Things looking up for Zook, Illini
Chris Main arrived at the Assembly Hall ticket office at the crack of dawn. Three hours before the doors opened.
She didn't want to miss her opportunity to catch the hot "act." The one led by "lead singer" Juice Williams. The one "managed" by Ron Zook.
"There are high expectations for the team this year," Main said. "I knew that there weren't going to be many tickets. I was bound and determined to get the best of what was left."
In the past, the Mains never worried about getting in line early. Chris' husband, Dr. David Main, would go on the first day of sales knowing he wouldn't get shut out.
This July 22, there were no guarantees. Tickets for the Illinois-Ohio State game were gone within an hour of the windows opening. Illinois-Iowa tickets were gone the next day.
For the first time since 1986, the school has a good chance to sell out all of its home games.
Two years removed from the end of an 8-38 stretch, when the team averaged 43,445 for seven home games, Illinois football is vital again.
The AP voters are paying attention. In August.
The television networks are pushing them for prime time. And trying to schedule special matchups.
The nation's elite recruits, who used to say, "Where's Illinois?" are putting the school on their short lists.
The timing of the program's resuscitation couldn't be better. With a $120 million renovation of Memorial Stadium winding down, the school needs to fill the seats and the suites. And keep them filled.
The Illinois men's basketball team celebrated its 100th year by reaching the Final Four. Some wonder if the football team, celebrating a rebuilt stadium, might reach similar heights.
"When football gets going, it's a different excitement," former Illini running back and current Big Ten Network analyst Howard Griffith said. "It comes with pressure, but that's what you want. You want people to notice the program for what it is."
During Kirk Herbstreit's time as an Ohio State quarterback, the Buckeyes went 0-5 against Illinois. So, the ESPN analyst has no trouble imaging a winning Illini program.
Herbstreit watched in 2007 as Illinois knocked off No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus. The tricky part for the 9-4 Rose Bowl team, Herbstreit said, comes this season.
"Instead of being that surprise team, now it's expected," Herbstreit said. "Now, every team that you're playing wants a piece of you."
Having Williams back will help the Illini, Herbstreit said. He watched Williams grow from a shaky freshman starter to a confident sophomore.
The Rose Bowl loss to Southern Cal motivated the Illini during the offseason, Herbstreit said. Opening against Top 10 Missouri provides another push.
"When you're back in January, February, March lifting weights, it's easy to get a team that had a lot of success last year to come back down," Herbstreit said. " 'Now, look who we're playing, Chase Daniel and Missouri. Remember that game last year? Well, they're all back.' That will help them get focused."
Herbstreit said the Illinois program is about a year ahead of his projected schedule. He expected a .500 Illinois team to slip into the postseason after the 2007 season with a chance to reach a major bowl in 2008.
"I thought that they were capable of having a surprise team just because of their athletic ability," Herbstreit said. "I remember talking to Jim Tressel in 2006. He brought up Illinois and said, 'That team's a lot better than their record. That team is headed in the right direction.' Sure enough, a year later they put it all together."
Twice, Ron Turner's program looked ready to make a permanent move into the upper half of the Big Ten but dropped below expectations both times. Herbstreit said the win-loss roller coaster should end this season. The program is being built to last.
"Just because of recruiting," Herbstreit said. "They have a nice blend of youth with experience that is going to allow them to stick around."
But that doesn't mean fans should count on another 9-4 season.
"How does this team gel?" Herbstreit said. "Against Missouri, there will be a moment in that game that's a crucial third or fourth down. Do they learn from that? Do they get better? Do they fight with each other? How do they come together? Intangibles are big."
Griffith was part of the last consistent winner at Illinois. His John Mackovic-coached teams from 1988 to '90 went 24-11-1 and played in consecutive Jan. 1 bowl games.
"If you look at what happens with Big Ten teams other than Michigan and Ohio State, it's tough to stay consistent," Griffith said. "That's about recruiting. As long as they stay in the recruiting race and get the good kids in, they can keep the program moving."
The unexpected 2007 season has the former players and fans thinking big.
"You want guys competing for the Big Ten title," Griffith said. "There are questions that have to be answered. Now, they are getting the players who can answer them.
"The talent level is far and above where it has been in many, many years. I believe right now, the defensive line has more talent and is deeper than when we had Moe Gardner, Mel Agee and those guys."
Fox/Big Ten Network analyst Charles Davis said the 2007 season eliminated questions about Illinois' ability to improve.
"It's a different perspective," Davis said. "I think Coach Zook's addressed it very, very well throughout the offseason, 'Everyone wants to know if we are a one-hit wonder. Everybody wants to know if last year was a fluke. There's only one way to answer it.' He laid that on his kids in the locker room after the Rose Bowl."
The opponents will have a different impression of Illinois in 2008.
"In the past few years, who's circled Illinois on the schedule outside of Northwestern?" Davis said. "Now, it's a different deal. They're getting circled."
Davis, who played for Zook at Tennessee, believes Illinois can follow 9-4 with a better record.
"They have the potential to win the Big Ten," Davis said. "They expect to go into it and do it. There is evidence now."
Gerry DiNardo saw it happen during his own career at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana. Just when a team thought it was going in the right direction, it would stumble.
"The biggest challenge is the mind-set of a team that's had great success," the Big Ten Network analyst said. "These are always tough years. The year after the apparent turnaround is a very difficult year. I'll be surprised if Illinois is immune to it. The challenge is obvious. How do you stay hungry?"
The head coach can push the players during the offseason.
"Nothing works all the time," DiNardo said. "I would follow each player's individual play very closely. I would count on my assistant coaches to constantly be telling me, 'Is this guy better than a year ago?' "
If the team takes a step back, DiNardo said, it might not be permanent.
"Just like 2007 wasn't final, 2008 might not be the final product either," DiNardo said. "These things take time. This thing may not stabilize until 2009 or 2010. Certainly, everything is in place. What's going to be the label of success for Illinois in '08, does it have to be the Rose Bowl?"
Austin (Texas) American-Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls has been an AP football poll voter since 1989. For many of those years, he hasn't had to do much preseason research on the Illini.
"They made it easier for you," Bohls said.
Until now. The votes were due this weekend and Bohls expected to include Illinois somewhere in his Top 25.
"I think they're on everybody's radar," Bohls said. "I thought they were a lot more representative in the Rose Bowl than a lot of people made out. It was a competitive game."
Bohls covers the Big 12, with the bulk of his time spent watching Texas. He has seen the rise of the Missouri program and understands the potential of the Aug. 30 Illinois opener in St. Louis.
"It makes you pay a little more attention to Illinois," Bohls said.
A loss to the Tigers won't necessarily knock the Illini out of Bohls' poll.
AP voter Glenn Guilbeau of the Louisiana Gannett news service, who covers LSU, had to pay attention to Illinois for the 2002 Sugar Bowl.
"It didn't surprise me that much that they kind of disappeared after '01," Guilbeau said.
Until midway through the 2007 season, the school hadn't been a regular on his "teams to watch" list.
"I had them ranked most of the second half of last year," Guilbeau said.
Last year's performances won't go into Guilbeau's consideration, except for the work of the returning players. Defending national champion LSU, which lost a glut of players, won't likely be in his preseason Top 10.
"Once the games start, you're going on what they did this season," Guilbeau said.
Guilbeau didn't think much of the work Zook did at Florida. Now, he is a believer.
"To me, Illinois is a tougher job than Florida," Guilbeau said.
The Mains have been going to at least one Illinois football game for years. Chris, her husband David, daughter Meredith and son Doug are longtime Illini fans.
"I think there's a real fever out there," Doug Main said.
Because of David Main's job as a pulmonary medicine specialist, season tickets aren't practical.
"It was real important to me to get in to see some games," David Main said. "It's fabulous. It's the best thing in town."
The Mains have four tickets for the Illinois-Minnesota game and eight tickets for the Illinois-Indiana game.
"It's a good time to be an Illini fan," Doug Main said.