‘Conquering’ Chicago would be crowning achievement for U. of I.

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

From the heart of Chicago to the heart of Champaign, it’s about 140 miles as the car drives. But if the University of Illinois has its way, the distance between its campus and the metropolis to its north will soon become much shorter than the span your finger traces on a Rand McNally.

Or, at least, it’ll feel that way to millions of Chicagoans.

In August 2011, when he was hired as Illinois’ new athletic director, Mike Thomas proclaimed during his introductory press conference that he wanted the university to be “King of Chicago.”

Whether such a thing can even be accomplished in a city with such diverse interests and college alumni is highly debatable. But in recent months, Illinois has launched a spate of initiatives – both sports-related and otherwise – with the clear intent of increasing the school’s presence and influence as it attempts to put its crown on Chicago.

This month, Illinois announced that Learfield Sports’ Fighting Illini Sports Properties had secured WSCR 670 The Score as its newest radio affiliate on the statewide Illini Sports Network. The terms of the new multi-year arrangement call for the station to carry Illini basketball games starting with the 2013-14 season and Illinois football beginning in 2014.

“This is very exciting news for Fighting Illini fans throughout the Midwest,” Thomas said. “The signal strength and coverage area of WSCR 670 The Score is tremendous, giving our fans the very best ability to listen to Fighting Illini football and basketball.”

With its 50,000-watt signal, WSCR will certainly give Chicago-area fans far better ability to listen than current radio partner, WIND 560, which broadcasts at a meager 5,000 watts.

By comparison, Northwestern and Notre Dame – Illinois’ chief competition in the city for the attention of college sports fans – respectively air their football games on WGN 720 and WLS 1000, which both boast 50,000-watt signals.

A new radio partner, however, is just part of Illinois’ plan to elevate its sports profile in the Windy City. This September, the Illini will host the University of Washington in a football game at Soldier Field and Thomas has expressed a desire to make the game a regular event, with Illinois playing on the Bears home turf during the years when it doesn’t face Northwestern in Evanston.

Last fall, Illinois showed how serious it is about sinking its teeth deeper into the Windy City when it created a new Director of Development/Chicago Operations position filled by Zach Goines who Thomas said, “will play a big role as we continue to bring more Illini events and enhanced exposure to the Chicago area.”

Illinois’ ventures into Chicagoland also are going well beyond the gridiron and radio airwaves. Last week, for example, an Illinois alum who is working on a stage play honoring Illinois’ sports history told me that when he met with U. of I. president Robert Easter to make his pitch, Easter’s immediate response was: “Can we do this in Chicago too?”

Clearly, the school has cast its eyes firmly upon the city, where other signs also abound. In Union Station’s Great Hall, enormous orange banners were just hung trumpeting the university’s Executive MBA program in downtown Chicago. On Sunday, Easter and Gov. Pat Quinn will announce that the state and the school will construct a new 12,000-square-foot incubator for life-sciences startups in the city’s Medical District.

Illinois has long been this state’s flagship school, but never before has it made such a concerted effort to establish itself in the “State of Chicago.” Now, we’ll see if the school can plant its flag in the city as well.

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