Asmussen | Banquet caps Illinois football season

Asmussen | Banquet caps Illinois football season

I could have skipped the Illinois football banquet Sunday. There were plenty of other things to do: go get a Christmas tree, clean my office, watch ESPN's endless bowl countdown, listen to Brian Barnhart call the Illinois men's basketball game.

But at 11:45 Sunday morning, I jumped in the Honda Civic and it seemed to drive itself to the I Hotel. That's been the home to the annual team celebration the last half decade or so.

The crew at the I Hotel does a great job putting on the event.

I've been going to the banquets for years. At various venues.

It's a great chance to connect with the seniors and their parents one more time before they move on to the NFL or the real world.

And it's another chance for the school to say "Thanks" and "You are always welcome here."

"Make no mistake, their leadership has led us through a difficult time." Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said. "We've had some challenging moments. We've had some turmoil. These guys have stuck it out and continued to lead our program with tremendous integrity, with tremendous passion. That's something they can be proud of for the rest of their lives."

In recent years, there hasn't been much on the field for Illinois to celebrate.

No bowl after the banquet since 2014.

The consensus on Sunday: That's too long.

If Illinois is out of the bowl business after 2019, it will equal the recent drought that spanned the end of the Ron Turner era and the start of Ron Zook's time in charge.

The 2001 team played in the 2002 Sugar Bowl. Then Illinois stayed home until the 2008 Rose Bowl.

Nobody else in the Big Ten West has a similar streak. Purdue is going bowling for the second consecutive season and seems to have Jeff Brohm locked in for years.

Minnesota is going to a bowl for the first time with P.J. Fleck in charge. Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern are consistent postseason players.

Nebraska just finished its second consecutive 4-8 season, but there is optimism in Lincoln because of Scott Frost. The bowl-less streak at Nebraska figures to end in 2019.

That leaves Illinois, which said goodbye to its seniors and its season in a tidy 1 hour, 45 minutes.

On a gloomy day weather-wise, the staff and players stayed positive. Host and former Illini All-American Martin O'Donnell knows what the players have been through.

He was part of four losing teams at Illinois and saw the coach who recruited him, Turner, get fired in 2004.

O'Donnell stuck with it and it worked out.

"Being a student-athlete at the University of Illinois and playing football," he said, "if you take the right things away from it, it certainly sets you up to be successful in whatever you want to do in life."

Moving ahead

Whitman shares some of O'Donnell's experiences.

The Indiana native joined Turner's first class in 1997.

In 1999, the Illini beat Ohio State and Michigan on the way to a blowout win against Virginia in the Micronpc.com Bowl.

Though Whitman's career ended in 2000, his teams laid the foundation for Illinois' Big Ten champions in 2001.

He understands what it took to get to that point. And wants to see it happen again. With Lovie Smith calling the shots. Outsiders figured Whitman would be looking for a new football coach after a 4-8 finish this season.

He went the other way, giving Smith a two-year contract extension that carries through the 2023 season.

"We've done some things publicly recently that I think demonstrate my belief in him and my belief in the direction this team is headed," Whitman said.

Terms of Smith's new deal have not been announced. They are expected to be approved by the UI Board of Trustees at its January meeting.

Smith needs to hire a new defensive coordinator and fill another position. The rest of the staff members are rumored to have received contract extensions.

"Working in Big Ten football is a pretty intense environment," Whitman said.

Whitman thanked the players for their hard work and dedication.

"You're an inspiration to me," Whitman said. "You're an inspiration to the entire Illini family."

Party on

Someday, maybe soon, the banquet will need to run more than 1:45.

There will be too many highlight videos to show, too many awards to hand out.

Sunday, it was brief and to the point. The MVPs were announced for offense (Reggie Corbin), defense (Bobby Roundtree) and special teams (Chase McLaughlin).

Permanent captains were picked, (Nick Allegretti, Del'Shawn Phillips and Dele Harding).

Allegretti was picked to speak for the seniors.

"A small class of seniors, but it's an incredible group of men that I'm very proud to be a part of," Allegretti said.

They sang the school song, took a bunch of pictures, then went out into the cold afternoon.

The banquet room was filled with players, family members and friends.

Smith and his coaches have plenty of work to do before the start of the 2019 season.

Recruiting is the top of the list. A handful of players are expected to be added to the current list of 11 commits.

Illinois hosts 15-plus recruits next weekend and will have a few players in the next week.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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