Shame on Illinois’ ‘Orange Krush’ for foiled Iowa scheme? Only if they don’t try it again

Don’t fabricate? I say do. In fact, go ahead and escalate.

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Ohio State v Illinois

Illini fans get wild at State Farm Center in 2022.

Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Did you get wind of the latest Illinois-Iowa college basketball spat?

It’s a pretty dumb one. Also a rather fun one, though not as fun as it might have been.

Illinois’ “Orange Krush,” a student spirit group with a delightfully maniacal presence at home basketball games, has an annual tradition of traveling in large numbers to a Big Ten road game and, often, taking the opposing school by complete surprise. At Iowa in 2015, for example, a mobile Krush unit — stealthily clad in black and gold — climbed to their seats at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, waited for the action on the court to begin and then, all at once, tore off their outermost garments to reveal their orange jerseys and go absolutely bananas for the Illini. The Hawkeyes won anyway, but still — come on — the takeover of a section of the stands was great stuff.

A return trip was on for Saturday’s game between the schools, with 200 Krush planning to carry out the operation. Alas, Iowa squashed it almost at the last minute. On Wednesday, months after the Krush procured their ducats — quite dishonestly, perhaps out of necessity — the Iowa athletic department invalidated the sale, having discovered that, good heavens, it wouldn’t be a giant group from an Illinois Boys and Girls Club journeying to Corn Country after all. Instead, in kind of a boss move, Iowa donated the tickets to a Boys and Girls Club in nearby Cedar Rapids.

Case closed? Officially, yes. Rhetorically, not whatsoever. The Krush were righteously aggrieved, claiming in a statement that the whole thing was Iowa’s fault for being so stupid to make the sale in the first place, that nixing it was “against the spirit of competition and rivalry,” that it was done out of “fear” of the vaunted Krush and that Hawkeyes athletic director Gary Barta was a “coward.”

And they weren’t alone. Many Illini fans, including some in the media who bleed orange a bit more than they’re supposed to, ripped Iowa a new one, too. Hawkeyes fans — and media, too — volleyed back on social media, mainly along the lines of, “Um, you lied and got busted,” which is, of course, precisely what happened.

On Twitter, I asked if there was someone out there who would be kind enough to help me understand why Iowa was the villain in this matter.

“It’s just kids trying to watch basketball,” was one answer.

“A little white lie for the sake of fun,” was another.

“It’s not like the Iowa ticket office is TSA or Homeland Security,” wrote one Illini fan, making me laugh.

They all were completely wrong, of course.

So why do I find myself agreeing with them?

The simple reason: because rivalries might be the only thing left in college sports that’s still blissfully wonderful. 

Players come and go through the transfer portal like rush-hour commuters through turnstiles. Coaches leave sooner and get fired faster. Opportunities for NIL dough supersede winning. The stakes have changed. The goals have changed. College sports have never been less charming. And even if, to an extent, nothing has changed — it’s all just more out in the open now — the pure enchantment of a rivalry prank has never been more welcome.

Don’t fabricate? I say do. In fact, I say escalate. Plan that next prank, but make it bigger and better.

Over 100 years ago, Texas A&M students found Bevo, archrival Texas’ mascot steer, in a stockyard and branded him with the score of the schools’ last football game, an Aggies win. Terrible, right? It was cruelty. Don’t go that far. On the other hand, folks at both schools still talk about it with perverse pride.

Duke students once stole Michael Jordan’s jersey from the rafters of North Carolina’s arena and hung it in Cameron Indoor Stadium. An inspired move, even if it made not a lick of sense.

At Stanford, after losing to Cal in the most famous play in college football history — you’ve all seen that kickoff return that ended with a touchdown run through the Cardinal band — student journalists in Palo Alto created a fake edition of the Cal student newspaper claiming the result of the game had been overturned. Beyond brilliant, right?

All three of those examples cite elite-level rivalries. Does Illinois have one of those? Some will disagree, but the answer is no. In basketball, many Illini fans view the rivalries with Indiana and, more recently, Michigan as major ones, but they fall well short of the bar. The Illinois-Northwestern rivalry is largely an empty one, Northwestern’s “Chicago’s Big Ten team” jab at Illinois falling on deaf ears everywhere. Here’s an idea: The Krush can buy 1,000 tickets to the next game in Evanston and don’t even have to invent a cover story. No one will mind.

The Iowa-Nebraska rivalry force-fed to Hawkeyes fans by the Big Ten doesn’t have much to it, either, and certainly won’t for as long as the Huskers scrape the bottom of the conference barrel in basketball and football.

The Hawkeyes and Illini share a division and would do well to share more bitterness and rancor. It was like that for a while after, in 1986, then-Iowa assistant coach Bruce Pearl brought allegations to the NCAA against the Illinois basketball program, which eventually was hit with recruiting restrictions and a one-year postseason ban.

The recruitment of Illini star Deon Thomas, who now works in the school’s athletic department, was at the center of those allegations.

“The things people do out of FEAR,” Thomas tweeted the other day, shooting his shot at Iowa.

See? He gets it.

Fabricate? Escalate.

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