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August 17, 2013
Twenty five years ago, the Flyin' Illini basketball team captured the hearts and imaginations of not just Illinois basketball fans but college basketball fans across the country.
To celebrate the anniversary of possibly the program's most memorable team, one of the Flyin Illini's still high-profile names is writing a tell-all account of the 1988-89 season, the team's personalities and its run to the Final Four.
Stephen Bardo, formerly an ESPN analyst and now with the Big Ten Network, will release "The Flyin' Illini: The Untold Story of One of College Basketball's Elite Teams" on November 1. Visit www.stephenbardo.com for more information.
Bardo chatted with OrangeandBlueNews.com columnist Jeremy Werner about his endeavor, why he chose to write the book and what will be in the book. Bardo also gave his thoughts on the Illini's pursuit of top recruit Cliff Alexander and the possible overhaul of the NCAA structure.
You're already a published author [Bardo wrote "How to Make the League Without Picking Up the Rock," which was released in 2005] . Now you have another project coming out?
Stephen Bardo: "Yeah, I've been working on this one for a little bit over a year just in anticipation of the 25th anniversary of that season. I just thought it wouldn't do us justice if no one stepped up and provided any account of what was going on so I just kind of took the lead. I like projects like that, and I've really had a blast doing it."
Obviously you want people to remember this team, but what was the decision process like to start writing this book?
Bardo: "You know, I've been very fortunate to stay in the business of basketball where most of my teammates haven't. I think that I get reminded how special our team was at almost every place I go to cover basketball. I can be on the West Coast, East Coast, South, North, it doesn't matter. I can be in pro basketball arenas, not even working and just watching a game, and people will bring up that team. I just think for the fans, for the Illini fans, who have had a love affair with that team for over 25 years, it was really important for them to get an account. But I also think it's important for my teammates to really grasp the impact that we had on the state of Illinois and college basketball fans that season. It was something very, very special. I think with this book and some of the testimonials I've gotten from some national figures - and I'm keeping my fingers crossed to try to get Dick Vitale to write the forward - it will be something special that they can share with their children and Illini fans can cherish for a while."
How did you go about writing the book? I'm guessing you've talked to a lot of people, done a lot of different interviews.
Bardo: "From an interview standpoint, I've done all the teammates and got almost all the coaching staff done and I'm just putting the final touches on that. But what I did was try to go in chronological order and set it up at the beginning of how the Flyin' Illini started in terms of the basketball recruiting class that we had our freshman year, and then kind of the ups and downs of the freshmen and sophomore years and the personalities on the team. Then I really go into almost a game-by-game blow of that season because a lot of times when I mention it to certain guys they say, 'Oh yeah, I remember that Ohio State game,' or 'Oh yeah, that was a crazy dunk Kenny Battle did at Northwestern that almost made Lou [Henson] go into a coronary.' There's so many moments like that that I try to capture and put it into my perspective.
"You guys know me. I shoot from the hip. I'm pretty straightforward. I'm probably going to ruffle some feathers. I state that in the intro. I don't intend to ruffle some feathers but I'm just giving my account from my perspective. It's an honest account and I think people will enjoy it because that's what people have grown accustomed to hearing me do."
Does it surprise you and your teammates how much you're able to remember from that season?
Bardo: "No it doesn't. When you're going through it, guys, you're so focused on trying to win games that you really can't understand the impact. You can't see the outsiders' view. I'll give you a great story from the 2005 run. Covering them, doing the radio for that team, and then going to St. Louis. Ryan Baker, former Illini and CBS2 sports director [in Chicago] and a good friend of mine, he suggested that I should walk to the game. I was like, 'Ryan, why should I do that?' He said, 'Just walk to the game.' So Kendall Gill, P.J. Bowman, Ryan Baker and myself beforehand, before I had to get ready for the game, we walked through the streets of St. Louis. That was really the first time that it hit me how big those Final Fours are, how big those national championships are. When we walked through those streets it was as though we were playing from some of the comments from the people. And every Final Four I've been to, the same thing happens. You see how big things are and you see the passion. You see the excitement. You see how the fan bases really just go overboard for their teams. I think that we had a similar experience even 25 years ago, and I think it's really important just to get that story out. Hopefully even Fox would make a documentary or film out of it."
I'm sure Illini fans will flock to this book. You said you were going to ruffle some feathers. We're going to hear some behind-the-scenes stuff I'm guessing with this book?
Bardo: "Yeah, you'll hear some behind-the-scenes stuff. You'll get my take on a few cherished people in the sport, like Bobby Knight, who I have a family connection with that I'll talk about in the book. Different individuals who were on the team and part of the coaching staff, some of the things that took place and some of the personality clashes because I don't think you can do a book like this and not put things in there that would interest people. I think everybody understands that when you're with a group of people and you're trying to work for a common cause, everybody is not always going to get along. Everybody is not going to think alike. Those are some of the things without trashing people but just giving them a sense of some of my shortcomings and why I thought the way I did then. And now looking back as a father, I can see where I was flawed in some of my thinking. I just try to be pretty transparent and open about some of the different relationships and personalities that existed on that team."
Illini fans will always remember 1988-89 possibly as the greatest year, the greatest collection of talent and greatest seasons until the Final Four with the Michigan loss. But nationally, people always seem to remember that team as well. Are you worried about this team's legacy fading nationally? Is that part of why you wanted to write this book?
Bardo: "No, no, no. I love the fact that people around the country really embrace that team and thought it was very special. This book is for Illini fans. This book is for any player that ever plays at the University of Illinois. This book is for anybody that's a fan of the University of Illinois. Most of my marketing will be toward the Illini people, the Illini nation. This is kind of a piece, a historical piece, that Illini fans truly can treasure. So I don't really do it because it's been 25 years. I don't think our team will ever be forgotten in college basketball. I'm telling you guys, the response I get even to this day, even from some of the best coaches in the country - and I can name them, Bill Self and Mike Krzyzewski as well - sing our praises about how tough we were, how unique we were and how we were all from the state of Illinois and we seemed to take pride in that. People still remember that very vividly to this day. So I'm not really worried about that. If college basketball fans want to get it to add to their collection, I'd love for them to do that. But this, this book will be focused toward those Illini fans who had a love affair with that team ever since we started the baggy shorts."
Now Dee Brown's going to have to write a book about the 2005 team.
Bardo: "For sure. Yeah, I think he or Deron Williams should because they had a fantastic run as well and they were a special team."
While we have you, I wanted to get your take on a few other subjects. Illinois fans are obsessed over every tweet, every report about Cliff Alexander. Should fans and media be so obsessed with the Illini's pursuit of the top-five prospect?
Bardo: "I think that as fans you should because you want the best for your program and you want to see your program turn around as quickly as possible. With a player like Cliff Alexander, it doesn't just open Chicago back up, that opens the country up. It sends a signal. But here's something I want you guys and Illini fans to think about. Think about a year and a half ago, what kind of shape the program was in. And the fact that a guy like Cliff Alexander would even seriously consider Illinois this quickly shows you what Coach Groce has done with this program and has turned it around so quickly in the eyes of top recruits, not just three or four star recruits but I'm talking about major-league pro talent out of the city of Chicago are all of a sudden looking at Illinois that we know is cool again, playing a style of basketball that we know we can thrive in. We want to stay at home. We want to play on national television every game. We want to have a University of Illinois degree that we can come back to Chicago and be the man. It's back again. All kudos to Coach Groce and his staff for working their tails off, changing an image of a program that had gotten very stale and now it's very exciting to be a part of. I think you should be excited about Cliff Alexander. Now do I know whether he's coming to Illinois or not? No, I don't know. But I know as a basketball guy in the business that now young players around the country are starting to look at Illinois as a place that they would want to go."
The NCAA seems like it's going to have so much change ahead. Jim Delaney said it at Big Ten media days for football. We got the Johnny Manziel drama, should kids get stipends. What do you think is in store for the NCAA and what kind of change should we see?
Bardo: "You guys ask great questions. It's interesting. My father [Harold Bardo] is on an amateurism committee with the NCAA and I keep arguing with him that the tower is coming down, meaning that the NCAA is about to be made a mockery of if they don't switch up very quickly. What I see guys is the BCS conferences pulling out of the NCAA, creating their own entity, renegotiating their own television contracts and paying kids whatever they want to.
"So let's take Cliff Alexander and Jahlil Okafor for example. If Florida comes in and says we'll give you $125,000, Ohio State comes in and ups the ante to $150,000, a player has a chance to go to the highest bidder or they can go to the best situation. That's capitalism. So what's going to happen is capitalism is going to rule the day at some point with the NCAA, unless they can figure out a way to get stipends to student-athletes. They've been very resistant to that.
"To me, it looks very selfish how you can't figure out how to give a student-athlete $2,000 above their scholarship to revenue-producing sports. It seems a fairly easy solution to me. But I think that's part of the arrogance and the old way of thinking at the NCAA, and I think they're already behind. So when you hear Mike Slive, the SEC commissioner, and Jim Delaney, the Big Ten commissioner, saying these things, they're trying to give people hints. The NCAA already knows it's way behind this train that's already coming. It's going to be interesting here in the next five to ten years to see what comes down. I wouldn't be surprised to see the BCS conferences to break away and form their own institutions."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU