UI Accepts Bid To Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

It's finally official. The Fighting Illini football team has been named to play UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco December 31st. Both teams have had frustrating seasons and lost their head coaches. But both are bowl eligible and have a chance to redeem themselves with this Pac-12 vs. Big 10 matchup.

Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas made an important announcement for the future of the Illini football team Sunday evening.

"I am excited to tell you we will play in San Francisco in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at A & T Park on December 31st. That is an ESPN game. We will play (UCLA)."

Gary Cavalli, executive director of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, expressed similar sentiments.

"We're very excited about our matchup this year with a Pac-12 team, and we've been able to secure Illinois on the other side."

Considering how few options were available to the Illini, they couldn't have asked for much better according to Thomas.

"I think the fact that it's in San Francisco, one of the best cities in the world, a destination city. The fact that we will be playing on New Year's Eve, which I think is a real good date. We have a large alumni base out there. And the fact that we're playing a Pac-12 team is awfully attractive as well."

Advantages for Illini players and fans are apparent also.

"I think a bowl game gives your student-athletes on the current roster an opportunity to pick up valuable practice time, and it rewards your fans for supporting the program. It recognizes the student-athletes for their accomplishments. We all agree we didn't end up where we wanted to be, but we also know this is a great stepping-stone for the future."

Thomas had to do a lot of behind-the-scenes work to make this happen because the Illini were unable to qualify for one of the nine guaranteed bowl spots for Big 10 teams. The glaze in his eyes was not just from the head coach search he is carrying out simultaneously.

"It's been crazy. The bowl situation is a little fluid. There are more bowl eligible teams in our conference than there are spots for. That's made it an interesting process.

"When you're a free agent, in some ways your options are very limited. In the scenarios that were put in front of us, that was the game that we focused on. We have 55,000 Fighting Illini fans and alumni in the state of California. It will be a great place to be on New Year's Eve.

"For what makes the most sense for our program, what makes the most sense for our fan base and the Fighting Illini Nation, that was the most attractive place for us to go. And certainly the opportunity to play a Pac-12 team.

"You have to do a significant amount of (lobbying). You have to let people know why you're the right team for that destination. And you have to have backup plans. So you have to be lobbying to multiple bowl games. At the end of the day, at least to my mind and those involved in the process, we ended up where we wanted to be."

Thomas worked with the Big 10 office, including multiple calls during the Big 10 Championship game he attended yesterday evening, to make this happen. But Cavalli says some fortuitous circumstances on his end intervened to make this destination possible.

"We had an agreement this year with a military academy, but they failed to become bowl eligible. We've been looking for a replacement for the last 2-3 weeks.

"We had some backup agreements with the ACC, the WAC and the MAC. The ACC qualified 9 teams, but Miami decided not to participate in a bowl game. And just today, the number of available teams was cut into again when Virginia Tech lost. We had the WAC, but it only had three teams eligible.

"We were talking with the MAC, and we mutually agreed it was better for them to go to a bowl game closer to home. So we were discussing our options both with the Big 10 and Big 12. We were very pleased today to be able to put this deal together."

The Rose Bowl it is not. But in a way it is a mini Rose Bowl, something not lost on Cavalli, who grew up in California and loved the "Granddaddy Of All Bowls."

"Absolutely. I've had a history of looking at Pac-12 (it was Pac-8 in those days) vs. Big 10 matchups in Rose Bowls. To me, that's the premier matchup in college football, with all due respect to the SEC.

"So we were thrilled to have a game similar to the Rose Bowl. Obviously, we're not talking about champions, but we have the same kind of matchup between two great conferences."

Inviting a team that fired its head coach is a gamble. Perhaps it helps the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl that both opponents have the same problem. Regardless, Cavalli feels the matchup is worth the risk.

"People talk about that a lot in the bowl business. But I don't think it's major issue for us. We're just thrilled to have Illinois. The Bay area has a ton of people from the Chicago area and the state of Illinois. I think we'll have a tremendous turnout (from those people)."

Illinois must sell 8,000 tickets to the bowl, so Thomas hopes for a good turnout. He knows a number of California people will attend, but he wants to remind them early to purchase their tickets from Illinois outlets so the school will receive credit for their purchase.

"What happens is, you have a ticket commitment, and they're buying tickets out of other sources. You'll have a lot of folks showing up for games that are Fighting Illini fans but the University of Illinois didn't get credit for. That is what's really important.

"Ideally, when we get the word out, we want our fans, whether they're in California or elsewhere, we want them to buy tickets from our outlets. That will help us in the future. They look at schools that travel well, and I think we have a pretty good record in that regard."

There have been concerns about whether Illini players would want to play a bowl game after their embarrassing play at Minnesota and the loss of their popular head coach Ron Zook. To a man, the players who shared their thoughts after the bowl announcement were excited for the opportunity.

"It's definitely an exciting time," senior tackle Jeff Allen says. "After the Minnesota game, there were plenty of questions whether we'd get a chance to play again. To get this news today is great."

Those originally on the fence appear to have come around according to Allen.

"Yeah, I think so. After the Minnesota game, a lot of guys' emotions were all over the place. Especially after Zook, a lot of guys were all over the place. As things passed, guys gut their minds right and started to realize this is a game we love. To get another opportunity, there's no reason not to be excited.

"A majority are now on board. That's the best part about it. Guys are back and positive and ready to play."

Allen liked the concept of this being a "Redemption Bowl."

"Redemption, that's a great word. There's no more games. This is my last game as an Illini for sure. It will be a great chance to redeem myself, and we can redeem ourselves as a team."

Senior cornerback Tavon Wilson agrees with the redemption concept.

"Definitely, anytime you give the players another chance to prove yourself and show you are a good team. We're looking to win back-to-back bowl wins, something Illinois has never done. All the ups and downs we had this year, it's still a big accomplishment. And it'll give these guys a jumpstart to next year."

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase feels the bowl opportunity is just as much a tribute to Coach Zook as anyone.

"This is as much for him as us. The team that he put together, he gave us an opportunity to play. Fortunately, we were granted a bowl opportunity."

Senior linebacker Ian Thomas is certainly glad to realize his football career has not yet ended.

"It's definitely exciting for us to go all the way to California. We were kind of down with everything that was going on, but I think this is gonna be a little boost for our confidence."

There are concerns some Illini players are having academic difficulties. Thomas believes the motivation of a bowl game may help those on the fence maintain their eligibility during this difficult time.

"I think they're definitely gonna work harder. They don't want to miss out on the opportunity to go to California and play a good team in a bowl game. Hopefully get the win."

Senior receiver A.J. Jenkins hoped for Florida, but San Francisco is okay also.

"I love Cali. It feels real good. The climate is better than here. We're gonna try to have fun and enjoy the blessing that we did get."

Team always comes first for Jenkins. But he admits to a personal goal only a bowl game can give him a chance to achieve.

"I'm hearing I'm real close to the David Williams record. Hopefully I'll try to get that. I'm not really worried about me too much. But if I'm that close, I do want to try to break it."

Slowly but surely, Illini players are focusing more on their futures and their opportunity in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and less on their recent on-field problems. If they can get through these next couple of weeks academically, they have something good to look forward to.

Before the season began, the Illini to a man admitted to lofty goals that included a Rose Bowl berth. While six losses eliminated that goal, they are indeed playing a bowl game in California against a Pac-12 representative. Maybe their dreams weren't so far-fetched after all. Just the details are different.

Regardless, a bowl is a bowl is a bowl.

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