If you’re not from Chicago you may not know this, but this isn’t just a sports town; it’s a town where sports tribalism rules all. It’s a town where you are born into one sports tribe or another, and that tribe is defined more by its opposition than by the tribe itself. It’s a town where rivalry trumps loyalty; where, for example, you must not only love the Cubs but hate the Sox, or vice versa. The great Mike Royko, to whom I dedicate my undying loyalty to the Cubs, and whom I blame for all the misery in this world, laid down the law many years ago:
Those who are true fans of the White Sox or Cubs loathe the other team. This crosstown rivalry takes precedent over city pride. So if the Sox play the Braves, I must root for the Braves. It is the only decent thing a Cubs fan can do. Sox fans, being dedicated haters, will understand.
So it is written. So it shall be done.
College sports, on the other hand, are a different matter. Chicago is, first and foremost, a professional sports town. Not only are the Cubs and Sox among the oldest major league franchises in the country, Chicago boasts the oldest professional football rivalry of all time (with, of course, the cursed Green Bay Packers, the devil’s spawn of the NFL), and Your 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks are one of the NHL’s (inaptly named, as it turns out) Original Six.
So college sports ordinarily take a back seat to the pros. The truth is, our local college teams rarely threaten to win championships, and that’s a good part of the reason why they don’t generate the same excitement as their professional counterparts. My beloved Fighting Illini approached the upper echelon in football and men’s basketball on a few occasions, only to be dispatched with a Cub-like predictability: The 1984 Rose Bowl (UCLA 45, Illinois 9); the 2002 Sugar Bowl (LSU 47, Illinois 34); the 1989 men’s Final Four (Michigan 83, Illinois 81); and, perhaps worst of all, the 2005 men’s National Championship game (North Carolina 75, Illinois 70).
There is, however, one exception to the general indifference with which Chicago treats its local college teams, and that would be … Notre Dame football.
Maybe it’s because of the outsized influence of Chicago’s Irish community; maybe it’s because of the relatively close proximity to South Bend, Indiana; or maybe it’s because the University of Chicago reached its football apex in 1924 when it won its last Big 10 championship (yes, U. of C. was an inaugural member of the Big 10), Northwestern went 63 years without winning a bowl game before this year’s Gator Bowl, and … don’t even get me started on my Fighting Illini, who went 2-11 this season, despite winning bowl games the past two years.
But whatever the reason, Notre Dame football has always been a big deal in Chicago. And that’s always been a problem for me. Or at least it’s been a problem for me since 1980, when I left the Orange and Blue of Oak Park River Forest High School for the Orange and Blue of the University of Illinois. Because by all rights, the Fighting Illini should be Chicago’s team:
The UI and Bears have a long-standing tradition dating back to the original Decatur Staleys who were founded by University of Illinois alums George Halas and Dutch Sternaman. The team’s colors, Orange and Blue, came from Halas’ days as an Illini. And, Illinois’ most famous two players, Red Grange and Dick Butkus, earned NFL Hall of Fame status as players for the Bears.
In fact, it was Grange, fresh off an All-America career at Illinois, who is credited with pushing the NFL into the national spotlight with a barnstorming tour with Halas following his last season for the Fighting Illini in 1925.
Despite that history, the fact remains that Illinois will never get the kind of respect Notre Dame gets, even in an off year. And this was hardly an off year for ND.
So when local deejay Lin Brehmer asked his Facebook fans to suggest a question for his “Lin’s Bin” feature in anticipation of tonight’s BCS Championship Game, my natural sports-tribalism instincts kicked in: “Lin,” I said, “I am a native Chicagoan and of Irish Catholic descent. Why do I hate Notre Dame with the heat of a thousand suns?” And lo and behold, Mr. Brehmer, in his infinite wisdom, chose my question for today’s “Lin’s Bin.”
Listen to Mr. Brehmer. He knows things. But it’s safe to day he doesn’t share my contempt for the Fighting Irish. I accept that, just as I accept the fact that you can’t swing a dead cat in this town without hitting a Notre Dame fan. That’s okay. It’s the Chicago way: You love the team you love, and you don’t back down.
This city may be hopelessly in love with Notre Dame, but I bleed Orange and Blue; and so, to paraphrase Mike Royko, my disdain for the Irish takes precedent over city pride. I have to root for Alabama tonight; it’s the only decent thing an Illini fan can do.
As an aside, I actually don’t hate the White Sox. I used to, and I might have continued to hate them if they hadn’t won the World Series in 2005. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t jump on bandwagons. I’m still not a Sox fan. But I know, marrow-deep, that the Cubs will never win the Series in my lifetime; so I consider this to be my penance for loving them anyway: That I have to give the Sox begrudging respect for bringing a title to Chicago.
Forgive me, Royko, for I have sinned.
[The song at the top of this post is “Fighting My Way Back” by Irish rockers Thin Lizzy, the song Brehmer played after “Lin’s Bin” this morning. Touché, Mr. Brehmer. Touché.]