It could not have been a more perfect day for playoff football.
The No. 2-seeded Illinois State University football team grinded out a 36-19 FCS playoffs second round win over Western Illinois Saturday afternoon in front of an abysmal Hancock Stadium attendance of 6,124 fans.
It was a glorious, sunny December day with game time temperatures reaching 40 degrees, minimal winds and not a cloud in the sky. The scene couldn’t have been set any better for a playoff showdown featuring the second best team in the country hosting in-state rival WIU, yet the Bloomington-Normal community and ISU students could not show up and fill even half of Hancock Stadium, which holds a capactiy of 13,391.
ISU holds the best home winning streak in the country, a perfect 19-0 since the renovations to Hancock Stadium in 2012. Since then, the Redbirds have claimed two consecutive MVFC Championships and were the 2014 FCS runner-up. The ’Birds boast one of the most dangerous quarterback/running back duos in the country in Tre Roberson and Marshaun Coprich, a star studded defense, five 2015 All-MVFC players (Coprich, Pat Meehan, Mark Spelman, Anthony Warrum, Roberson) and one of the three finalists for FCS Offensive Player of the Year (Coprich).
Despite all of these accolades and the high quality product being produced on the field, the FCS playoff second round match at Hancock Stadium looked more like a hyped up high school game than anything due to the lack of ISU fan support.
For years ISU has been considered a basketball school, but the tide has quickly turned. With the football program’s most recent success, many donors and fans alike expect a new training facility in the upcoming years along with a possible horseshoe bleacher addition to Hancock Stadium and a complete revamp of the western side and Horton Field house. Talks of a possible move to an FBS conference have occurred on game days and online fan forums. The Bloomington-Normal community is buzzing with endless talks of future plans for ISU athletics, yet the town cannot even fill the current stadium to half capacity for a quality playoff game on a beautiful December day.
Before considering of any of these plans, ISU students and the community as a whole need to take a step back and evaluate their support for ISU athletics and the football program. High expectations and low turnout have been and will continue to be the story for the duration of December for the FCS playoffs.
With a student enrollment of over 20,000 and a combined Bloomington-Normal population of 130,000, Saturday’s turnout was flat out embarrassing. Students and the Bloomington-Normal community need to show more enthusiasm to this more than deserving football program.
Being a student, it is understandable my fellow peers may have been studying for this upcoming finals week. However, this is just the sixth time in school history the football program has clinched a playoff berth, all the more impressive with ISU claiming home field advantage throughout the FCS Playoffs. What a time to be alive. Committing just three hours of your Saturday afternoon is the least ISU coach Brock Spack and the football team deserve.
The scene was quiet on game day against WIU. Leading up to kickoff, I walked along Main Street toward Hancock Stadium from my apartment. I was caught off guard as parking lots were sparse as ever on a Saturday with little to no traffic. I found myself questioning, “Is there really a home playoff game today?” The atmosphere told me otherwise.
1,000 free student tickets were given out, however, Red Alert and the Athletics Department can only do so much in regards to promoting games. It didn't even seem like 1,000 students made it out to Saturday's game. It appeared more like several hundred students were in attendance, if that.
Even after the free tickets, ISU has some of the cheapest priced student tickets in all of the FCS at $5 when compared to No. 1 Jacksonville State's $10 student tickets and some other FCS programs student tickets beginning at the $20 price range.
Students and the community need to not just make it to the surrounding parking lots of Hancock Stadium for tailgating, but make it to their seat inside the stadium and witness some quality college football.
WIU fans made the two hour trip from Macomb, filling up nearly half the Western side of Hancock Stadium with purple and gold. Not only did Leatherneck fans show up, but they were a very loud and attentive crowd.
One can only imagine how Hancock Stadium will look if and when a possible FCS playoffs semifinal matchup/2014 FCS National Championship rematch against North Dakota State occurs on Dec. 18 or 19. The Bison faithful are known for traveling in bunches and will migrate in flocks to Central Illinois. Redbird fans can expect a sea of yellow and gold taking over Normal if the matchup does happen. Bison fans will not only outnumber Redbird fans but will make Hancock Stadium look like FargoDome 2.0.
As students begin abandoning campus this week for winter break, this upcoming Friday’s semifinal game against No. 7 Richmond may possibly be the least attended game of the year. Pair that with a 6:30 p.m. kickoff and many Chicagoland and surrounding area fans may show up late or may not make the trip down at all.
I am not attacking the devoted ISU student section or the loving alumni who constantly give back to the University. Before being a sports editor at The Vidette, I too was part of the ISU student section and Red Alert. There are members of Red Alert who show up to every game, bringing enthusiasm and intensity on a weekly basis. We have great committed fans, we just need more of them.
Red Alert and the Bloomington-Normal community have proven they are able to not just fill but overfill Hancock Stadium in three sellouts this season. These three games filled Hancock Stadium to capacity and more with standing room only attendance. Yes, these games occurred during warmer weather and on special event weekends (home opener, Family Weekend, Homecoming), but this time around, the stakes are much higher.
From here on out, every time the Redbirds take the field, a trip to Frisco, Texas for the 2015-16 FCS National Championship is on the line. ISU was blessed by the selection committee with home field advantage throughout the 2015 FCS playoffs, but will it really be home field advantage with the embarrassing, minimal fan support?
Before taking over as head coach, Spack saw the ISU football program as a “sleeping giant.” After racking up back-to-back MVFC Championships and currently on a road back to Frisco, it is safe to say the giant has awoken.
Support the giant. Support the football program. They are the ultimate embodiment of the University. Have pride in the bright red we wear. Take hold and make the most of the years you have left at ISU.
“The big time is not a place; it’s a state of mind, and we think we are big time." Brock Spack
Illinois State football is big time. The players, coaching staff and athletic department all know it. Illinois State students and the Bloomington-Normal community do not.