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Will Illinois football games during Bret Bielema’s first season in charge have more than family and friends at Memorial Stadium? Stay tuned.

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CHAMPAIGN — Optimism abounds among Illinois football fans.

Understandably so.

After five lackluster years with Lovie Smith as coach, the program has a new boss.

One who has a history of success in the Big Ten. Bret Bielema led Wisconsin to two Big Ten titles and three Rose Bowl appearances. He is three wins shy of 100 for his career.

In 200 days, give or take — still waiting to get the final word on the Illinois-Nebraska game scheduled for Ireland — Bielema leads the Illini onto Zuppke Field for the first time ever.

The question: Will fans be allowed at Memorial Stadium to see it?

The school’s athletic department hopes so, but it’s complicated.

“The DIA is preparing for the launch of 2021 football season ticket sales knowing there is great excitement about the upcoming season,” said Cassie Arner, Illinois’ senior associate director of athletics for marketing, fan development and strategic communication.

“However, this isn’t like previous years and there continues to be evolving information about what Memorial Stadium will look like for fans next year. We will seek guidance from appropriate officials and hope to launch sales soon.”

Because of COVID-19 concerns, the stands were mostly empty in 2020. The exception was for families of the players and coaches.

Fortunately, medical advances have happened since then. In particular, two-shot vaccines have started going into arms in the community.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 41,970 first doses have been administered in Champaign County. And 11,929 have already received their second doses.

The football season doesn’t start for more than six months. That’s a lot of time to make progress against the disease.

Stadiums and arenas across the country had reduced capacity or no fans for the past year. The lack of attendance put a strain on athletic department budgets.

But the schools had no choice. They had to follow the science, which showed large gatherings, especially indoors, were certain to spread the disease in a big way.

Polling placeIn order for the buildings to be filled again, the fans need to feel confident they can stay safe.

I reached out to a handful of Illinois season-ticket holders and asked: Will you come back to Memorial Stadium in 2021?

The four I talked to all said, “Yes.”

“I will attend Illinois football games this fall when two people say it’s OK: Governor J.B. Pritzker and my wife,” said Jerry Turner, an Illinois alum who lives in Naperville “I am optimistic on attending. I really think the vaccine rollout is picking up steam, and it’s not hard at all to see that by June everyone that wants a shot will have one.”

Turner has attended games since his childhood growing up in Monticello.

He doesn’t expect a packed house. Not in 2021.

“I think that attendance will be approved for say 50 percent and that both J.B. and (my wife) Cheri will OK me,” Turner said.

Turner anticipates social distancing measures will be in place for the 2021 season.

He understands his seats might be temporarily relocated this season in order to accommodate the rules.

Almost goldenJohn Coady has made the 80-mile trip from his Taylorville home to Champaign-Urbana since 1970.

He did miss the 1974-76 Illinois seasons but has a good reason: He was in law school at Ohio State. Talk about good timing because Coady had season tickets to see the Buckeyes as Archie Griffin won back-to-back Heisman Trophies.

Coady, a 1974 Illinois graduate, resumed his Memorial Stadium season ticket run in 1977 and has been in the stands ever since. The 2020 season would have been his 49th as a season-ticket holder.

Is he coming back in 2021?

“Absolutely,” said Coady, a retired judge. “I’m part of the fan base that would come no matter what. That’s not a question in our Illini household.”

Coady’s seats are on the east side of Memorial Stadium at the 40-yard-line, 30 rows up. The kind of seats you get when you stick around for almost a half century.

Coady originally had six seats and would travel to the games with a group from Taylorville. Now, he has two seats and takes a different grandchild to each game. His wife Kathy, an Illinois graduate and longtime music teacher, gave up her seat.

Coady paid for season tickets in 2020. All season-ticket holders were given three options: get a refund, give it to the I-Fund or apply it to the 2021 season. He chose the third option.

Coady understands the seating arrangements are ever-changing.

He has received the COVID-19 vaccine, which adds to his comfort level about returning to games. Not everyone will feel the same

“There are going to be some season-ticket holders that are unhappy with the situation,” Coady said. “Some will think it’s not safe enough, so they won’t be attending. There’s going to be a group that were willing to go back, but if they employ social distancing at the game, they may be disappointed with where their temporary seats are during social distancing and, for that reason, not go back.

“It’s going to be a process. The first year will just be the start. 2022, as long as COVID goes away, it will tell a lot more.”

Coady appreciates the challenges facing the Illinois ticket office. Normally, the idea is to fill the place with as many people as possible. But that doesn’t work with today’s health concerns.

It’s important to mention what normally drives ticket sales: the team’s performance. If Bielema’s first bunch gets off to a 5-0 start, the demand for seats might far exceed the supply.

“There seems to a renewed enthusiasm with our new coach and his new staff,” Coady said. “I think it has elevated the expectations about what this football program can be and what they’re going to do.”

Easy callChampaign’s Joan Sensenbrenner describes herself as a “crazy fan.” In a good way.

She and husband Ken have four season tickets at about the 35-yard line, Row 54, on the east side of Memorial Stadium. Just under the overhang, which comes in handy on rainy gamedays.

They have had the tickets for about 20 years. But Joan has attended since the 1950s when she was 4 years old.

“It’s a habit,” said Sensenbrenner, who went to the 1964 Rose Bowl.

So, yes, she will be going to the games in 2021. Both Joan and Ken have been fully vaccinated.

“We’ll be there,” Sensenbrenner said.

She will happily wear a mask, a Bobby Roundtree (97 Strong) model in support of the former Illini who is in a wheelchair after suffering a severe spinal injury in May 2019.

The Sensenbrenners paid for their tickets in 2020 and rolled the money over to pay for 2021.

They have other events they are waiting on.

“I’ve got Rolling Stones tickets from last June that I’ve rolled over in St. Louis,” Sensenbrenner said. “This would have been our eighth Stones concert. They’re amazing.”

Rob Barnes is also planing to return to Memorial Stadium in 2021. The 1985 Illinois graduate has attended games since he was with the Marching Illini in 1980. He has missed six home games since then.

“I’m a little nuts about it,” Barnes said.

Barnes makes the three-hour drive from his home in Geneva.

“It’s a day trip,” he said.

Barnes attends with a group of 10-12 former Marching Illini. Their seats are at about the 30-yard-line on the west side of Memorial Stadium.

“The plan is to come back,” Barnes said. “Everything seems to be getting better. The state’s numbers are improving. People have figured out what to do: Wear your mask.”

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).

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