Vic Koenning, interim head football coach at Illinois, is pleased the Illini received a bid to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco December 31st.
"We're extremely excited. We hoped very much to get a chance to play again, some redemption to do. San Francisco is a wonderful town. It'll be a great opportunity for our players to see a part of the world they haven't experienced much. We will do our best to make sure they get to do that."
Koenning is ordering some changes in routine to help the players and to re-acquaint the townspeople with their Illini program.
"We're gonna do some stuff here in town. We're gonna try to make the bowl stretch, do some things here in town to make our practices seem like we're already at the bowl site except we will sleep in our own beds. We're gonna do as many things as we can team-building wise. I think that's gonna be an important part of our preparation for our bowl.
"Practices are gonna be open. We would ask for some scrutiny. It would be nice, if we're practicing a certain play, if everybody in the whole world didn't know about it. There may be times we have to limit some of practice. Maybe say just first half or second half because there's certain things we need to not get out.
"We want to get as many of our fans (out to practice). We're gonna send an email to our booster clubs to come on out and support our guys. Be a part of it.
"The people that support us, the car dealers, the people at the hotels and restaurants, the police and firemen, people in different walks of life, we want them to come out. I'll go over at some point in time and answer any questions about what's going on.
"We're gonna have some fun, and hopefully the weather will permit us to go outside some. We'll have to see how it goes."
Koenning loves his players, so he will do everything in his power to reverse the losing mentality and bring home a bowl victory.
"We need to play our best game in this bowl game. That's gonna be our objective. We need to be excited to play in the game. Typically, the team that does the best in the bowl game is the team happiest to be there. It will boggle my imagination to have our football team not be ecstatic, based on circumstances, to be playing in this bowl game."
However, he inherited possibly the hardest job in football. He must lead a team that has just lost six straight games and its head coach, somehow finding a way to reverse the trend and earn a win even though there's a good chance he will be coaching his last game with the UI. Among the barriers to success are emotional wounds and academic issues.
"I think our players have been trying to work really hard to heal up in a lot of different ways. We've got a lot of work to do yet academically. We've opened up our meeting rooms to accentuate our study hall process. We're in what we call an academic two-minute drill. We started last week, and we magnified our intensity. Academics has been the big concern so far.
"We've got some guys we're working awfully hard with academically. If a guy's not willing to do what we need to do, then there may not be everybody going to the bowl."
Defensive end Whitney Mercilus expressed concerns common among his teammates about playing in a bowl game when asked a week ago right after head coach Ron Zook was fired. Koenning feels that sentiment has reversed over time.
"When you play this game, you've got to play with your heart. And you're a part of a family. When your family gets broken up or something happens to your family, it hurts. It's hard to not say something tongue-in-cheek when it's part of you.
"I think Whitney was extremely distraught at the question that was asked of him at that point in time. I understand that. The timing was not good. But I think the ambivalence is probably gone. We were probably a lot better on Wednesday than we were on Monday."
One way or the other, Koenning will not let any rotten apples spoil the barrel.
"I told the whole team, if they couldn't give us their best inspired effort, that we weren't gonna allow any negative talk. I gave them an illustration in a team meeting that what just a little bit of negativity can do to a football team. I think it opened their eyes a little bit.
"I took a bottle of pure water. I took a little piece of dirt I picked up from outside and said, 'This is negativity, this is malcontent, this is not believing, this is all the things that are unpure. You've got something pure that you would drink, but just the smallest amount of something unpure...I put it in there. I didn't even shake it up, you could see how it changes. It ruins the whole bottle.
"I said, 'All it takes is one guy. Now, what we want to do is, we know that we're not gonna be able to be perfect, but we want to do the best we can. We don't want to shoot ourselves in the foot. We want to stay as pure as we can in spirit and heart. We don't need to have anybody being that dirt.'
"I think hopefully they understood that in a different way than they had before. I asked them if they wanted to take a drink after that, and nobody did.
"We're not gonna allow any negativity, especially from within. We're gonna do our level best to be positive, straightforward and honest. We're gonna build from there."
In reality, his comments are equivalent to the speech he would give were he named the new head coach at Illinois. He has the maturity, responsibility and dedication to treat temporary employment like it was his on a more permanent basis.
Koenning also promises changes in the game plan.
"I think (UCLA) will probably be surprised at some of the things we'll be doing. We'll be a different football team schematically, I hope, on both sides of the ball and special teams. It remains to be seen."
He was asked specifically what special team changes he planned.
"Come to practice and we'll see. Coach Zook worked so hard to try to take some slack off of other guys. We have some issues on special teams; after looking at the ratings I understand that. A lot of it has to do with the guys doing it.
"I've got to give a lot on here's how you delegate, who plays on what special teams. The punt team's got priority, the kickoff team second, and then it goes to kickoff return third and punt block return fourth.
"We're gonna try to play our starters. Everybody's got a draft, and we'll draft who we need starting with punt kick. If you're a backup guy, then you're open to any of them. We're gonna have to work on that. That's gonna be a huge part of our practices during bowl preparation.
"We may change some of the things we're doing. I'm not casting stones. I know when you live in a glass house, you shouldn't cast stones."
It may be difficult for Koenning to change roles with his fellow staff members. He is in charge, but Paul Petrino is in charge of the offense. How will their relationship change?
"That's a dynamic that's gonna be really interesting. I'm either gonna have to work a lot harder, or I'm gonna have to delegate some more stuff.
"I have a huge amount of respect for Paul, and I don't want to ruin our friendship over one game. It's not my place; I'm not really his boss. I am, but I'm not. I'm not gonna sit there and start telling him some stuff. It's not my place. He's a brilliant coach and a great motivator. He's got the offense, if indeed he's here. We'll see how that all plays out."
That brings up another issue. Assistant coaches are required to remain loyal to their current schools after head coaches are fired, even though they now must find other jobs. Koenning is convinced the current staff will do a great job coaching and recruiting for Illinois. But he cannot guarantee their presence throughout bowl preparations.
"In all fairness to our staff, their first priority is their families. This person right here too. It is a tricky deal, and the dynamics are such that we have to be spread a little bit thin.
"We have a professional staff. We have one of the best staffs I think any college probably has, to be honest with you. They're gonna go out and be great ambassadors to the University if they're in a recruiting situation. They're gonna do the right thing.
"There is a time where they're gonna have to put themselves first. There's so many times we put the team first, ahead of our families. They need to take some time every day where they work on their own careers. I don't think there's anyone who would fault anyone for doing that.
"We're gonna try to carry a bunch of hats with us. When it comes time to practice, I'm sure our guys will be the best coaches they can be. When it comes time for preparation, I'm sure they'll do the best they can."
Koenning could not guarantee all nine coaches will work the bowl game for Illinois.
"I'm usually not much of a gambler; I find a better way to use my money. So I wouldn't want to put odds to it. It all depends on the situation. Some of us could have jobs waiting on us. That's just all part of the dynamics. If someone has a job offer, and they need to be there recruiting, then they need to go. Because there's no guarantees; I think we all understand that."
That is true for Koenning also. It is theoretically possible someone may have to become interim coach to replace Koenning.
"I think that's something that's up for negotiations. I'm not gonna say that I'm not gonna try to get a couple things. If they say they need me here when they need me there, that would be unfair to me. We'll see. We'll worry about that bridge when we come to it. It may not ever happen."
Even if all assistants want or need to stay, there is no guarantee they will be allowed to coach the bowl. A new head coach will be named soon. He won't be coaching the bowl, but he will likely hire one or more assistants immediately to begin recruiting for Illinois. Koenning says changes will be needed at that point.
"If Mike hires a guy, and he wants to bring in a guy to start recruiting, then you can only have nine coaches. So somebody's got to go then. Those are all bridges that we'll cross."
Would Koenning be interested in staying on, if not as head man at least in his present role as defensive coordinator? Has he talked to Mike Thomas about that?
"I got a Master's in Athletic Administration, and I understand his predicament and situation better than probably most coaches. There's things he can't tell you because he doesn't know his timeline exactly. And if he does, he's done a good job of not letting on. It's not fair to him.
"I've expressed my interest in these kids. I guess that's why he entrusted me to be interim coach. I think we're here to be serve, and that's what I'm gonna try to do. I need to do what's best for these players, and I need to do what's best for my family too. We love it here, and my kids couldn't be happier in Monticello. We'll just see what the good Lord has in store for us."
One way or the other, there is no doubt Koenning is the head coach at the moment. Getting back to coach mode, he shares some of his possible Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl pregame speech.
"What we've got to do is go out and play our best game in the bowl game. We'll play as well as we did first half against Wisconsin.
"I looked at the Wisconsin game last night, and I still remember it wasn't too many weeks ago that we held them to like 285 (yards of offense), and they only scored when they got the ball on our end of the field. Watching them go up and down the field last night, I don't feel too bad about that.
"We're capable of doing some good things. What we've got to do as a coaching staff is get the most out of all our players. If we'll just maximize all our players, that's not just the starters but everybody we've got on the football team...I told the team it DOES matter if we win. The fun is in the winning. We need to go have fun.
"We've got to go back to whatever it takes, pull up our bootstraps and go back to being tough and getting our identity. There is pressure. The hottest fire hardens the best steel. So we need to get after it. Hopefully our guys will buy into that a little bit. There's not gonna be any slack cut."