Gene Schmidt didn’t play basketball at Illinois Wesleyan. Nor did he attend IWU.
Schmidt is an avid fan anyway, has been for years. A friend who was an IWU grad talked him into attending a game in the Fred Young Fieldhouse days.
Schmidt was hooked.
“Before that I was like, ‘What is Wesleyan? I don’t even know what it is,’” Schmidt said. “But I saw the way they were students first, athletes second, and the way they performed and the way the fans were.”
Schmidt is 76 now. He has been retired from his job as director of facility management at State Farm since 2002.
His love for IWU is stronger than ever.
It’s why he serves as coordinator of the IWU basketball fan bus, making it possible for Titan supporters, many as old as or older than Schmidt, to attend road games each season.
Schmidt secures the bus from Peoria Charter Coach, arranges for a restaurant stop en route to the game, collects the $40 fee per rider and deposits the money into an account.
Oh, and he also does the math.
“I count the number of people who leave the bus and get back on the bus,” Schmidt said. “We don’t want to leave somebody at Carthage (Kenosha, Wis.) or someplace.”
Schmidt just completed his third year in the role of coordinator. Prior to that, he drove IWU athletic teams to road games for nine years, getting to know Titan coaches, players and players’ parents quite well.
He misses that interaction, but said, “It came to a point where I thought, ‘I’m a little too old to be doing this,’” Schmidt said.
Thus, he took over responsibilities for “The Bus People.” That’s how the IWU regular riders are known on the routes to a number of College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin locales.
One restaurant in particular is aware of the group, making life easier for Schmidt.
“I tell them ‘The Bus People’ will be there at this time on this date,” Schmidt said. “They say, ‘OK.’”
This fan bus thing began back in the 1980s when then-IWU basketball coach and athletic director Dennie Bridges sought a way to get to road games other than in vans and cars.
He presented the idea of devoting half of the bus to fans and letting their payment help pay for the bus. It worked well until the number of fans interested in the deal outgrew the number of seats on the bus.
The fan bus became an entity all its own and for many years was a tough ticket.
“They used to fill a 55-passenger bus and if you didn’t get your name in, you didn’t get a seat,” Schmidt said. “Now, the fan base is getting older. A lot of them are no longer with us or can’t navigate because of physical problems.
“Some of them winter in Florida. Some have moved to Florida.”
Thus, the average was around 25 riders for the six road trips this season. Schmidt would like to schedule 10 trips, but has had to pare down some of the longer, more expensive ones.
He now rents a 38-passenger bus to help cut costs, and said the group is having difficulty attracting 55- to 65-year-old fans to join.
“We want to keep going as long as we can afford to keep running the bus,” Schmidt said. “There is a tipping point at which I don’t have enough money to pay the freight so to speak.
“In the good years we were able to put money in the bank for rainy days and it’s starting to rain.”
If you’re an IWU fan who seeks to avoid traffic, parking and weather, Schmidt would love to hear from you at 309-663-1224 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Trips include free coffee, donuts and cookies on the bus. There also is camaraderie. ‘The Bus People’ get together at a Bloomington restaurant once a month. Their friendships go beyond basketball, but many started there.
Schmidt sees that as a win.