Illinois is preparing to take on UCLA in San Francisco on New Year's Eve. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has taken on the immense challenge of being interim head coach during this time of transition. He must uplift spirits of a team facing multiple uncertainties while teaching the squad how to defeat a quality Pac-10 team.
Fortunately, UCLA is also changing coaches. Koenning suggests the bowl be renamed.
"We call this the "I" bowl, the "Interim Bowl."
More and more emphasis will be placed on UCLA schemes and concepts as the month progresses. This past week, most attention was devoted to the Illini.
"UCLA typically has really good players, great skill players. You look at their record, there's games they've beaten some really good teams, and there were some games where they were not what they wanted. We don't know which group we're gonna get. We're just gonna worry about us and be schematically correct."
In addition, Koenning is trying to re-instill discipline to a team in turmoil. The combination of a six game losing streak and the loss of their coach Ron Zook caused some players to lose conditioning and others to fall behind in their school work. One the one hand, Koenning wants them to enjoy themselves; on the other, he needs them to focus on the task at hand.
"We need to have some fun and not be uptight, but we need to put them under the fire in practice. I think they got a little message that there's some things that we're gonna do.
"There are some guys that won't be making the trip, already I can see it. They're not giving it what they need to, the way they live and the way they carry themselves. Maybe some guys haven't been doing what they need to do academically. If you do right, right will follow. If you do wrong, wrong will follow.
"We'll see the next ten days. We just want guys to be positive and have fun. It doesn't necessarily have to be the guys that started the season or ended the season. We'll go with the guys that give us the most chemistry and having the best practices. That's the guys we need to play with."
While personnel decisions are sorting themselves out, Koenning has at least been doing some fun things with the team. And he has encouraged anything that can serve in a positive way toward putting a smile on his players' faces. For instance, Terry Hawthorne wore the #85 jersey one day of practice out of respect for teammate Whitney Mercilus.
"If they're having fun, they're usually practicing hard. And they need to have fun. We're just trying to help the guys do the right thing and keep it together. In situations like this, it is really a test of character for your players, your coaches and those around us. We can't help them make A's or B's or Cs in classes, but we can make sure they're where they're supposed to be on time, if they're taking care of themselves."
There have been some personnel changes this past week.
"We did, particularly in the special teams. Defensively, I don't know that there was a bunch of stuff that was warranted. I think A.J. (Jenkins) can probably expand his role on some more special teams. Special teams was primarily where we needed to do something, and we need to take ownership in it. As everybody knows, it's not what it needs to be."
Among other changes, fullback Jay Prosch was given reps with the defensive line. Koenning explains.
"He was a defensive player in high school. He's playing 14-18 snaps a game on offense. He might be a guy that can play 10-15 snaps on defense, probably at one of the end positions."
He may also tweak some plays and formations. This is not out of a difference in philosophy from his predecessor. Rather, he wants to cause UCLA more uncertainty in its own bowl preparations.
"There are things that we can do just to give them some different looks. I'm not saying we're gonna do different stuff because the other stuff was wrong. I'm just saying we're gonna be doing some different stuff just to be doing different stuff."
Additional burdens have fallen on Koenning's shoulders since he was first named interim coach. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino left for a job at Arkansas, and quarterback coach Jeff Brohm was named to replace him.
"Coach Brohm will add to his role, and the other offensive coaches will have to pull up some slack. It's gonna be okay. Let's not flinch and move on. The ultimate goal is to win the game.
"Coach Brohm has called plays his whole life. He was born a coach's son, brought up a coach's son, and when he dies he'll be a coach's son."
Brohm says he is ready for the assignment.
"We're gonna go out there, play hard and try to win. Make it fun for our guys and put them in a position to win. The year obviously ended in disappointment, but we've got one game left. We'd like to end it on a good note.
"It'll be fun. Obviously, bowl games are fun. It's a great opponent we're playing, and our guys are excited about it. We want to get the bad taste our of our mouths from the last game, last few games, and try to end on a positive note.
"We're all here to help this team win. We have a lot of seniors that want to end on a high note. I want to do everything I can to help them do that and try to make it fun. Hopefully our guys will go out and try to win the game."
This is not the first time calling plays for Brohm.
"I've been with this offense a long time and called plays before. I think it's just a matter of getting back in a rhythm and find a way to get it to our best guys, get first downs and score."
Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase trusts Brohm explicitly.
"Except for the last couple of games, Coach Brohm was coaching the sidelines with us, so he's coaching us up in the games. He knows the offense and is close to the wide receivers. Everybody loves Coach Brohm, he's a good guy. Everybody likes working with him."
Scheelhaase realizes how much help the coaches need this month.
"Our coaches are stretched wide and thin right now. They're having to wear a lot of hats right now. It's up to the leaders to make sure the energy is there, make sure players are focused on doing everything they need to do."
Right now, all the other assistants are sticking with the Illini while securing other jobs. It is to their credit they care enough about their players to stay on when they need to be doing other things.
"A few guys have got things they're being real classy about and kind of holding onto until the bowl procedure," Koenning reminds. "I'm very appreciative of those guys for doing that. I know that every situation is different.
"I think they wanted Paul to go recruit. When you're recruiting the top players in the country, you've got to do what you've got to do. Paul will be sorely missed. He's a good friend and a great coach."
Koenning is one of the most responsible people you will ever meet. He sacrifices the limelight in deference to the needs of his players and team. Illini Nation should feel fortunate regardless whether he remains at Illinois or goes on to greener pastures. He is the glue that is holding the operation together at this point.
"I'm trying to take on as much as I can stand, so the other coaches can clarify jobs. For some guys, February 28 is gonna be here pretty quick. We've got to find jobs."
Koenning realizes things could have been different. But now, he must make the best of a difficult situation. Tim Beckman has been named new head coach at Illinois, but that does not ease Koenning's burden.
"I think it's harder. There's another whole group of things to think about. There's nothing about this whole deal that is how you would want it to be. All you can do is take a negative and try to make it a positive. We'll try to do that.
"Things aren't in our control. We had the opportunity to put it in our control, we just didn't win enough games."
Scheelhaase remembers the positive feelings from winning the Texas Bowl last year. If he has his way, he and the other leaders will help the current Illinois team win back-to-back bowls for the first time in program history.
"The team that wants it most will win. We had a winning mentality last year, and we want to bring that same attitude this year."