Asmussen: Fix spring game — here's how
There were no excuses. None. Nada.
Weather? Near perfect. Sunny skies. Billowy clouds. Temperatures in the 70s. A nitpicker might point to the strong gusts of wind. Hey, this is East Central Illinois, where the winds come sweeping down the plains.
Sports conflicts? Hardly. Illinois baseball waited until 3 p.m. Illinois track had a rare home meet. Women’s tennis played. That’s about it.
Other entertainment options? A few possibilities. Hopefully you saw Tony Clements’ final comedy show at the Virginia, but the ex-Illini football player waited until later in the day to start yukking it up.
Television alternatives? Always. Like The Masters. And Cubs-Cardinals. That’s why they invented DVR.
Hard to complain about free admission and free parking. Next time, perhaps, it will be free food.
If Illinois was ever going to draw a big crowd for its spring game, Saturday was the day.
The announced attendance of 5,105 could have fit inside State Farm Center. With plenty of room to spare.
The school did a lot of things right. Like moving the game off Friday night.
You put on your pads and helmets with the idea of being seen. By more than a couple thousand fans.
To their credit, the players weren’t offended by the turnout. Just the opposite.
“I thought that was awesome,” defensive lineman Austin Teitsma said. “I think its the most we’ve had in the last three years.”
“We’ve got fans who come out every day and show their support whether we’re winning or losing,” linebacker Earnest Thomas said. “That’s what you’ve got to love about Illinois fans.”
There are schools where the spring game is a big deal. Where fans show up like the team is playing a big rival and not itself.
“I don’t really worry about Penn State, Ohio State,” Thomas said. “I worry about our family. That’s all we can really control.”
In the Big Ten on Saturday, Nebraska drew its usual throng for the spring game. Attendance was listed at 61,772.
Coach Bo Pelini appreciates the fans.
“I think it always helps to have that kind of support,” Pelini said. “Our support we get here in this program is second to none. The fans are passionate. It shows in the type of crowds we get for our spring game and the type of enthusiasm people have this time of year.
“Football is a 365-day-a-year type thing here at Nebraska.”
Football has not reached that status at Illinois. But that should be the goal.
Make fans circle the spring game on the calendar. Turn it into a happening, one that you can’t miss.
Generally, Champaign-Urbana is good at big-dealing events. Ebertfest has taken off. Business is booming at the Illinois Marathon. And have you heard of this thing called “Unofficial St. Patricks’s Day?”
Spring football will never be the priority here. Not like at Alabama or Florida State or Ohio State (which drew 61,058 on Saturday). But it can be more than a mid-April blip.
Here are a few suggestions:
People love free stuff. It doesn’t even have to be anything too pricey. Have you seen the way baseball fans dive into each other to grab a $5 foul ball? Crazy. And dangerous.
Hand out T-shirts or football cards or Loren Tate bobbleheads at the gate. That ought to be good for a couple hundred fans.
— Bigger prizes
Ask one of the car dealers in the area to sponsor a car giveaway. Or a moped giveaway. Something that you can put gas in and drive away.
A nice enough grand prize brings in 2,000 fans. Easy.
— Early rebranding
Instead of waiting until Wednesday for the big unveil, Illinois could have shown off its new unis at halftime. Put the athletes and coaches in the new gear and have them parade across the field.
Give it enough type and the curious fans would have showed. Maybe 2,000 worth.
Problem with the plan is that rebranding won’t happen every year. So, the school will have to find another gimmick in upcoming springs. Pink uniforms perhaps. Or pastel colors for Easter.
— You make the calls
Schools love to get the fans involved. Allow them to line up on the field and take turns picking offensive and defensive plays. Might be a chance to see Aaron Bailey work out of the wishbone. And certainly the wannabe coaches would blitz on every down.
It solves two problems. First, it adds to the crowd. And second, it shows the fans that coaching football isn’t as easy as they think.
The schools with the big spring games crowds do a lot of it. They go into every season expecting to compete for conference titles. Or more.
Nobody at Florida State is worrying about the six wins it takes to become bowl eligible. That number will be toast by early October.
No coach since John Mackovic has been able to test the fan base with a consistent product. Go to a bowl every year and the fans will keep the chatter up during the offseason.
“You’ve got to continue to showcase that you’re capable of winning football games,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said.
During his coaching career, Beckman has seen all sorts of different spring crowds. Ohio State came close to filling its place. Oklahoma State drew 20,000. And at Toledo, the crowd was closer to 5,000.
Bigger is better.
“Our kids would love it,” Beckman said. “We’re in it for the kids, I hope. Any time can we get more, but I’m happy with the ones we had here.”
Until it wins consistently again, Illinois football will have to try attendance tricks. Or learn not to care.
“As a player, you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror and you want to perform so they do show up.” Thomas said. “It’s our job to give them a show, to give them something to see.”
Martez Wilson hadn’t been at Memorial Stadium since losing 38-34 to Minnesota at the end of the 2010 season.
“It’s changed so much,” Wilson said. “I like it.”
Now playing with the Dallas Cowboys, the former Chicago Simeon star graciously answered questions from reporters during halftime of the spring game.
He plans to help the Illini. Now and in the future.
“I want to be a big brother to them and give them as much advice as I can,” Wilson said.
Having Juice Williams on Beckman’s staff will help lure other former players back to campus, Wilson said.
“It feels great to feel that love when you come back like you never left.”
During his time at Illinois, Wilson swears he enjoyed the spring games.
“It was the first time you got to put the pads on again,” Wilson said. “We would be eager to get back into the pads. It was a good thing.”
Wilson was part of an important recruiting class that eventually led to the 2008 Rose Bowl. Talent will help the program improve, Wilson said.
“Leaders. You’ve got to have true leaders on the team to bring everyone up,” Wilson said.
The current Illini heard from Wilson and other former Illini who came back for the game, including 2007 Big Ten MVP Rashard Mendenhall.
Mendenhall, who recently retired from the NFL, declined interview requests. But he did talk to the current players.
“He told us, ‘When you lace it up truly have the love for the person next to you. Play for this team. Play for your brothers. You don’t have to talk about it, just be about it,’ “ Thomas said.
Bob Asmussen covers college football for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.