Despite the ever-growing popularity of watching games from the comfort of your home, the Illinois Fighting Illini had their first sell-out on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium since November 2011 when the team welcomed in Michigan.
Matching up against a North Carolina team that made the ACC Championship last season makes it even more impressive that the sell-out became the first against a non-conference opponent since all the way back in September 1987 when the Illini welcomed Arizona State and saw over 70,000 faithful pack the stands. Current capacity stands at 60,670, all of which were sold for Saturday.
Illinois won their season opener last weekend handedly, clobbering Murray State 52-3, not exactly the type of victory that would entice more than 60,000 to brave the journey to the field. The team will wrap up their non-conference schedule against Western Michigan at home next weekend.
The hype behind the hiring of Lovie Smith is evident in the numbers. The entire coaching staff, sans defensive line coach Mike Phair, is in their first season with the Illini, attempting to overhaul a program that has gotten lost in the shuffle of the powerhouse Big Ten programs. But they began play in Champaign in 1890 and have claimed five national titles in school history.
They’ll welcome in both competitors in last season’s Big Ten Championship Game, Michigan State and Iowa, into Champaign later this season. Depending on if they can survive a trip to the Big House in Michigan or Memorial Stadium in Nebraska, the fans may be packing the stands once again, despite the impending Illinois winter.