The Valley is adding some new members next year. First Belmont, then Murray State, and finally UIC were announced as new league members over the last few months. This is no secret. What is a secret to many is what to expect from these new schools. The MVC will look significantly different for the first time in decades, moving from the traditional ten-team model to a twelve-team model. What to make of these new guys causing all this change?
I tracked down supporters of all three of the newbie universities, and they were all cool enough to answer some questions for me. I asked about the experience of being a fan of that school, what we should know about their programs, and what Valley fans can do when they make a trip for a game. I started on Monday with a look at Murray State from die-hard fan @RacerJoeD. Today we are talking UIC, and I have two fans on the case. We’ll be hearing about what it means to be a flame from 2005 alum @UICJohn and former UIC baseball player @govey23. Check out what they had to say below.
MVC Beat: Tell us about your team. Who are some of the guys we should know, both for this year and once you join the league? What about Coach Yaklich?
UIC John: Coach Yaklich is still pretty new to the team (still just in Year 2), but the fan base is getting a little restless. Personally, I think going to the MVC where he has more familiarity is going to help. I’d like to see him use some of his local ties to assist with recruiting as well.
In terms of players, Damaria Franklin and Zion Griffin are both upperclassmen that should be back next year. Franklin has been a major contributor this season. We are all very excited at the potential of Jace Carter, who has been limited earlier this year by injuries. Filip Skobalj, a big from Europe, has size and experience that should make him be a key piece of what we are building moving forward.
GoVey23: The key freshman are Jace Carter from Florida and the Euro kid Skobalj. Both have been up and down as freshman typically are. Carter was hurt as well. The key players have to be Damaria Franklin, Kevin Johnson and Zion Griffin. Franklin and Johnson are grad transfers and Griffin transferred from Iowa State. He’s a local kid. Coach Yak was an exciting hire two years ago due to his defensive background and local roots. Unfortunately, it’s been a rough go for him. He had a lot of players miss time with Covid in his first season last year, and this season they have just been wildly inconsistent. Coach Yak took a lot of chances on grad transfers which doesn’t seem to be paying off.
MVC Beat: What are some things about UIC as an athletic department or university that fans of other MVC schools should know?
UIC John: As a university, we are still quite young. UIC started at Navy Pier and was meant as a 2-year college for those in the armed forces. It moved to its current location and became known as the UICC (Circle Campus for short and many older alums still know it as that). We didn’t move to Division I until 40 years ago, so in many ways we are still young as a school and a sports program. But we have just reached our highest ever standing in the US News World and Report (ironically tied with Loyola as #103 in the nation).
We have good facilities, a growing student body, and are building new dorms and academic buildings. We have more students living on campus or within minutes of campus than ever and I feel we are ready to continue to grow academically and athletically.
We are currently building a new soccer stadium and have our own basketball stadium on campus, but the pride of our facilities is our baseball stadium, Curtis Granderson Stadium. It is named after former UIC Flame and retired MLB player Curtis Granderson who donated $5 million, the largest one-time gift from a professional athlete to their alma mater. The backdrop of the Sears Tower and downtown Chicago never gets old!
GoVey23: UIC is located just outside the heart of downtown and right by little Italy. One fun fact is we used to have a hockey team that played in a conference with Michigan and Michigan State. The team were very solid and had good crowds. Another fun fact is UIC had a football team years ago. My dad played for the team, and they played home games at Soldier Field. Fans are tough to get because it’s mainly a commuter school and not isolated out in the country. We compete with a lot of entertainment options in Chicago.
MVC Beat: What are some of your best memories as a UIC fan? And, if you’re willing to open an old scab, what are some of your most heartbreaking moments?
UIC John: My best memory as a UIC fan was when we played UWM (now Milwaukee) for the Horizon League title in Milwaukee. I believe the year was 2007 (editor’s note, it was probably 2004). Amazing crowd. UIC had several buses of students attend and the place was packed - I think about 11,000 seats. Loud all game. Fans were so into it. Tight game the whole way and the UIC center had an awesome move under the basket to make a late layup that gave UIC the lead to finish it out. We stormed the court and had a party.
GoVey23: My best memory would be when I got a scholarship to play baseball at UIC. My dad is a coach in the UIC HOF and took the softball team to the College World Series one year! For basketball, it was probably the Bob Hallberg led Flames team that had Kenny Williams and Sherrell Ford. They just missed the NCAA Tourney twice, losing to an outstanding UWGB team that made it to Sweet 16!
MVC Beat: If fans of other Valley schools come to Chicago to catch a game, what do you suggest they do? What are the best places to eat, grab a beer before/after the game and stay? What other attractions would you suggest when in town? What is the best way to get to the game?
UIC John: I think one of the best parts for other fans that will be attending a game at UIC is that the campus and arena is quite accessible. It is just off two major highways not a lot of driving within neighborhoods is needed.
Quick Bites: Mr. Greek Gyros, Jim’s Original, Al’s Beef (editor’s note: a favorite of MVC Beat’s when he lived in Chicago too), Busy Burger, Fontano’s Subs
Sit Down/Family Options: County BBQ, Tuscany, Rosati’s Pizza, Giordano’s Pizza, Pompei, Rosebud, Joy Yee
Drinks/Bar Food: Hawkeye’s, Bar Louie, The Bracket Room, PhD. Pub, Taylor Street Tap, Little Joe’s
GoVey23: As I mentioned UIC is right by the Little Italy neighborhood. There are a bunch of great Italian Joints like Tufano’s, Rosebud and Tuscany. UIC is also close to the booming West Loop and restaurant row on Randolph. For beers before the game I would say “Hawkeyes” on Taylor is a great spot. Chicago is an amazing city so besides food you have museums, Navy Pier, aquariums, theaters, etc. The best way to get to a game would be via taxi or Uber.
MVC Beat: What do you think fans of other Horizon League schools think about UIC? How would they describe your university, student-athletes, coaches and fans?
UIC John: It all depends on who you ask, ha. We used to have a great rivalry with Milwaukee but that has dwindled a lot the past few years. I think overall other Horizon League fans would say UIC has potential that isn’t there just yet in all of those areas listed.
GoVey23: Tough question there. I think we are known as the city school. As I mentioned, our fan support is pretty bad these days. We hope to change that with entrance into MVC
MVC Beat: What do you know about the MVC? Do you have any thoughts on what you’ve seen or remembered about some of the accomplishments of the current and past MVC schools? What excites you about UIC joining the league?
UIC John: When I first think of the MVC, I immediately think of Arch Madness. I’ve watched those games for years and to think that UIC is going to be a part of that is wonderful. I am also excited about the baseball that will be played. We’ve had a nice program for years and have had wonderful competition with Wright State who has a great program too. To see that there were multiple bids from the MVC in this league is very exciting.
I think the thing that excites me the most is new rivalries with established schools. I personally don’t know any other alumni from any Horizon League schools but know many from Illinois State, Bradley and SIU.
And the passion and excitement of the MVC fans. Even just seeing that with the amount of discussion on the league board is exciting.
GoVey23: We are super excited to join one of the best mid-major conferences in the country. I am very familiar with Loyola as they were a UIC rival for years and have taken major strides to be a great program. I look forward to all the chances to play Illinois schools like Bradley, ISU and SIU. My father-in-law is an SIU grad! I have heard all about Arch Madness. It sounds amazing.
MVC Beat: What is the one thing that makes you most proud to be a UIC alum and/or fan?
UIC John: I was born and raised in Chicago, and I love the city. I love that UIC serves so many first-generation students. I love that it is in the city and gives back to the city. I love the neighborhood, the history, and the culture within minutes of campus.
GoVey23: I think our school has grown a ton in size and diversity over the past 20-30 years. I have lived my whole life in Chicago so to go to college downtown at UIC was great. I am proud of our educational standing and medical side as well. I’m also proud to be a UIC alumni for baseball
MVC Beat: Thanks for answering my questions! Where can we find you online?
GoVey23: Shawn McGovern is my name, and my Twitter handle is @govey23.
I want to say thank you to both of you for taking the time to answer my questions. Also, I want to say WELCOME to all you Flames fans! I look forward to seeing the progression of your team over the next few seasons in the MVC. Check back on Friday for my last “fan perspective” article, as we’ll hear from a Belmont Bruins fan and alum. Until then, GO VALLEY!