There’s nothing more tasty than a free meal.
— Mr. Unanimous
When Mike Thomas declared free food for the media in the press box, that guaranteed positive reports Saturday (until halftime).
We all agree. Whether it’s mooching off the Big U, getting a free dinner from your boyfriend, being a Lions guest (did that Wednesday) or simply using food stamps, there’s something special about a handout.
So Matt Bollant is taking action. The new Illini women’s basketball coach, eager to draw campus attention to his program, rounded up a $16,000 donation at a golf fundraiser, and the money will be used to provide free food at home games for anyone with a student ID card.
“It was my idea,” Bollant said, smiling. “We have an area set aside in the Assembly Hall one hour before our home games. If we get them to attend, hopefully they’ll like our product.
Also, I’ve attended a number of services clubs (Rotary, Exchange, Kiwanis) in an effort to drum up attendance. I’ve had 50 or more people tell me that they haven’t been attending but will give us a look.”
For those claiming this writer is obsessed with attendance, let me confess. It’s true. For me, a sporting event without people is like a tree falling in the forest. If nobody hears it, did it happen? If nobody sees your game, does it matter who won? Whether you’re holding a party, a reunion or a Quarterback Club meeting, attendance is uppermost. And so it is with athletic events. When a vibrant crowd of 3,000-plus attended Sunday’s Illini volleyball match at Huff Hall, just two days after being swept by Minnesota, it says a great deal about interest in and support for the program.
And while the women’s basketball program has been dragging with meager attendance (there’s that word again), many believe it can someday match or exceed volleyball attendance.
“The fans here will support us,” Bollant said, “but we have to earn it.”
Secret to success
That’s the trick: winning games. Jolette Law’s team was 11-19 last season and 9-23 the year before. A year ago in San Juan, the Illini lost to Bollant’s Green Bay team by 20 points. The Phoenix has enjoyed remarkable success, going 85-5 under Bollant in the Horizon League, winning its last four games against Big Ten teams and finishing ninth nationally.
Bollant inherits an Illini squad that lost one significant senior, Lydia McCully, and three others who played sparingly. A junior forward, Alexis Burke, transferred to Rutgers, and the team MVP, Adrienne GodBold, won’t be eligible until the first of the year. GodBold finished strong last season and will be critical to UI fortunes in Big Ten play.
“I’m encouraged. We’re building a culture,” Bollant said, outwardly confident about his ability to bring out their best.
“We’re top tier athletically but not so in terms of skill and execution. We’re big enough. Karisma Penn is 6-2, and Kersten Magrum is 6-1. Size is not a concern in our system. We didn’t have anyone taller than 6 feet at Green Bay. We’re going to play fast, and we want our centers to be able to move their feet and switch on screens.”
As with the men’s team under John Groce, it will be guard-oriented.
“Alexis Smith and Amber Moore have made big strides,” Bollant said. “We added a junior college transfer from Elgin, Cassie Dumoulin, who wrote 32 on the ACT and had a 4.0 in engineering. She’ll miss some of our morning workouts due to her class schedule. She can help us at guard.”
Up to now, practice consists of two hours per week with the coaches. Beginning Tuesday, Bollant will have 40 days to handle 30 practices.
The home nonconference schedule is more attractive than the men’s with Colorado, Oregon, Wake Forest and a ranked Georgia team coming to the Hall.
Bunch of players on way
With one freshman on the current squad (Iowa City’s McKenzie Piper), Bollant will sign a half-dozen new recruits in early November. The group could be ranked somewhere in the Top 20. At this point, however, ESPN HoopGurlz does not list any Illini recruits among its Top 100 seniors.
“We recruit character and integrity first,” Bollant said. “We want young women who work well in our system.”
Bollant left Tuesday for Tennessee and other points on his recruiting schedule. He has spent extensive time in Tennessee, Indiana and Michigan, in addition to Illinois. As of this week, he can watch open gym or high school athletes in another sport, and he can visit homes of seniors.
This assignment is complicated by the fact that, with a few exceptions, the women’s basketball program has been losing ground since 2000, when Theresa Grentz’s sixth team finished 23-11 and lost in the second round of the NCAA. The Illini women have played in one NCAA tournament since 2000 and have not won an NCAA game since beating Utah 73-58 that year.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.