It has been four years since Frank Lenti, Jr. donned his #82 Illinois football uniform and ran out on Zuppke Field in his uniform. Four short years. Working so close to the team in his job with video production, he has had pangs of regret, both when he first began his job and now.
"It hadn't really hit me yet, going through the summer of '08. Going through Camp Rantoul was more of a relief, not having to go through that stuff again. I thought, 'This is nice. I finally get to be a football fan.'
"But when the team hit the field, when we played Mizzou the first game in 2008, it kind of hit me a little bit. At that point, I really missed it. And when we went to other Big 10 stadiums. Wisconsin was one of my favorite places to play. That whole year, I had that feeling I really missed it, I really wanted to be out there.
"It's still the same today. We play games here, the team takes the field and you want to be part of it. But as time goes on, it gets a little easier. Once the game gets going, you're focused on the job that has to get done."
Lenti sees parallels between his 2007 team that finished its regular season 9-3 and the current Illini.
"It's funny, you always seem to relate the current season to back when you were around. I can kind of relate my last season to this season. They can still go 9-3 and make something special out of the year."
His 2007 squad was loaded with experience and especially leadership. He sees a lot of leadership with the current Illini also.
"If you look at this year's team, a lot of those guys are older. A lot of those guys were around when we were still around. You can kind of see some of that leadership that you saw from guys like J Leman.
"And then it's interesting, there's some younger leadership. Guys like Nathan (Scheelhaase), it's only his second year playing, and he's one of the better leaders I've ever been around at the college level. So they have a good mix, and it's shown on the field this year.
"The last couple weeks, they may not have gotten the results they worked for, but you don't see them burying their heads in the sand. They still come to work every day. You see them at dinner, and they still have positive attitudes all the time."
The Illini are bowl eligible, and they can enjoy more wins despite a formidable remaining schedule. But three straight losses have the naysayers out in force. They're just expressing their frustrations publicly, but Lenti says it can definitely have an adverse effect on the players.
"It's not just on campus, it's from everywhere. I've experienced that. My first four years, I think we won 8 games. Sometimes hostility can be a good thing. That means people care. There were times when people weren't going to games, when no one even knew about the program.
"You hear it, but you block it out and stay the course. That's not just here. Any struggling program is gonna have people like that. I'd be worried if they didn't care.
"As a player, you can't control what people are saying about you. All you can do is keep working hard and stay the course. I go back to the '06 season. Granted, he (Ron Zook) was only in his second year, so we were still building things. But (my class) was in our second to last year. We were running out of bullets in our gun.
"You have to come in every day, and you have a game on Saturday. That's the only thing you need to worry about. Prepare for that and go out Saturday and see what happens. That year, we kept fighting to the end. Ohio State was #1, and we were an onside kick from having the ball and going down and winning the game."
Lenti reminds how outside pressures magnify any football frustrations. Student-athletes have much on their plates.
"Other kids have stress in their lives. But when you mix academics and athletics, it's hard to keep a proper balance. Academics is #1; you're here to get a degree. You've got to take care of that before you can take care of business over here.
"It's stressful when you're trying to get accomplished what you need to get accomplished over here, and you have to worry about the academic side if you're behind too.
"You're dealing with 18, 19, 20, 21 year old kids. It's hard to sit here and say that doesn't affect you. When you're 1-7, you try to stay positive, but it affects you."
Common criticisms of struggling teams include, 'They didn't come to play;' 'They made stupid decisions;' 'The coaches don't know what they're doing;' 'They need to replace that guy as soon as possible;' 'They didn't want to win badly enough.' Lenti reminds how little about the game of football is controllable and thus deserving of these reactions.
"People ask me all the time, 'How are the Illini gonna be this year?' It's college football, it's the Big 10. I tell people I've been a part of 1-11 years, and I've been a part of 9-3 years. Every single year, you go into camp thinking you're gonna have a chance to win the Big 10.
"It's so hard to predict college football. People like to look at the schedule and mark off early what's a win or what's a loss, what's gonna be a tougher game. There's no way to predict. You go back to those three weeks in '07 when we played Penn State, Wisconsin and Iowa. We beat two ranked teams, automatically assuming we're gonna go to Iowa and win. We didn't.
"When you go out there, and a guy is lined up against you, you want to win. The game might not go the way you want, but you're still fighting the guy across from you. I don't believe anyone doesn't want to win. It's subtle differences between success and failure. It's taking care of the little things.
"No one wants to make a mistake in a football game. No one wants to fumble, no one wants to throw an interception, no one wants to miss a tackle, no one wants to miss field goals. You're trying to be perfect no matter what you're doing.
"You look at the option. On every play, there's a split second decision whether you pitch the ball or keep it. You're doing that maybe 15-20 times a game. There's a risk if you pitch it, something bad can happen.
"There's coaching decisions. Guys calling offenses, guys calling defenses. Head coaching decisions. There's two paths you can take for a player or coach in a game. The coach is gonna choose the path he thinks will benefit the team the most.
"Does it always work out that way? No. That's part of the job. Players have to do the same. Does it always work out in your favor? Hopefully most of the time it does. That's what you're hoping for."
Fans expect and demand perfection.
"Right. But that's not the way the game works. Like Coach says, it's a game. That's why you play it."
Zook has his share of detractors, but the players are not among them according to Lenti.
"He is a player's coach. Every single guy on the team knows he has their back. It's up to the players to show up and play well on Saturday. Coaches can only put you in a good position for that. That's been happening here.
"If you talk to some of our guys, they'll tell you they've got to play better. It's not all on the coaches. We have to be accountable too. I think that's something that might get overlooked. But then again, you are dealing with young adults, and they have other pressures outside of football. That's also something that gets overlooked."
Lenti is pleasantly surprised by the success of the 2011 team.
"If you look at the start of the year, we were playing a lot of young guys. If you told me we went 8-4, that's not bad. That's improving. We're slowly progressing. I was around for a lot of bad years, so if you told me I could go back and get a 7 win season, an 8 win season, I'd say show me where to sign right now."
Obviously, Lenti cares about his Illini. It hurts him to watch a loss. It kills him to observe questionable situations in a game, like the most recent loss at Penn State, and keep his composure on the sideline. It helps to keep busy.
"Sometimes it's better to be working. I don't know if I could handle a game like that sitting watching it on TV because I'd be so frustrated. You just have to set the camera down and take a deep breath.
"Even then, you get frustrated when stuff's not going your way. Same when you're a player. You get frustrated, but you have to stay positive and always anticipate good things happening."
There are a number of rewards for Lenti in his current work, but most of them are intangible.
"I like being in the locker room. I think back to when we won at Penn State last year. Being in that locker room, and in the bowl game too, was very, very rewarding. Just capturing on camera and seeing the joy on the faces of coaches and players, that's one of the things I enjoy most. And being around the kids every day, having those relationships."
Summer is a time Lenti can rewind in preparation for another busy fall. That is when he can explore what might end up being his future career, helping out the Chicago Mt. Carmel football team.
"June and July are kind of my down times. In July, my dad has 12 practices. That's when I get my coaching fix. I go back and help him. That's good for me because I get away from here a little bit. Hit the refresh button because you know once August starts...The Rantoul episodes are a project in itself."
How long does he see himself in his present position?
"I plan to continue this for awhile. I take it week by week, month by month. As long as I'm happy, I'm not in any rush to get out of here."