RANTOUL — Village Administrator Scott Eisenhauer said he will wait a few weeks before bringing up the subject the University of Illinois football team coming back to town for Camp Rantoul.
Started a few decades ago by former coach Ron Turner, Camp Rantoul was home to August practices each year in preparation for the season until it head coach Lovie Smith halted it in 2016.
With Smith gone and former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema now at the Illini helm, the question is whether the new coach will want to resume the camp.
If he does, it will likely be at new facilities.
Eisenhauer said the village would want the Illini to use the new Rantoul sports complex, which is under construction on the community’s west side.
Despite bookings for the facility beginning to fill up, Eisenhauer said there would be room to host the Illini.
In prior years, the training camp was held at the Seeber Sports Complex on the former Chanute Air Force Base. The team stayed at the nearby Quarters Inn and had meals at Linden Banquet Center, located just a block east of the fields.
“I don’t know if they would want two fields, four fields, eight fields,” Eisenhauer said. “Ideally, I would think maybe four fields” on the north side would be enough.
The sports complex will host softball, baseball, soccer, football and lacrosse tournaments and maybe other sports. Construction started this year, and the facility is set to be finished in a few months.
Eisenhauer said he hasn’t brought the topic up to Illini officials yet so that Bielema gets a chance to get settled in.
“I will wait till after the first of the year. Then we’ll reach out,” he said. “I wanted him to get comfortable and then will reach out to (athletic director Josh) Whitman and initiate that conversation.”
Ironically, Whitman was a member of the first Illini team to practice at Camp Rantoul.
UI sports information director Kent Brown said he doesn’t think the issue has been discussed yet.
“I’m not even sure it will be discussed for a few weeks, to let him get his staff done,” Brown said of Bielema. “Now, his total focus is talking to the seniors and putting together his staff. I don’t think (camp) has been a discussion point.”
Either way, the Illini will be practicing at up-to-date facilities.
The Smith Performance Center that opened on the UI campus a year ago “really is state of the art in terms of the locker room and the weight room and the sports-medicine component; access to the outdoor field and the indoor field; and access to the stadium,” Brown said. “That facility takes care of a lot of the questions in terms of planning for things.”
Regardless of facilities, the decision often boils down to a coach’s philosophies and preferences. For several years, Illini coaches preferred getting the team away from campus. When Smith toured Rantoul, he gave indications he would probably continue the camp idea. But then he announced practices would be held in Champaign.
“Every coach has a different philosophy and plan they want to put in place,” Brown said. “I don’t know what Bret’s done in the past at his other stops. The facility in place is pretty spectacular and very useful. I do know the accessibility factor here in campus is a plus.”
At Rantoul, Eisenhauer said two of the new sports complex’s eight fields are set up for football, and any of the others can be converted for that sport.
He said Bielema might like the idea of the team being in Rantoul.
“NFL and a lot of college teams find when you go to another area, you separate yourself from the other distractions and it gives you the ability to come together cohesively,” he said. “They’re all staying at the same hotel together. They’re working out in the facility that’s in proximity to the hotel. It’s an opportunity for a team-bonding experience to occur over a one- or two-week period.”
One drawback, though, is that while the nearby Holiday Inn Express is only a few years old, its conference and classroom space would not be adequate for the team’s needs.
But the creation of the sports complex is likely to result in the construction of new hotels, restaurants and other businesses in the area.
“The community, I’m sure, would like to see” Camp Rantoul come back, Eisenhauer said. “We have a high-quality facility on a surface like they would play on today and amenities that are different from what we were able to offer before. We would like to regain that partnership.”