CHAMPAIGN — Those Illinois games you have attended throughout the years — the ones that went off without a hitch — that's on Holly Stalcup.
Like a good umpire, she usually only got mentioned when something went wrong. And that was rare.
Others took notice. Including the folks who run the College Football Playoff. When they needed to hire someone to run the title game, CFP leaders picked Stalcup.
After 20 years at Illinois, including four as an undergraduate, Stalcup is moving to Irving, Texas, to be the director of stadium and game operations. Her last day on the job at the Bielfeldt Athletics Administration Building on the UI campus is Monday. She starts in Texas on April 1.
"I've always wanted to do an event at the highest level," Stalcup said. "I've really enjoyed football gamedays, and this gave me that opportunity,"
Starting in 2004, she worked as the athletic department event coordinator. In 2011, she was promoted to assistant athletic director of event management. In 2016, she was promoted again to associate AD.
If there was a sporting event on campus, Stalcup was in charge of it. Every team. Every venue. She also oversaw the cheerleaders and the Marching Illini.
Lots of hats.
"You just have to prioritize," Stalcup said. "As I grew into this position, I was always looking for a little more administrative responsibilities."
When Illinois hosted a championship, either NCAA or Big Ten variety, it was added on Stalcup's to-do list.
It meant long hours and lots of problem solving.
Stalcup, 37, enjoyed the gig. And wasn't looking to leave. Her parents, Vicki and Steve, live in Springfield, her hometown. Her brother Chris is in Chicago. She has built strong relationships with her co-workers.
"So many great people here," Stalcup said. "I've worked here half my life."
She saw the opening with the CFP and was intrigued. The process moved forward with a phone interview while Stalcup traveled with the Illinois baseball team in Boca Raton, Fla. She went to Irving for an in-person interview the next week.
Stalcup met with CFP executive director Bill Hancock and others.
"Bill reminds me of (former Illinois AD) Ron Guenther a little bit," she said. "I love Broadway musicals. Mr. Guenther always loved them and so does Bill."
The next day, she had more interviews. Later, CFP officials called and offered her the job. Stalcup had to make a decision.
"It took a lot of lists of pros and cons, what I was gaining there, what I was leaving behind here," Stalcup said. "Ultimately the opportunities that await me at the College Football Playoff was one I couldn't pass up. It was one of those dream jobs."
It won't be easy work. Stalcup will be based in Irving, home of the CFP.
At Illinois, the events staff included four others. For the title game, it will be Stalcup and an intern. The entire CFP staff numbers just 21 full-time employees.
"You utilize a lot of third-party vendors at the different places you're going," Stalcup said.
At Illinois, she had to keep her eye on a bunch of events.
At the CFP, there is one. The national title game on Jan. 13, 2020 is scheduled for the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
"You'll get to solely focus on one event and see it at the highest level," Stalcup said. "I'm excited for that and I may have a few more (free) weekends than I probably had here."
Figuring out her schedule will be one of the challenges. After Thanksgiving, it will turn busier.
Stalcup developed a routine at Illinois. Now, she is starting over.
"Not knowing what to expect, I will really have to be organized," she said.
Stalcup will be flying to New Orleans often during the season.
"I'm like the gatekeeper, who uses what space," Stalcup said.
ESPN, which owns the TV rights, will have 225 cameras and 1,500 credentials.
In future years, she will travel to the title game venue. The 2021 game is in Miami and the 2022 game is at Indianapolis.
Change of plans
Stalcup came to Illinois to become an athletic trainer. She worked in the field as a student.
"I loved it, but decided I wanted to do something else," Stalcup said.
Her senior year at Illinois coincided with season the Chicago Bears made Memorial Stadium their temporary home in 2002.
She volunteered to help with event management during the games.
Stalcup was hooked.
"Event management is seeing all the little pieces come together for the big picture and I enjoyed that," she said.
Ask Stalcup her favorite times at Illinois and she quickly names three.
One was the 2007 Illinois football season that ended in the Rose Bowl.
Second was the 2004 men's basketball win against No. 1 Wake Forest.
And third was the 2013 NCAA tennis championships. Stalcup served as the tournament director at the first-ever northern venue that hosted two weeks of wall-to-wall tennis action.
"It took a lot of people from the department and the community and it was awesome to see that final product," Stalcup said.
So, she has plenty of positive memories. How about the other side, when the event didn't go as planned?
Stalcup's got two. Both weather-related. Both football.
In 2014, there was a long lightning delay in a game against Texas State. In 2015, Bill Cubit's first game as head coach, against Kent State, was delayed a day because of severe weather.
"I enjoyed that we had them because of the learning and teachable moments for people," Stalcup said.
Many have been in her corner, including Guenther, who helped Stalcup get started and wrote a letter of recommendation for grad school. There's also former Illinois administrator Dana Brenner.
"He was instrumental," she said. "There were so many people along the way that have been motivating, This job can get you down sometimes. It can have its high and lows.
"I'm thankful to each person I've met here."
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at email@example.com.