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Deneen: The Need for a Chicago Five

Mike Deneen is InsideNU's historian. An NU grad, he also provides a fan perspective to complement InsideNU's coverage of NU sports.

NU SHOULD FORM “CHICAGO FIVE”

As Wildcat fans know, attendance is a recurring problem for Northwestern Athletics.  Not only does NU have a small student/alumni base, but it faces completion from the numerous highly popular professional sports franchises in Chicago. For basketball, NU has company in the battle for attention – there are four other Division I basketball programs (DePaul, Loyola, UIC, and Chicago State) in Cook County that face the same problem. All of these programs face significant attendance hurdles, as well as trouble drawing attention from local media. Could the five schools benefit from a “Chicago College Basketball” brand? If they need a role model, they need look no further than the “City of Brotherly Love”.

THE PROBLEM

Northwestern, as well as the other four local basketball programs, must compete with a wide array of winter sports for the average fan’s attention. Professional sports are the largest problem, as the Bulls and Blackhawks each command massive media attention. During the early months of the season, football (both college and pro) also distracts most fans away from basketball. With so much going on, there isn’t much room for local college basketball in print media, talk radio, or on the TV news.

Size and culture are also a problem for the local Chicago schools. Three of the five (Northwestern, DePaul, and Loyola) are private schools, which lack the deep alumni base of the mega-state schools like Illinois. The area’s two state schools (UIC and Chicago State) are generally “commuter schools,” which lack a culture for campus activities such as sports.

To make matters worse, numerous other college basketball programs have watered down the “Chicago” brand by claiming a stake to the city.  These include not only other in-state programs like Illinois and the “directional schools,” but out-of-state teams like Notre Dame and Valparaiso. Numerous Big Ten programs also have large alumni bases in the city, and many play games in town (for example, the Nov. 12, Michigan State-Kentucky game).

THE PHILADELPHIA “BIG FIVE”: A BLUEPRINT?

Back in 1954, five major Philadelphia-area college programs agreed to form what is called “The Big Five." University of Pennsylvania AD Jerry Ford conceived the idea, which was to allow Philadelphia to present the best basketball it had to offer. Temple, LaSalle, St. Josephs, Penn, and Villanova agreed to play an annual round-robin schedule.  Each season has a champion and an MVP, giving each school something to play for outside of its conference.

The “Big Five” arrangement has provided direct and indirect benefits to member schools.  Despite the rise of the NBA and NHL since 1954, the “Big Five” has kept college basketball very visible in the Philadelphia market. It has fueled rivalries such as the “Holy War” between St. Josephs and Villanova. It has helped to prevent Penn State, the statewide athletic behemoth which is dominant in virtually every other sport, from gaining a men’s basketball recruiting foothold in Philly. It has also boosted the schools on the court — the Big Five have sent at least one team to the NCAA tournament each of the past 36 years.

WHY NOT A “CHICAGO FIVE”?

A Chicago version of the “Big Five” would offer numerous benefits to the five local Chicago schools, particularly Northwestern.  The schools should play an annual round robin schedule each preseason, with each team playing each other once. Each would play two home games and two road games, alternating the site each year. Games would be played on each school’s home court, which would encourage fans of each team to visit the other schools. A women’s version of the “Chicago Five” can also be held – in fact, NU is already scheduled to play all four of the other schools this season. (As a side note, I prefer the name “The L Five” to “Chicago Five,” in honor of the iconic CTA lines that connects the schools).  

- A “Chicago Five” would increase coverage for early season games, which are generally downplayed or ignored in the Chicago media. Any game that involves two local schools is more likely to get print space or air time than a game that only involves one local school.

- A “Chicago Five” would assert the “Chicago” brand for these schools, and begin to push back against the numerous interlopers that come to town to impress recruits. As it currently stands, outside programs blow into the United Center at will, wooing recruits and marginalizing the programs that are actually based here. It’s time to start pushing back.

- Northwestern’s “Chicago Five” home games would be broadcast on BTN, which would give national exposure to Loyola, UIC, and Chicago State. National TV is rare for those programs. NU/DePaul games could attract ESPN or Fox Sports National status, providing great exposure for Chicago hoops.  Road games by NU or DePaul to the three smaller schools could be picked up CSN or another regional TV outlet, providing further exposure.

- Championship and MVP trophies would be awarded, which gives each program something to play for during early season games. This adds meaning to November and December games, which are often ignored by most fans. Plus, the winning school would have some hardware to show off in its trophy case.

- Schools could organize bus trips for students or alums to their away games. Having students from both schools in attendance would add some fun atmosphere. Plus, the bus ride might be pretty fun.

- It’s very possible that a local corporation (can you say “Good Hands People”?) would be willing to sponsor this event.  The money generated from sponsorship could be invested in paid media advertising, which would benefit all five schools.

- The “Chicago Five” should also work together during the offseason to market the event (and their programs) through joint marketing experiences. If allowed by NCAA rules, they could also conduct clinics for local kids throughout the area.

- Since these schools are not intense rivals with each other, there is a good chance that fans can be swayed to support one or more of the other schools during conference play.  For example, if a Loyola fan comes to Welsh-Ryan and has a positive experience, he or she may be willing to return for a game during Big Ten play and root for the Cats. Conversely, NU fans might like the Gentile Center, and could be willing to make the short L ride to Loyola for a big MVC game.

- As a further sweetener, NU should offer “honorary student” status to the other four schools during football season.  Current students from the “Chicago Five” could attend NU home games (except Illinois) in the student section.  Special “Football Only” membership in the Wildside could be arranged.  Perhaps the “young alum” season ticket package could also be offered to new graduates of these schools.

POTENTIAL PARTNERS

DEPAUL

Conference: Big East

Record against NU: 19-10. DePaul won 11 straight games from 1974-1986, although many by surprisingly close margins.  Since 1987, NU has won 7 of 13 matchups, including the most recent game in 2008.  The schools have met three times in NIT play, with the Blue Demons winning in 1983 and 1999, the Wildcats in 1994.

Why they should participate: The “Chicago Five” would give DePaul a chance to restore its prominence in the local media.  Some of us are old enough to remember DePaul’s glory days…however, younger folks have no idea.  The retirement of Ray Meyer (and the eventual firing of his son Joey as head coach in 1997), as well as the move toward conference membership in the 1980s, gradually eroded the program.  The school’s move to the Big East in 2005 was a necessary financial move. However, it was disastrous for on-court results. The Demons have been largely overmatched, winning a total of seven regular season conference games from 2008 to 2013.

What they offer: DePaul was a nationally known brand from the 1940s until the early 80s. They were coached by Ray Meyer, who led the program from 1942 to 1984. They had the game’s first “Big Man”, the legendary George Mikan.  They made the Final Four in 1943 and 1979, and have been to the Sweet Sixteen ten times. DePaul is also one of the ten largest private schools in the US, and is member of a respected (albeit no longer elite) conference.

DePaul is planning to build a new arena in Chicago, which would eliminate long rides to off-campus home games in Rosemont. Plus, the recent reconfiguration of the Big East to a “non-football” league of private schools should result in improved win totals, which will help recruiting.

LOYOLA

Conference: Missouri Valley Conference

Record against NU: 8-11 NU has won nine of twelve matchups since 1985, although many games had close margins.

What they offer: Although not as widely remembered as Depaul’s, Loyola has some strong history in basketball. Most notably, they are the only school in the state of Illinois to ever win the NCAA tournament. They did it so in 1963, featuring a then-unheard of starting lineup of four black players. They participated in the legendary “Game of Change” during the 1963 Tournament, which was a milestone in the Civil Rights movement.

More recently, Loyola has made two significant improvements to its program.  The Gentile Center, the team’s on campus arena, was upgraded in 2011. Secondly, the program joins the Missouri Valley Conference this season, a step up from the Horizon League.

Why they should participate: Despite its history, Loyola basketball is a well-kept secret in Chicago. A chance to compete annually against the “big boys” from NU and DePaul will raise the program’s recruiting profile. The Ramblers will benefit their MVC membership, which will enable them to compete with the “larger” schools. In addition, the “Chicago Five” would allow the school to continue its rivalry with UIC, its Horizon League conference mate for 19 seasons.

UIC

Conference: Horizon League

Record against NU: NU trails 4-3. The Wildcats won the first three matchups of the series during the early 1980s. However, the Flames have won all four matchups since, including a victory at Welsh-Ryan last season.

What they offer:  The Flames have been surprisingly competitive over the past couple decades. Since 1998, they have the most NCAA tournament appearances of any Chicago school (three).  They have won four games over NU since 2000, and even notched a memorable win over Illinois at the United Center in 2010.

Why they should participate: As with Loyola, the “Chicago Five” would enable UIC to demonstrate that it can routinely compete with DePaul and NU.  Plus, it would be an opportunity to sustain the rivalry with Loyola, which has departed the Horizon League for the Missouri Valley Conference.  Success in the “Chicago Five” could also serve as a platform to showcase the program for a potential promotion to the MVC.

CHICAGO STATE 

Record against NU: 0-9, none of the games were very competitive.

Conference:  Western Athletic Conference

What they offer: To be honest, not very much, at least in the near future. In the mid 2000s the CSU Athletic Department was a basket case, even getting kicked out of the Summit League (which is a full step below the Horizon League) in 2006.  However, someone needs to finish last in this event, and at least for the short term, CSU fits the bill. CSU’s current lowly status would allow larger schools like DePaul and NU to arrange one fewer “payday” game for an out-of-state school from a conference such as the SWAC.

On the plus side, Chicago State has the newest arena of any local school. The Jones Convention Center is a very nice little arena, which opened in 2007. CSU has been improving under President Wayne D. Watson, who took the job in 2009. Watson, a Northwestern alum, is a former Wildcat wrestler who appreciates the importance of intercollegiate athletics.

Why they should participate: It’s a no brainer. Many Chicagoans, even avid sports fans, don’t even know that Chicago State has a basketball team. Any chance to share the spotlight with the other four programs should be jumped at.  Last season the Cougars qualified for the CIT tournament, their first ever Division I postseason appearance.  If they can demonstrate success in the Chicago Five, it could open the door to a better conference – either a return to the Summit or possibly a spot in the Horizon League.

YEAH, BUT….   

There are many other hurdles that would need to be overcome. Most of these are simple ego and stubbornness. For example, some would object to the inclusion of Chicago State in the event. They would point to CSU’s poor performance, and would prefer to snub the Cougars. (It’s especially ironic that some NU fans look down on CSU as “hopeless”, the same assessment that most other Big Ten fans had of NU 20 years ago). Some DePaul fans would object, believing that they are still a national program and are too important to associate with the other four local schools. Some NU fans would be hesitant to play annual games against UIC and Loyola, two “lesser” programs that have demonstrated an ability to beat the Cats.

Nonconference scheduling is a very difficult process, so organizing this event would not be easy.  Each school has other scheduling commitments, such as preseason tournaments and events such as the “Big Ten/ACC Challenge”.  The smaller schools, particularly Chicago State, need to use November and December for guaranteed “payout games” that are essential to funding their program.  Facility access is also a tricky issue, as dates can be unavailable due to other events. For example, the Allstate Arena (Depaul’s home gym, for now) hosts the Chicago Wolves hockey team.  On-campus facilities can also have access issues…such as the Midlands wrestling tournament at Welsh-Ryan in late December.

A “Chicago Five” would not be a panacea for NU’s attendance problems. The event would draw modest attention in its early years, and would have to build an audience over time. Even if successful, it will never achieve the high status of Philly’s “Big Five”, which has become a tradition.  However, it would be a step in the right direction.  The event could help NU and its partners to improve their programs, which would enable them to defend the “Chicago” brand against outsiders.  If we really are “Chicago’s Big Ten Team”, then it’s time to take action.

NU SHOULD TAKE THE LEAD

Some older DePaul alums may not want to admit it, but NU is the “alpha dog” of the Chicago college sports scene. Not only are we the only school with a football program, but we are the only school with a stable conference situation.  Our Big Ten membership not only pays the bills, but gives us access to the Big Ten Network.  We should use these factors to organize the “Chicago Five”, just as Penn organized the “Big Five” nearly six decades ago.

Much of the framework is already in place. All five schools frequently schedule each other in a wide range of sports. There are numerous personnel connections between the schools (such as President Watkins at CSU). On October 25 the five schools participated in the inaugural “Chicago College Hoops Tip-Off Luncheon”, which featured the head coaches each program’s men’s and women’s teams. It’s time to take it up another notch.