Visit to Springfield on Friday is program's latest attempt to reach out.
CHAMPAIGN — Ken Leonard didn’t know what Cyclone Stadium would turn out like.
In his mind, the legendary Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin football coach had ideas. Plans. Pipe dreams.
But until he saw the finished product at the facility the Illinois football team will practice at Friday night, he was still a little leery.
“It exceeded my expectations,” Leonard said of the stadium that can seat 4,600 and hold up to 6,600 spectators. “The people that put it together did a great job of designing it. It’s as much as any high school football coach could want.”
The stadium, located a few long Wes Lunt passes from the main SHG campus in west Springfield, was a $6 million project that started in 2009 and was completed by the start of the 2012 high school football season.
The stadium has field turf, an electronic scoreboard other high school programs would love to have and permanent bleacher seating on both sides. Updated coaching offices are nearby in a separate building.
Leonard is grateful to have a home field after his team used to have to travel across Springfield to the city’s Memorial Stadium, which is located near Springfield Lanphier High School, for games. Prior to Cyclone Stadium being constructed, SHG, Lanphier and Springfield High School all shared that venue for games.
“We went from the outhouse to the penthouse,” Leonard said. “People see what we have now have no idea what we went through to get this. We’re very proud of it. We think it’s one of the best facilities in the state.”
Rochester coach Derek Leonard — Ken’s son coached Lunt and current Illinois wide receiver Zach Grant in high school — will attend Friday’s practice. He is amped to see not only what his former players will do but also what the turnout for the practice will look like.
“It’s something new and different for the Springfield area,” the younger Leonard said. “Springfield is a football town, and to get Illinois to come over here for a spring-time practice is big.”
The younger Leonard is appreciative of the facility SHG has, especially because he played at Springfield’s Memorial Stadium in the early 1990s for his father’s teams.
“Honestly, there’s probably a few schools in the Chicago area and maybe one or two down in the St. Louis area that have something like this in the state,” Derek Leonard said. “It’s a huge plus for central Illinois and the Springfield area. If they didn’t have this facility, (Illinois) probably wouldn’t be coming to Springfield.”
Derek Leonard said not only does having the practice in Springfield help recruiting-wise for Tim Beckman’s program, but it also gives the Illini a perception boost. In a good way.
“There’s some people around here that have been soured by a lot of things Illinois has done in the past,” the younger Leonard said. “Whether that’s right or wrong, it is what it is. To do something like this practice is nothing but a positive. There’s so many benefits that can come from this.”
Expect a number of recruits in attendance for Friday night’s practice — like Springfield SHG’s right tackle Quinn Oseland, a priority for Illinois in the Class of 2015, and Class of 2014 signee Malik Turner, a wide receiver from SHG — although Illinois coaches can’t talk to them because it’s an NCAA-mandated quiet period.
“You can receive calls, and email and direct message kids on Facebook and Twitter, but you can’t have contact off campus with kids,” Illinois recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh said. “You can have contact with kids on campus. From a recruiting side, it’s just as much for the recruits, but really just as much for the high school coaches. You want to be able to say when you go into a home, ‘Hey, you’re going to practice 10-20 minutes away from your house.’ What a cool facility they have over there, too. There isn’t a nicer high school facility around.”
Illinois is set to leave Champaign about 4:15 p.m. Friday to make the 90-minute trip, with the scrimmage expected to start about 6 p.m. and last until about 7:45 p.m. It’s the second such practice this spring in which Illinois is going off campus after scrimmaging at Chicago’s Gately Stadium on March 14.
“It’s a huge recruiting tool,” Lunt said. “I definitely would have gone (to a practice) if I was in high school. Many people don’t get to see a college football team practice, so it’s pretty cool.”
Illinois doesn’t have any current SHG players on its roster — former offensive lineman Ryan Klachko still helps out the Illinois strength and conditioning staff after several concussions forced him to give up football — so it will serve more as a homecoming for Lunt and Grant. Rochester is about a 15-minute drive from the Cyclones’ facility.
“When you go back home, a lot of people ask how it’s going,” Grant said. “I know a lot of people are excited, and I’m excited to see my family after the game as well. From what I’m hearing, there will be a lot of people there, so I’m a little nervous, but hopefully any reps I get I can take advantage of.”
Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is eager to watch Lunt handle other people analyzing his play besides his teammates and coaches.
“It will be interesting to see just how he reacts because there will be a lot of hometown folks there,” Cubit said. “That will give me a little bit of a clue as to how he’s going to react to crowds. It doesn’t give you a true road trip, but enough of a road-trip feeling that it helps out. Sometimes you’re so used to the confines you’re at that anything out of the ordinary, you don’t react well. These two scrimmages (this spring) really help out.”
The elder Leonard mentioned this idea to Beckman shortly after he arrived at Illinois. Now it’s become a reality.
“I’m pumped,” Beckman said. “We can treat it like an away game. Our players love it. That’s important. It’s a great opportunity to go out and showcase Illinois football.”
They’re going places
Going off campus for a spring practice isn’t anything new for Illinois, but this is the Illini’s first time to venture to the state capital for one of these workouts. Here’s a look at where else Illinois has gone off campus recently:
Year Location Comment
2014 Springfield SHG Smart of Tim Beckman to stay south of I-80 and head to one of the state’s football powerhouses
2014 Gately Stadium Second straight spring Illini took a trip to one of Chicago’s landmark high school fields
2013 Gately Stadium It was cold, but Beckman didn’t seem to mind: “This will be done every year.”
2009 Oak Park-River Forest Current Illini Jimmy Nudera’s dad, Jim, was OP-RF’s coach at time and played role in getting Illini there
2008 Lemont Hometown hero Graham Pocic received star treatment in steady rain and cold temperatures
2007 Chicago St. Rita Roughly 2,000 fans braved the wind and cold to see Juice Williams, Eddie McGee sling it around