Nestled into the heart of the State of Illinois lies the twin cities of Urbana-Champaign, home to the flagship campus of the University of Illinois. There you will find Memorial Stadium one of the iconic venues of college football and the largest collegiate athletic facility in the state of Illinois.
The Illini have called this stadium home since 1923. It also hosted the 2002 Chicago Bears during the reconstruction of Soldier Field in Chicago. Memorial Stadium received a facelift of its own in 2007 with a reconfiguration of the east grandstand to accommodate a new press box complete with suites and a club level between the main level and the balcony, turning Memorial Stadium into another of the great gridiron venues found in the Big Ten Conference.
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The Illini have increased their food selection in recent years. The fixed stands offer nothing more than your typical stadium cuisine. I tried the chicken strip basket ($6) and found the French fries to be hard and the chicken strips cold, and it ended up in the trash. I then tried an Italian Beef sandwich ($8) from the Biaggi's tent which turned out to be a far better choice. It included chips and a drink and ranks amongst the best sandwiches I have encountered during my travels.
Other offerings are the BBQ pork sandwich for $4.50. Hot dogs, cheese fries, nachos, and soft pretzels are available for $4 each. Cheeseburgers and brats are available for $5. The $6 hot chocolate in a souvenir thermos was my favorite. Coke products are available in $3 or $5 for a souvenir cup.
Other specialty stands include the BBQ stand, Azteca gourmet nachos, Domino's pizza, and Johnsonville sausages, all of which offer some unique and tasty options.
There really isn't a whole lot that makes Memorial Stadium stand out amongst other BCS venues. The student section isn't as involved as most, and from their perch in the south end zone they have little effect on the game. The marching band does stand out as one of the best I have seen. The field and stadium itself look first rate and it will be an enjoyable experience for any fan of college football.
The campus of the University of Illinois is picturesque during the autumn season. I would recommend taking a stroll before or after the game. The area known as "Campus Town" is the nearest selection of bars and restaurants.
Located about a mile away from the stadium there is also a variety of shops catered to the students that offer some unique souvenirs. My recommendation is the Courier Cafe in Urbana, located about seven minutes from the stadium. The building used to be the home of the Courier newspaper which was published in the area for nearly a hundred years before going out of business in the 1960's. The building was then purchased and turned into a cafe which offers a unique dining experience.
Before I begin to criticize the fans I would like to point out that I most recently attended the last home game of a very long and difficult 2012 season for the Fighting Illini, which saw them go without a Big Ten win for the first time since the 2005 season. It was a chilly and overcast Illinois evening and the stadium was only two-thirds full. Of those fans only the faithful seemed to show a serious interest in the game. The rest of the crowd's involvement was only mild rooting and the occasional heckling of the officials. The Illini battled back from a considerable deficit to make it a one possession game in the fourth quarter but there couldn't have been more than ten thousand fans remaining to hear the final buzzer.
The parking directly surrounding the stadium is reserved for season ticket holders with a parking pass. The next lots out are slightly overpriced. There is free parking available but it is a considerable hike from the stadium. If you are unfamiliar with the area I would recommend consulting the online parking map as the area can be difficult to navigate on gameday. Inside the stadium the main concourses are wide and there are plenty of restrooms.
With the Illini struggling to increase their home attendance there has been a price freeze on tickets for the past two seasons. Sideline tickets sell for $50 and horseshoe tickets are sold for $25 for Illini games. The experience from the sideline really is worth the extra money as fans in the end zone lack access to the main scoreboard and the view is less than ideal.
I would recommend avoiding the upper rows of the west grandstand because the overhang from the balcony can block your view and detract from the experience. The cost is typical for a Big Ten football game once you add in food and parking. It is a stadium that is worth visiting for any college football fan but I would be reluctant to pay more than the current pricing.
One unique thing that stands out is the "Block I" done by the student section during the second half in which they all hold up cards and form different images.
No trip to Memorial Stadium is complete without taking the considerable hike up to the colonnade to stand amongst the pillars that each bear the name of a University of Illinois student who perished during the first World War. It is breathtaking and puts the Memorial Stadium name in perspective.
Another interesting occurrence is the fans continuing struggle to cope with the NCAA banning of Chief Illiniwek. Many of the cheers and traditions that were once observed by the chief continue to be carried on by Illini faithful.
Memorial Stadium was originally named to honor those University of Illinois students or alumni who gave their lives in World War I. In 2002, the university decided to rededicate the stadium to include the memories of those who served and died in World War II, the Second Nicaraguan Campaign, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Lebanon and Desert Storm.
After several rounds of reconstruction and refurbishment through the years, Memorial Stadium has become a pretty good place to watch some Big Ten college football. Illinois is certainly not a program that comes to mind when you think of the elite programs in the nation, but with names like Grange, Butkus, Halas, and Nitschke there certainly is some history here.
The reviewer must have been high or drunk when giving this place a 5/5 on the neighborhood. This place does not deserve a 1/5. I wouldn't be surprised if Champaign was built atop a landfill. Easily the WORST neighborhood of all of the Big 10 conference. Sure, Northwestern is smaller, but at least they pay someone to clean up around there every now and then.
Good student section, but nothing else about this venue makes it worth stopping in for
While I have little point of comparison, Memorial Stadium is precisely how I view Illinois football, a mostly irrelevant, but necessary component of the University.
My experience at Memorial Stadium was during construction in 2007. I thought the stadium itself was a bit old, but had a nice character to it.
The food on our side of the stadium was in small trailers outside the stadium. The options were limited and lines were extremely long. The other side of the stadium had more options but nothing real exciting.
The atmosphere was ok. Basically just average for a college football game. Surprising because the team was good and finished the regular season 9-3 that year.
The Neighborhood was not to my liking. It had a few places to go, but the only place we could find to eat that wasn't a bar at 9am was a Dennys. There were lots of other local places and chains but they were all closed. I know games start at 11am cst but why wasn't Subway or something open? They would be in most other towns.
The fans that were there seemed to enjoy the game, especially when #14 of the opposing team turned it over 4 times in the fourth quarter but outside of the students there wasn't a real loud portion to the fan base. I expected more from a Big Ten school fan base.
Access was fairly easy for us, and since we got there before 8am, we got to park for free in one of the pay lots just 3 blocks from the stadium. Getting into the stadium was a bit more difficult with small gates for the number of people trying to get in at the same time.
My return on Investment wasn't too good because my seats were in the second row, right behind the Illinois bench. Due to the players standing up the entire game, I couldn't see much of the action in the far endzone. Definately would recommend seats higher up. Would have been happier in the upper deck.
For extras, I did enjoy a peak inside the indoor practice facility next door and the stories from the locals about Red Grange and Statue right outside the stadium
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