North Carolina Illinois Football

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith watches from the sideline during the second quarter of Saturday night's game against North Carolina at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

Three hours before kickoff Saturday and the strangest thing was going on outside Memorial Stadium.

Cars were already bumper-to-bumper squeezing into the parking lots. That was unheard of a couple years ago when you could wheel in 45 minutes before kickoff, park near the front of the line, swap stories with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase’s sweet mom, then march uninterrupted up to the press box.

On Saturday the tailgaters arrived early. The air was filled with the smell of grilled meat and the sight of airborne bean bags. Tables were filled with Grey Goose and Patron and coolers packed with ice and beer were getting a workout. A picnic basket looked filled with fried chicken.

That was unheard of a couple years ago when fans were rarely in a mood festive enough to waste energy on charcoal and wedges of lime.

Over in Grange Grove on Saturday, small, colorful party tents had popped up everywhere, making the place look festive and full and when coach Lovie Smith marched his Illinois team through the heart of the fairly new party area it looked like an honest-to-goodness piece of college football pageantry playing out in public.

The lady standing next to me said, “This gives me goose bumps.”

That was unheard of a couple years ago when no one was inspired enough to get behind an idea like Grange Grove or a tradition-in-the-making like the 2016 version of the Illini Walk.

What happened outside Memorial Stadium on Saturday was proof that if a school can generate some excitement and install leadership that people can believe in, there are still plenty of fans who are willing to immerse themselves in the college football game day experience. And those fans who are having so much fun outside will buy tickets for what’s going on inside.

Granted, this wasn’t Ohio Stadium where more than 100,000 fans spill into the streets and turn every home football Saturday into a bash that stretches for blocks and blocks and blocks in every direction. This was a much more modest version, a sort of Game Day 101, but Illinois has to start somewhere.

A couple years from now, we may look back on this night — Sept. 10, 2016 — as the time when Illinois lit the fuse on a new-age kind of football excitement that made home games feel relevant and worth attending again.

Yes, it would have helped if the football team had played a flawless game and knocked North Carolina halfway back to Tobacco Road. That didn’t happen in a 48-23 North Carolina victory.

Illinois showed up for the big dance, then stumbled a bit awkwardly on the dance floor. The production, it turns out, is ahead of the product.

But Saturday felt like something pretty cool was going on and we’d all better pay attention. And that feeling — absent for too long — felt pretty good.

Someone said Mark McLeod, the Moweaqua Meat Maven, had his monster grill revved up across the street from Memorial Stadium and if McLeod is putting on a show for the carnivore crowd, I’m interested. I wanted to slip over there and say hi, and maybe mooch something hot and smoky in the process. But it was just too crowded to fight my way across First Street.

Too crowded? At an Illini football game? A couple years ago, those words would never have been uttered.

It’s a welcome sign that maybe things are finally changing.

Given time, the precision of the football team will, too.

​Mark Tupper covers University of Illinois football for Lee News Service. Contact him at mark.tupper@lee.net. On Twitter: @MarkTupper

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