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COMMENTARY

There's nothing skimpy about Illini fan's passion

January 01, 2008|Mike Downey | Chicago Tribune

Hugh Hefner is on the phone, getting me fired up.

"What has been done before," he says, "can be done once more."

I don't know, USC is a big favorite in this football game, Hef.

"Illinois has already knocked off the No. 1 team in the country, Ohio State," the founder, editor and emperor of Playboy kindly reminds me. "They're miracle workers."

Hef, noble Fighting Illini, Class of '49, wasn't able to have his alma mater's Rose Bowl football team over to the house for a party as he did in 1984.

But he assures me that a part of his New Year's Day will be spent watching a big-screen TV in the Mansion as his Illini big-play boys scrap with USC.

And he certainly ought to be able to find some orange apparel around the manse somewhere.

"I will," Hef says. "People keep sending me new Illinois stuff all the time."

As two-touchdown underdogs, you wouldn't think the Illini would stand a chance in today's game unless they could sic Dick Butkus on a whole pack of Trojans and summon up the galloping ghost of Red Grange to scare every living soul in L.A.

But people mistakenly have counted out the Illini before.

"I was an undergrad in 1946," recalls Hefner, now a spry 81, "which was at the very beginning of when the two conferences [Pacific 10 and Big Ten] forged an arrangement to play against each other in the big game every year. We came out to play UCLA in that 1947 game, and nobody expected us to win. Nobody."

Do you know who scored for Illinois that day? Everybody.

Well, practically everybody.

Julius Rykovich got a touchdown, then Buddy Young did, then Paul Patterson, then Perry Moss, then Ruck Steger, then Stan Green.

UCLA folded like a cheap centerfold, 45-14.

I have a feeling Pasadenans got good and sick of Midwest tourists in the years to come. In 12 of 13 Rose Bowls beginning with that one, the victors were Illinois, Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan State or Iowa.

West Coast schools must have longed for the years between 1930 and 1945 when they beat up on Rose Bowl opponents such as Pittsburgh, Tulane, Southern Methodist and Duke.

Of course, this is ancient history.

Playboy didn't have a Mansion then. It didn't even have a magazine then.

As the years went by, the Rose Bowl didn't smell so sweet. Illinois won one in 1964 but hasn't been able to since.

Hefner endeavored to inspire them, in his unique way, 20 years later when the Champaign party finally earned a return. He threw a lavish garden party for the entire squad, giving a guided tour of the Grotto, the game room, the reptile room, the lay of the land.

I thought if anything could put the Fighting back in the Illini, that would.

I thought they would feel frisky after meeting all those Bunnies, but instead, coach Mike White's 10-1 Illini proceeded to get their ears pinned back by a truly ordinary UCLA team (6-4-1) by a truly embarrassing 45-9.

This season's team has sought its pregame entertainment elsewhere so far.

"No, no Playboy Mansion necessary for us," senior offensive lineman Martin O'Donnell explains to me. "We have our hands full as it is."

Ron Zook's team did go to the Improv comedy club, did the Disneyland bit and fed its face at the traditional feast Lawry's sponsors known as the Beef Bowl.

The 322-pound O'Donnell's plan was to take what he called "a measured intensity" into the banquet, explaining that he might not want to carry around several extra pounds of red meat inside him come game day.

As for the greatest Illini party-thrower of them all, Hefner says he has no specific memories of the 1984 party.

However: "My memories are kind of ongoing. I always keep an eye on what the Illini are doing, and I'm extremely excited about what they've done this year."

He does have one conflict.

"I have a connection to USC as well. I've been very involved in donating as much time as I can to their film school, particularly in their work with film restoration."

Not a problem.

"Did you know that the president of USC is an alumnus of the University of Illinois?" I ask.

My auld acquaintance Steven Sample is going to have a little conflict of his own come New Year's Day.

"Great," Hef says. "So his loyalties can be divided too."

Yes, they can be, much like a photograph from the inside of a magazine.

Mike Downey is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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