center’s website.

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