Asmussen's Insider: Welcome back, Mike Bellamy

A few years back, former Illinois quarterback Jeff George brought his son and some of his high school teammates to an Illini football camp.

The person taking his information at the welcome desk was nice enough. But she asked him to repeat his name and didn't recognize his status as one of the best quarterbacks in school history. And a former No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

Part of Mike Bellamy's job is to try to make sure it doesn't happen again. The assistant director of player personnel and relations is in charge of coordinating events for former Illini. He will also help with on-campus recruiting and the team's annual coaching clinic.

The position is a natural for Bellamy, a standout receiver during the John Mackovic era. The Chicago native was the team's leading receiver in 1989, helping George and the Illini to a 10-2 finish and a No. 10 national ranking. In a Citrus Bowl win against Virginia, Bellamy caught 10 passes for 166 yards.

The Philadelphia Eagles were impressed, picking Bellamy in the second round of the 1990 draft. He spent time with four NFL teams before ending his playing career with the Frankfurt Galaxy of the World Football League.

Since the end of his career, Bellamy and wife Tanya have run a successful spa business in the Atlanta area, his home for 15 years. With a bunch of former Illini living nearby, it was a comfortable community for Mike and Tanya to raise their children Michael III, McKenna and McKoy.

But the chance to return to his alma mater was too good for Bellamy to pass up.

He had worked Ron Zook's camps and visited the week of the Michigan game in 2011.

"As soon as I found out there were going to be changes on the staff, I reached out to Coach (Tim) Beckman," Bellamy said.

During Beckman's introductory news conference at Illinois, he mentioned the idea of reconnecting with the former players. Music to Bellamy's ears.

"I felt like he was talking directly to me," Bellamy said.

One of Beckman's first moves as new Illinois head coach was to reach out to past players and coaches. He talked to George, Mike White, Lou Tepper and others.

Soon, Beckman realized the need for somebody on the staff to keep the relationships going with the former players. He interviewed a handful of ex-Illini and picked Bellamy.

"We're excited about having him," Beckman said. "He's another great addition. He's a great person. He's gung-ho with it."

Five years ago, Bellamy started working as a high school assistant coach in the Atlanta area. Coaching had never been a part of his plan, but he enjoyed getting to know the kids and helping them develop their skills.

"I got kind of addicted to it," Bellamy said.

Friends suggested he go into college coaching. He worked with the receivers at Division II Clark Atlanta University.

Next came the move to the Big Ten. While a return to coaching is a possibility in the future, Bellamy likes the idea of entering Division I college athletics as an Illinois administrator. Bellamy can grow and learn from Beckman and his staff.

"For me, it was the picture-perfect opportunity," Bellamy said. "When the ball hits hand, you catch it and you run with it."

There were opportunities for Bellamy to coach at other schools. Returning home trumped all of that.

"I told them, 'Illinois is on their resume, but it's on my degree and it's in my blood,' " Bellamy said.

Living in SEC country, Bellamy has seen the impact former players can have on places like Alabama, Georgia and Auburn. When Joe Namath visits the Crimson Tide or Herschel Walker makes his way to Athens, it's a big deal.

Bellamy wants the same attitude toward former Illini.

"To me, you can't beat Ohio State and you can't beat Michigan and you can't win the Big Ten without support from the past," Bellamy said. "History is what Illinois stands for. That's something guys in my class talked about every day. We knew those things. Coach Mackovic made sure we knew everything."

In his two seasons at Illinois, Bellamy went 2-0 against the Buckeyes, winning by a combined 65-26.

Two of the greatest players in college football history — Red Grange and Dick Butkus — are former Illini. The school has sent its share of players to the NFL, including five first-rounders in the last five years.

Bellamy will get the information out to the current players and those coming in future years.

He describes being back in C-U as "surreal." Plenty has changed since he was a player in the 1980s, with a rebuilt stadium, new practice facility and weightroom that is among the nation's best.

Helping hand

Usually, the only time the long snapper gets mentioned is when he messes up. Zip the ball over the punter's head or short hop a snap that gets blocked and you will hear the guy's name.

That's about to change. Illinois long snapper Zak Pedersen isn't getting mentioned for a botched pass between his legs (he's been solid throughout his Illinois career). Give the senior from Joliet Catholic credit for a good deed.

Pedersen organized a chapter of Uplifting Athletes on the Illinois campus. On June 23, Pedersen and his Illini teammates had a Lift For Life event, raising about $4,000 to fight Acoustic Neuroma. Players got pledges from their family members.

The Illini broke up into eight teams for the strong-man competition. Pedersen was part of the winning team that included Michael Heitz, Ryan Lankford, Jake Howe, Henry Dickinson, Pat Flavin, Corey Lewis, Justin Green, Sean McGushin and others.

Maybe long snappers will become known for their weightlifting.

"I'd like to think so," Pedersen said. "We're kind of like part lineman, part linebacker, I guess."

They lifted giant tires and logs. Not your usual weight-training session.

"Some of the guys were a little apprehensive when we were talking about having the event," Pedersen said. "In the event, I thought everyone enjoyed it."

The rare Saturday workout was a good way to move toward the 2012 season, Pedersen said.

"It gave you a game-day feel," Pedersen said. "Hopefully, we'll go out there and have a great time a bunch of times and win them all."

There will be more competitions before the start of Camp Rantoul. Beckman plans a decathlon of yard games when he opens his home to the team later in the month.

Steady stream

Beckman's recruiting list for 2013 continues to grow. As of Friday, the Illini had 15 commitments.

Beckman and his staff are taking vacations during the next few weeks, so the commitment list should remain at or near the same number.

"You just don't know," Beckman said. "It's been getting faster and faster every year. We have some kids who will be coming to check out campus the next couple of weeks."

The Illinois class is currently ranked No. 20, according to Rivals.com.

Beckman said he is "proud of the coaching staff."

"A lot of the people don't realize the work that goes into recruiting," Beckman said. "My assistants have done an unbelievable job."

Feeling better

Illinois defensive end Michael Buchanan, who suffered a broken jaw earlier in the summer, no longer has his mouth wired shut.

"He's eating steak," Beckman said.

Planning ahead

Michigan has lined up a bunch of future nonconference opponents, including the continuation of its series with Notre Dame in 2014-16.

But the one that will really catch your eye is on Aug. 30, 2014, when Appalachian State visits Ann Arbor. Last time the Mountaineers were in town, it didn't go so well for the Wolverines, who dropped a 34-32 game in 2007. The loss didn't help Lloyd Carr's approval rating and sped up his retirement. Which led to the hiring of Rich Rodriguez, which led to another Michigan nightmare.

Michigan also is loading up on games against the Pac-12, playing a home-and-home series against Utah in 2014-15 and hosting Oregon State in 2015 and Colorado in 2016.

Utah and Colorado have scored big wins in Ann Arbor. The Utes opened their 13-0 2008 season with a win at Michigan Stadium. And Colorado beat the Wolverines in 1994 on a last-second pass from Kordell Stewart to Michael Westbrook (youngsters, check it on YouTube). It's called "The Miracle at Michigan," though probably not by Wolverines fans.

Bob Asmussen covers college football for The News-Gazette. Reach him at 217-351-5233 or at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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jgrout wrote on July 11, 2012 at 8:07 pm

Thank goodness Beckman didn't bring back Lou Tepper.