In 2007, ESPN ranked the Greatest College Football Players of All Time. The top spot on that list was a player that did not play at a modern traditional football powerhouse such as Michigan, Florida, USC, LSU or Alabama. Famed writer Grantland Rice would write about this number one athlete with the following poetic prose:
“A streak of fire, a breath of flame
Eluding all who reach and clutch;
A gray ghost thrown into the game
That rival hands may never touch;
A rubber bounding, blasting soul
Whose destination is the goal — Red Grange of Illinois!”
Red Grange, later nicknamed the Galloping Ghost by Chicago sportswriter Warren Brown, is the best college football player to have ever played the game and he did so at Illinois. That same ESPN list also had another Illinois player on it, the iconic linebacker Dick Butkus at number 17.
The last 50 years since Butkus left Illinois has not been as kind for the football teams at Illinois. Sure there have been random successful years such as the Rose Bowl appearances in 1983 and 2008, as well as the Sugar Bowl in 2002. But there have been many other two, three, and four-win seasons lumped together. Hopefully with its iconic history, the University of Illinois football program can achieve great results again.
Besides Butkus and Grange, Illinois has still been a consistent provider of talent to the NFL. Vontae Davis, Michael Hoomanawanui, Corey Liuget, Brandon Lloyd, Whitney Mercilus, and Pierre Thomas are just a few of the current Illinois alumni playing and thriving in the NFL.
Memorial Stadium sits nearly at the dividing line between the twin cities of Champaign and Urbana. Technically it sits on the Champaign side. The cities are referred to by locals as Champaign-Urbana or CU. The official name of the university has the cities in opposite order, as it is officially the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. The bulk of academic buildings are located in Urbana so it does make sense.
The stadium opened in 1923. The technical grand opening game occurred on October 18, 1924 against Michigan. Michigan was expected to dominate the Illini. But Grange had other plans. He started the game with a kickoff return of 95 yards for a touchdown. Then he scored three more touchdowns on runs of 67, 56, and 44 yards in the first twelve minutes. Before the game was over, Grange ran back another kickoff for yet another touchdown. He scored five touchdowns in all. Illinois won the game by a lopsided score of 39-14. Grange went on to have great success in the early days of the NFL with the Chicago Bears and New York Yankees football teams.
In 2002 the Chicago Bears played their home games at Memorial Stadium during the remodeling of Soldier Field in Chicago.
After renovations in 2008 and 2013, Memorial Stadium currently holds 60,670. The football field is named Zuppke Field, in honor of Robert Zuppke, the University of Illinois head football coach from 1913 to 1941. On the north end of Zuppke Field sits The Grange Rock, a tribute to Red Grange. In 2009, a statue of Grange was added outside the west stands.
The stadium’s name honors the men of the University of Illinois that died in World War I. Later on the school added World War II dead to the memorial scroll.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The food selection inside the stadium has gotten better but is still pretty pedestrian. And there is no beer sold in the main stands.
Fan Favorites has many stands throughout the stadium offering hot dogs ($4), brats ($5) and popcorn ($3) as well as other basic items. There are also a few Papa John's locations selling 8" individual pizzas. Soft drinks are Coca-Cola brand and are for sale from $4 to $6. You may also find that Memorial Stadium is a great place to try a Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich.
Joe's Brewery ($7 pulled pork sandwich / $8 smoked brisket sandwich), Hickory River Smokehouse ($6 sandwiches), and TC's Rockin' Pulled Pork BBQ offer some nice choices for in game eating, as does Azteca Super Nacho.
The atmosphere certainly could be better. After so many dismal years the crowd expects very little of their team. The two main grandstand sections have had quite a bit of work done to them over the years. The west side especially has been transformed to a fairly modern college football design topped with a large press and luxury suite complex. The east side is nice, but not as nice as the west. Very little work has been done to the horseshoe seating area.
The student section was moved from the east stand to a brand new large area off of the north end zone in 2008. It removed some good atmosphere from the east sidelines and placed them so far above the field that the students have very little impact on the game. Speaking of the student section, few students attend the game so the student section can often seem pretty empty. It even seems like they have a hard time doing the Block I card routine the section is known for. The Marching Illini band sits on the lower part of the student section and is one the all-time great bands, offering some great music during the game.
When the stadium is rocking you will enjoy the I-L-L , I-N-I chants from across the stadium.
A brand new video scoreboard sits on top of the horseshoe section. If you sit in those sections you will have a hard time enjoying this without really craning your neck. The school is also adding other video and small scoreboards throughout the stadium to enhance the fan experience in the future.
The neighborhood closest to the stadium is mostly made up of research facilities, dorms and academic buildings, not to mention high quality athletic facilities. Culver's at 2302 S Neil Street and Espresso Royale (1411 S Neil Street) are a couple of close quick service establishments nearby.
A very short walk away is the area along Green and Wright streets called "Campustown." There are many bars, shops and restaurants in this area, and they tend to cater to young college students.
Older fans will want to center their post game activities around downtown Champaign. Once a pretty boring downtown area, one will now find many bars and restaurants. The Esquire Lounge is a local icon and should be a stop for everyone. Try a pork chop sandwich and say hi to owner Pedro.
Other great downtown spots are Derailed 57, Blind Pig Brewery, the gastropub DESTIHL, sports bar Jupiter's, and Farren's Pub & Eatery (at a very hidden location at 308 N Randolph Street). There is also a much larger version of Jupiter's on the outskirts of Champaign (2511 Village Green Place at The Crossing Center) that is also a good choice. If visiting that second Jupiter's location also try Billy Balooz right next door (2521 Village Green Place at The Crossing Center).
Downtown Champaign has another wonderful new addition with a Hyatt Place hotel. Stay here and you can easily walk to all the great establishments of the area. A shuttle to games is also available for a nominal fee from here as well.
Urbana is a bit slower pace kind of town. But there are three places that jump out as must visits. Black Dog Smoke & Ale House offers amazing barbecue, just expect to wait in line to get in and that the tasty burnt ends will go quickly. Crane Alley is a nice bar with some great beers and Masijta Grill is a great Korean barbecue.
The fans have been put through a lot with the Illinois football program. So it is hard to criticize them. But the fans are a big part of the game day experience. Frankly not too many fans attend most games. You will also see many visiting team fans at games. Beware of Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State games as their colors will often dominate the orange and blue.
Illinois also is one of those programs that gives some of the best seats for the high dollar donation types. That leaves the more rowdy "everyman" fan sitting further away from the game. Fans have also been known to sit on their hands during exciting parts of the game, even asking the more engaged fans to sit down.
In sum, it is unfortunate that Illinois does not offer a better crowd experience. It is one of the poorer in the Big Ten Conference.
Champaign and Urbana are both easy cities to navigate. The stadium is not located close to a major highway but most roads leading to the stadium will be four lane ones. There are many parking lots available, but it would be a good idea to look at the official university parking site so that you head the right way.
Champaign-Urbana is at the cross roads of I-57 and I-74, as well as being the eastern terminus for I-72 so getting to the area from Chicago, Indianapolis and points west will be pretty easy.
Even though the team has been under performers a long time, you will still see quite a bit of tailgating before and after the game. The experience in the parking lot pregame is often better than you will find in the stadium. So spend some time wandering and making friends.
Because the team has been so bad for so long tickets are easily purchased through official and aftermarket resources. Officially tickets start at $20 for the horseshoe, with $49 ones available for the east and west stands. Prime, middle of the field seats are $60. Those are very good values compared to higher profile programs.
Incredibly you can even get a season ticket, usually for the horseshoe section, for $99 per seat. That is an amazing value for Big Ten football.
Single game parking is $20. That is a bit steep, but you can certainly find cheaper or free options if you are willing to walk a bit.
The Grange Rock on the sidelines is a great historical site. The emphasis on the history of Red Grange at Illinois is evident all over the place. That is why one must stop and also visit the statue of Grange outside the west stands. Red Grange played in a different time and era in this sport's history, but he was so good that he would have been a star any time and place.
The columns of the stadium play an important role in the designation of the stadium as being a memorial to those killed in war. Each column was meant to recognize a specific person. Take a trip, if you can, up towards the Colonnades level to see these fantastic architectural pieces.
The Marching Illini Band is one of the greatest college bands in the country. They will put on a great halftime show at every game. They do not always do the more wacky routines as offered by some other nationally known bands, but their productions are flawless. Their "Three-In-One" is a traditional show that shows off the musical numbers "Pride of the Illini," "March of the Illini," and "Hail to the Orange."
Chief Illiniwek was a part of the "Three-In-One" from 1926 right up until the university, spurred on by possible NCAA sanctions, ended his reign in 2007. But the memory of the Chief is alive in many fans. They will shout "CHIEF" at the moment he would have entered the field during the "Three-In-One," as well as various other times. You will also see many Chief shirts worn to games. They will be around for as long as those pieces of clothing can hold up. A "Council of Chiefs," a group of previous Chief Illiniwek performers, still name a Chief Illiniwek and there are even times he shows up for games in the crowd. All of this happens unofficially as the university stays far away from the controversy.
Memorial Stadium is one of the great college football stadiums of all time. It has even been modernized in places over the year. Unfortunately until the football program is better, the fan environment is not one of the best. It really has all the potential in the world.
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
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.
The stadium has an amazing amount of history, but that history certainly shows the age on the interior. The stadium itself is extremely impressive from the outside and appears to be extremely nice combined with the history. Once inside the old windows were covered by black plywood, bathroom doors were worn out splintered wood. Food here was good though with many choices. Upon arrival at the seats water was dripping down from some pipe above and not in little amounts, but in a steady stream. The fan section was quite amazing for a team that has not had great success lately. Field was in good condition and they let off fireworks after each touchdown. Video board and ribbon boards along with great sound system and band help to get the crowd going which helps make you forget about the defects. All in all it is worth going to just get lower bowl seats and be sure to remember that the stadium is almost 100 years old which makes it interesting.
A sea of orange!
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