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George Ryan, Kankakee and Da Bears

Jim Ridings 31 July 2017 No Comment

One story that has not been told until now is how the Chicago Bears were persuaded to move their summer training camp from Platteville, Wisconsin, to Bourbonnais, Illinois.

Summer training camp had been at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville for 18 years. But in March 2001, the Bears announced they would seek a new site. Universities and colleges on the list as possible sites were Olivet Nazarene University  in Bourbonnais, Millikin in Decatur, Illinois State in Normal, Southern Illinois in Carbondale and Edwardsville, Eastern Illinois in Charleston, Northern Illinois in DeKalb, University of Illinois in Champaign, Knox College in Galesburg, Augustana in Rock Island, Monmouth College, and Rockford College.


The Bears listed a number of requirements – four practice fields, 320 sleeping rooms, food service for 230, 10 meeting rooms, and a field house for practice in bad weather.

Millikin announced it had raised more than $2 million for renovations to bring the campus up to specifications.

In June, the Bears narrowed the field to four: Olivet, Millikin, EIU and NIU.

A month later, the Bears chose Olivet.

There were a lot of bitter feelings from the losing candidates, with some expressing opinions that something unfair was done by Kankakee County.

A spokesman from Charleston said, “Others feel Bourbonnais had the ace in the hole with Kankakee County being Governor George Ryan’s home,” according to a front page Kankakee Daily Journal story by Lee Provost on July 17, 2001. “One person close to the negotiations in another community said, ‘I think we all know why it went the way it did, but that’s how it goes.'”

“Mark Tupper, the Decatur Herald-News executive sports editor, blasted Ryan by saying he used his political muscle to twist the Bears’ arm and select Bourbonnais. ‘I wanted to believe Ryan would so clearly understand Decatur’s kicked-in-the-shin need for some good news, that he would use his political influence to tell the Bears, ‘Hey, even if it’s even remotely close, the tie-breaker should go to Decatur.'” Decatur’s mayor said the closing of the Firestone tire plant, and the fact that the Chicago Bears started as the Decatur Staleys in 1919, might influence the organization. “Although Ryan never officially voiced his opinion on the matter, he apparently played a key behind-the-scenes role in luring the Bears here,” Daily Journal reporter Mike Frey wrote on July 17, 2001.

“We are particularly grateful to Governor Ryan for his support,” Olivet President John Bowling told the newspaper.

Olivet raised more than a million dollars to renovate its facilities to please the Bears.

The team started practicing at Olivet in July 2002. The Bear have returned every summer since then, bringing a bonanza of tourism, economic benefits and positive publicity to the community.

Even though the Bears announced in February 2001 that it was looking for a new practice facility, Governor Ryan admitted he started his effort to bring the team to Olivet several months earlier. “Ryan said the drive to bring the Bears to their home soil began in the state legislature last fall,” Frey wrote in the July 18, 2001 Daily Journal. “‘I started back in the General Assembly,’ Ryan said. ‘In order to renovate Soldier Field, we had to get them out of Packer country and back into Illinois.'”

“State lawmakers targeted millions of dollars toward the Soldier Field renovation, and the Bears agreed to train in Illinois as a show of gratitude,” Frey wrote.

The newspapers were on the right track in 2001, but there was more to the story than they knew.

The Bears were trying to get state help in financing the renovation and expansion of Soldier Field. The biggest obstacle for the Bears to tackle was the state of Illinois.

Governor Ryan held the $632 million renovation project hostage until he got what he wanted from the franchise.

Ryan put up all sorts of obstacles to the project. One example was a plan to make the team give the state half of the ticket price as taxes. Finally, Governor Ryan showed his hand: the price for the deal was that the Bears move their training camp to Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais.

The Bears were happy in Platteville, but they had to move to Olivet if they wanted to expand Soldier Field. Ryan squeezed hard, and the Bears gave in.

Governor Ryan then squeezed the legislature and got a $587 million package for the renovation of Soldier Field, with $387 million of that coming from bonds. The hardworking taxpayers of Illinois coughed up that money for the multi-millionaire owners of the sports franchise.

To hear Bears’ executives today, they don’t regret it. Olivet has been great to them, and they love Olivet. When the contract is up, they probably will renew it, without pressure, because they love Olivet Nazarene University.

But, as an insider told us, ‘”They didn’t get there willingly.”

And, as we know, the 2003 renovation of Soldier Field was an architectural nightmare, described by many critics as looking like a gigantic flying saucer on top of the stadium. Because of this radical change, Soldier Field was removed in 2006 from the list of National Historic Landmarks.

This story is from Jim Ridings’ new book, “Kankakee County Confidential.”

Image St. Viator College, the predecessor campus of Olivet Nazarene

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