Birdsell makes sure the Illini look good

Birdsell makes sure the Illini look good

Martin O'Donnell and Nick Allegretti talk football Saturday at 9 on WDWS.

CHAMPAIGN — Hardly anyone knows the inner workings of the Illinois football program for the last three decades better than John Birdsell.

And the long-time assistant equipment manager for the Illini has a leg up on his other co-workers, not just based on his experience, but for one other useful job skill.

"I'm the only one over here who knows how to sew," Birdsell said with a laugh.

Lovie Smith is the eighth coach Birdsell has worked for since he started with the Illinois athletic department in 1983, working first with the maintenance crew. He soon moved over to become a part of the equipment staff in 1985, with former equipment manager Andy Dixon hiring him, and has stayed there ever since.

"I like the job," Birdsell said. "We've had some good kids, and we've had some bad ones, over the years, but the best part is dealing with the kids."

The Urbana High School graduate, who now resides in Tolono, also works with the Illinois wrestling, tennis, track and field and baseball teams.

But with football season fast approaching, most of Birdsell's time is spent on that particular sport. One of his main tasks? Making sure the name strips that are on the back of the players' jersey are done correctly.

"Oh, I can do one about every five minutes now," Birdsell said. "I've got a board over there that stretches it and then I lay it all out and sew it there. When I was hired here, they told me I had to learn to sew. Sewing people would come in and make fun of you at first, but I said, 'As long as I get a paycheck, I don't care what they say.'"

Birdsell said he works with four sewing machines in the equipment room tucked inside the north corner of Memorial Stadium.

"Two of them are about 80-90 years old," Birdsell said with a laugh.

Sewing is just one part of Birdsell's job. Making sure the players have all their equipment and it is arranged neatly in their locker room, particularly on the road, is another task.

"We do take a lot of pride in that," Birdsell said.

The importance of that was placed upon him early in his tenure at Illinois when Mike White coached the Illini and the team played at Michigan.

With only one tunnel at Michigan Stadium, the Wolverines' home locker room and the visiting locker rooms were nearby.

"We got out there for a walkthrough on a Friday before the game, and the door to the Michigan locker room was open," Birdsell said. "They had the shoulder pads all hung up properly, the belt loops in the pants done right and the uniforms all in the right spot. Everything looked pretty spiffy. Coach White got a hold of Andy and said, 'Our locker room will look like that locker room from now on the road.'"And it has. Thanks in large part to Birdsell, who has seen almost every part of the country during his travels with the Illini.

"We have to go in there, put the bags up, unpack the bags and get everything set up," Birdsell said. "It's not just like we go in there, throw everything on the floor and walk away."

Birdsell said he can point out two favorite coaches he's worked with during his time at Illinois: White and Ron Turner.

"We got along pretty good," Birdsell said. "Coach Turner and Coach White were kind of like a Jekyll and Hyde. You get those two on the field, and wow, you don't want to go near them. They're completely different people in their office from what they were like on the field."

Birdsell said he remembers one time when former Illinois assistant coach Greg McMahon, a Rantoul native, asked him where Birdsell stood during games.

"We were all getting ready to go out on the field and he mentions that," Birdsell said with a laugh. "I just told him, 'I'm 3 feet behind you on the sidelines.' That just goes to show you how focused coaches are during games."

Birdsell doesn't have any immediate plans for slowing down or stepping away from a position he's held for 32 years.

"I keep saying I'll stay as long as they treat me right and my health is good," Birdsell said. "There isn't too much I haven't done. I've unclogged the toilets. I've fixed this, that and pretty much everything in between. I've always heard people complain about their jobs, and my thought is, 'Well, if you don't like it, go someplace else.' I enjoy what I do."