New AD dazzles in dizzying week for Illini Nation

whitmanFrom the Saturday, March 12, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

New AD dazzles in dizzying week for Illini  Lovie Smith is the head football coach of not a pro team, but the University of Illinois. The thrifty school has ponied up $21 million for Smith’s six-year contract and committed another whopping $24 million for his assistants, who he’s stealing from NCAA powers and the NFL. And Illini football has gone from irrelevancy to the lips of talking heads nationwide.

Up is down. Down is up. Cats and dogs are living together.

Just a week ago, no one could have imagined that former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith would be taking the reins of the Illini football program.Yes, it’s been quite the dizzying week for the long-downtrodden denizens of Illini Nation, with a Twitter follower telling me on Monday, “I feel like I went to bed in Champaign, and I woke up in the SEC.”

With statements like that, it’s clear that this is not your father’s Illinois. No, this week’s turn of events is the sign of something completely different and incredibly exciting for Fighting Illini fans stunned to the see their major-conference school finally acting like a big-time program.

And all of that’s because Josh Whitman is not your father’s Illinois athletic director. Rather, the 37-year-old former Illini football player and Academic All-American is looking like an AD built for the 21st century.

Heck, maybe even the 22nd one.

Whitman admittedly wasn’t my first choice to take over Illinois’ messy athletic department, but he’s looking like he’s exactly what I did want — the right choice, as for years I’ve argued that the only thing keeping Illinois so far down in the dumps was having the wrong man overseeing its sports programs.

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Diary of an Illini Fan


It’s been a great week to be an Illinois fan, but it’s taken a wild year to get there

What a year it’s been.

Last March, after another frustrating Illini basketball season ended not with an NCAA bang, but an NIT whimper, I wrote a column for CBS Chicago in which I dumped at the feet of Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas the blame for the university’s myriad sports woes — which then became only more myriad and woeful with a stunning flood of accusations about player abuse and racism, personnel dismissals and even more lopsided losses.

Twelve months later, however, Illini Nation is now enjoying its best week in ages thanks to the university’s dynamic new athletic director Josh Whitman pulling former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith to Champaign like a rabbit from a hat and Illini hoops pulling off surprising upset of 5th-seeded Iowa to reach the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.

So, how exactly did we get from down there to up here?

Well, I intend to tell you through the series of four columns that I wrote during the past year which basically serve as the Diary of an Illini Fan in which I share the twisting saga of where Illinois was, where fans have wanted Illinois to be and how I’ve strongly urged Illinois to get there.

As it’s turned out, the map that the university administration has ended up following to find its new celebrated AD and new celebrity football coach is basically the exact one that I’ve been demonstratively waving about and pointing to for a long time.

Instead of saying I told you so, let’s take a walk down the last 12 months of Illinois’ Memory Lane.

I’ll lead the way if you mind the potholes.

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Dressing Downton: The Crawleys come to Chicago

IMG_8210From the Saturday, March 5, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

If you’re a Chicagoland fan of Downton Abbey and want to visit the fictional Yorkshire estate of your Edwardian dreams, you’ll need to hop a 7½-hour flight to London Heathrow, followed by a 60-minute drive west to the real-life Highclere Castle, followed by, well, a time warp of 90 years.

Or, instead, you could simply visit Chicago’s Driehaus Museum in River North and experience the next best thing by gaining entrance into the opulent world of Lord Grantham, Lady Mary, the Dowager Countess and the rest of the aristocratic Crawley clan.

As Downton Abbey, the wildly popular British period drama from PBS Masterpiece, winds down with its series finale on Sunday night (8 p.m., WTTW), a new exhibit celebrating the show – and, in particular, its celebrated fashions – is just gearing up in the heart of the Windy City.

And it’s a must-visit for die-hard fans of the series.

Running through May 8, “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times,” features 35 of the period-perfect costumes from the early 20th century worn by the Crawley family and their servants. Designed by London costume house Cosprop Ltd., some of the clothes are made from original fabrics and embellishments, while others were recreated from photographs, patterns and magazine pictures.

As fans know, the show’s costumes could often be more intricate than even the show’s twisting plotlines and in Chicago there’s no better place for them to take up temporary residence than the magnificent Driehaus Museum (40 E. Erie St.), located just a block off the Mag Mile.

With lavishly appointed galleries that once were the drawing rooms, living rooms, libraries and bedrooms of the Gilded Age mansion commissioned in 1879 by wealthy Chicago banker Samuel Mayo Nickerson, the home today is a museum devoted to the craftsmanship of the past. And it’s filled with enough breathtaking artwork, furnishings and décor to make even the Dowager Countess feel right at home.

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Illinois basketball is in a fix – and in need of a change


From the Saturday, Feb. 27, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

He’s lost recruiting battles. He’s lost players to injuries — and he’s lost them to suspension. And, yes, he’s certainly lost games, as well.

But perhaps none of those things is as troubling as what University of Illinois basketball coach John Groce has lost most recently.

Our interest.

Last weekend, less than an hour before Illinois was scheduled to tip off against Wisconsin for a Big Ten tilt at the Kohl Center in Madison, I tweeted how “Illini basketball used to be appointment television for me. But, these days, it’s just not.”

I know that I’m far from the only fan feeling that way.

Since I was a kid, I’ve loved Illini hoops. In fact, when it comes to sports moments that I hope to witness in my lifetime, a national basketball championship for my alma mater trails only a Chicago Cubs World Series title. And whereas the latter seems as if it actually might be closer than ever before, I don’t think the former has ever before felt so far away.

That’s sad. But what’s most depressing is that I don’t even really feel sorrow about the current sorry state of Illinois basketball. I don’t really feel angry about it, either. Rather, as the Illini careen towards a third straight March without an NCAA Tournament bid — an occurrence once unthinkable — I don’t feel much of anything at all.

Apathy has consumed my fandom. And, again, I know I’m far from the only one, which is why my advice to new Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman is to build off the good vibes following his own introduction and look to hire a new Illini basketball coach — sooner rather than later.

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A Long Journey on the Red Line

Fred1For Fred Long, Chicago’s youth-focused nonprofit UCAN has been a ticket to a world that he never even knew existed growing up on the city’s South Side.

CHICAGO — There are 31 stops between 95th Street and Jarvis on the CTA Red Line.

And Fred Long has a story for all of them.

As a native of Chicago’s Far South Side, 95th is home, while 87th was high school. When pulling into 63rd, Englewood comes to mind, while 35th signifies the White Sox, and the first sign of white faces when riding north — or the last sign while southbound. At Cermak-Chinatown, there’s a glimpse into Asia. And then there’s the Loop, where Monroe means traffic court.

“In our neighborhood, the only reason anyone I knew ever went as far as downtown was if you had to go to court,” Fred, the 36-year-old vice president of development and government affairs for Chicago youth services nonprofit UCAN, reminisced in late January while standing bundled in a gray stocking cap and coat on a frigid platform at 95th Street.

“And that was a big trip for people. You had to mentally prepare yourself for that journey.”
Like many of his peers in Chicago, where today 47 percent of black men between 20 and 24 years old are both out of school and out of work, Fred’s own South Side story easily could have never extended beyond traffic court in the Loop.

But through a relationship developed as a teen with UCAN — the Chicago social services institution that for more than 150 years has helped youth who have suffered trauma become future leaders — Fred’s odyssey has stretched to an apartment on the opposite end of the Red Line in Rogers Park, and then to professional roles rubbing elbows with political elites in Springfield and Washington, D.C., and some of the wealthiest philanthropists in Chicago.

“People always talk about how something saves your life,” Fred said. “UCAN, it didn’t save my life, but it definitely changed my life. It got me out of Roseland, gave me somewhere to go to every day and put me out of harm’s way. It’s allowed me to meet people I never would have known, and experience things that I never could have imagined.”

For Fred, however, the tracks leading to where he stands today were anything but smooth.

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Five things you never knew about The Second City

comedy-clubs-secon-cityFrom the Saturday, Feb. 13, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

Two years ago this month, the world became a little (or a lot) less funny when comedy legend Harold Ramis died at his home in Glencoe at the age of 69. But come September, the world will become a little (or a lot) funnier when a new Chicago institution named after Ramis comes to life.

RamisOn Tuesday, Chicago’s famed improv theater Second City announced plans to open “the world’s first film school dedicated to comedy” and name it after Ramis, a Second City alum who wrote (and often directed, produced or acted in) such iconic films as National Lampoon’s Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day.

And in honor of Ramis’ well-deserved honor and contributions to comedy, I thought I’d share with you five things that you might not already know about his fellow funnymen and women spawned from Second City.

Kings & Queens of Comedy

Since opening its doors in 1959, Second City has served as the launching pad for some of the biggest names in comedy. But do you realize just how many stars first cracked wise on its famous stage?

Here are some alumni: Alan Alda (1959), Ed Asner (1959), Alan Arkin (1960), Joan Rivers (1961), Fred Willard (1965), Peter Boyle (1967), Ramis (1969), John Belushi (1971), John Candy (1973), Bill Murray (1973), Dan Aykroyd (1974), Eugene Levy (1974), Gilda Radner (1974), George Wendt (1975), Shelley Long (1976) and Jim Belushi (1978).

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With fan attendance dropping, NFL must up its game

NFL5From the Saturday, Feb. 6, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

From concussions and domestic violence to deflated footballs and debatable discipline, the NFL seemingly has more threats to its mighty brand these days than Cam Newton has in his offensive arsenal.

Yet with more than 114 million Americans expected to tune in to Sunday’s Super Bowl extravaganza—during which TV ads are going for a whopping $5 million per 30-second pop—professional football continues to thrive.

But can that kingdom continue without hordes of fans in the stands?

Surely, the NFL doesn’t want to find out.

Here on the eve of Super Bowl 50, however, a future filled with sparsely populated stadiums is indeed on of the problems pressing Roger Goodell’s league, even as his sport’s television numbers continue to soar.

According to the Sports Business Research Network, the average NFL game in 2014 drew just 64,698 fans, the league’s lowest since 1998. Even more startling, total attendance in 2014 fell to 18,205,000, down from 20,336,000 in 2011—a drop of more than 2 million in just 36 months.

So, what gives? Well, technology, that’s what. Thanks to it, today’s football fans have little motivation to get off the couch and drop the $479.11 that it now costs on average to take a family of four to a game.

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Don’t make Valentine’s Day plans heart on yourself

VDayFrom the Saturday, Jan. 30, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

It’s not quite February yet, but if you haven’t already started making plans for the 14th of next month, well, you’re liable to be left out in the cold.

Both by a restaurant – and your special someone.

With two weeks to go before Valentine’s Day, I’m here to help all you lovers – and singles – out with some suggestions, should you be considering a trip to Chicagoland celebrate Hallmark’s second favorite holiday (behind Mothers’ Day).

If you’re looking to book reservations at one of the many Chicago restaurants offering special Valentine’s Day menus, it’s best to consult (download the app). But if you’re looking to do something else romantic – or ridiculous – during that weekend then read on.

Weekend Plays
Feb. 12-14

In last week’s column, I mentioned how great the Windy City is as a theater city, especially during Chicago Theatre Week. This year, that event conveniently spans Valentine’s Day weekend with discounted shows (tickets for $15 and $30) taking place at multiple venues Feb. 12-14.

There may be no better weekend, in fact, for dinner and a show in the city. For the full lineup of shows, visit

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February’s short month long on action in Chicago

chicago-cnyFrom the Saturday, Jan. 23, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

For such an abbreviated month (even with the extra day leaping in this year), Chicago’s February certainly packs in a lot. And that’s not even including all of the romantic – or ridiculous – ways you can while away Valentine’s Day.

But we’ll deal with those next week.

Today, I’ll let you know what’s taking place in the Windy City during the second month of 2016 should you want to blow into town for a visit.

Mardi Gras celebrations
Feb. 6

If you can’t make it down to New Orleans to celebrate Fat Tuesday on Feb. 9 – or to St. Louis, which claims to host the nation’s second-largest Mardi Gras celebration – you can still let the good times roll in Chicago.

On Saturday, Feb. 6, Navy Pier will host the “World’s Largest Indoor Bar Crawl” from 2 to 8 p.m. in honor of Mardi Gras. For $30 admission, guests will enjoy drinks and food from 10 bars, including Margaritaville, Harry Caray’s Tavern and Billy Goat Tavern, as well as live music, face-painting, games and prizes. For more information, visit

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Weathering the winter with thoughts on the Illini & Cubs

IMG_7862From the Saturday, Jan. 16, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

The weather may be frigid this weekend, but it’s only 33 days until Major League pitchers and catchers begin reporting to their spring training outposts on Feb. 18.

And that thought warms my heart – even if we actually have to wait until Feb. 19 for the White Sox to hit their camp, and Feb. 20 for the Cubs.

With that in mind, I have a few swings to take on the sports scene up in Chicago and down in Champaign.

Groce rate of return

Four games into his fourth Big Ten season, University of Illinois basketball coach John Groce’s conference record stands at a meager 25-33 for a wobbly winning percentage of .431.

That’s far behind the standards set by his Illini coaching predecessors Bruce Weber, who finished his fourth season in Champaign at 48-26 in the Big Ten (.649), and Lon Kruger, who was 38-28 (.576). Bill Self, meanwhile, didn’t stick around for four years, but posted a stellar 35-13 mark (.729) during his trio of seasons before bolting for Kansas.

Last Sunday, Groce pulled off a big upset when the Illini upended No. 20 Purdue 84-70 at State Farm Center, but none of the aforementioned numbers are encouraging for Groce’s Illinois career.

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