SPRINGFIELD — It was cold. Really cold.
Not International Falls in January cold. But close enough.
Still, fans started to fill the stands at Cyclones Stadium. For a practice. Insert the obligatory Allen Iverson quote.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman had the bright idea to hold a spring practice at Sacred Heart-Griffin’s home field. Ken Leonard’s high school power has sent plenty of kids off to college. So many that he isn’t even sure of the number. But enough that an annual stop in the Illinois capital makes sense for the Illini.
Jack Cornell wouldn’t miss it. The second-year lineman with the Oakland Raiders wore a warm coat and stocking cap.
“Springtime in Illinois,” Cornell said. “This is beautiful.”
The Quincy native had a couple of “away” practices during his days at Illinois. Lemont one time. Oak Park-River Forest the other.
“Always cold,” Cornell said.
And always fun. OK, fun might be a bit strong.
“I think this is great,” Cornell said. “I wish I could have had the opportunity to come to a Springfield or somewhere west of Champaign, closer to home, and my friends and family could have come out. I think it’s really cool that they are expanding out and going to different communities in the state of Illinois and really promoting that brand.”
The size of the crowd Friday (about 1,000) was always going to be dependent on the weather. If it’s sunny and 60, fans are showing up in droves. But lower 40s, winds in the 20 mph range and overcast is not fan-friendly weather. Except for the Iditarod.
Let’s say you just got off work at the local grocery store and were trying to make the call: stay home and watch baseball or go sit in the cold stands for a football practice? Not much of a dilemma there.
The local folks did their best to drum up interest.
One Springfield radio station broadcast live from the stadium for the first hour. It had Beckman on as a guest twice during the week.
Jim Ruppert, longtime sports editor of the State Journal-Register, talked Illinois football (and Cubs and Cardinals) during his Friday afternoon radio show.
Should Illinois have taken the guys away from the comforts of home? Beckman called it a road game, but that’s difficult to sell when the only opponent is yourself.
Maybe the three hours on the bus will serve as a bonding moment for the players. Maybe eating pizza and horseshoes (a Springfield specialty) will pay off in the fourth quarter against Washington.
“It helps you handle distractions,” Cornell said. “It forces you to get in a game-mode mentality. You’re on the road, and you’re traveling. You’re not in your own environment. Coach (Ron) Zook was always big on trying to be comfortable being uncomfortable. That was one of the ways they tried to do that for us. I always thought it was a good thing.”
The players might complain. Just a little.
“When you’re in spring ball, especially after a big, hard practice, you just want to be able to go home and chill,” Cornell said.
The season is a long time away. More than four months from now.
Plenty will happen between now and then. Illinois will name a starting quarterback. Receivers will secure spots in the rotation. Defensive linemen will add bulk (or shed it). Linebackers and defensive backs will speed up. More players, including Sacred Heart-Griffin’s Malik Turner, will join the roster.
Maybe the Springfield practice will provide a spark. Beckman didn’t invent the idea, but he is embracing it. This was Illinois’ third practice away from home during the Beckman era.
It won’t be the last.
The school is looking at future sites, including Chicago’s western suburbs, the Quad Cities or the St. Louis area.
That will have to be sorted out between now and next spring.
Ask Cornell and he gives the idea two thumbs up. This year and beyond.
“It’s a really good thing for this program,” Cornell said.
Cornell is having a great time in the NFL. He gets paid to play a game he loves. He wears sweats to work and doesn’t have to shave. He’s comfortable in his own skin.
Cornell’s head coach at Illinois is gone, but he still feels like a part of the team.
“The whole staff has been very open to former players coming back, wanting us to be a part of this thing and keeping that family atmosphere going,” Cornell said. “I commend them for doing that. I know
a lot of guys that I played with didn’t know how it would be coming back here. Tim Beckman has had open arms with all of us former players.”
Bob Asmussen covers college football for The News-Gazette.