Illinois football coach Tim Beckman has worked tirelessly to excite Illini Nation about his program. He wants to sell more tickets and recruit better players while making college football fun for those attracted to it. Many Illini fans must see wins on the field before they open their hearts again, but there is no doubt Beckman has at least softened some of their resistance.
He traveled with the Illini Caravan all over the state, preaching Illini football. He has encouraged his players to give back to the community and provide a presence that helps fans feel closer to them. Even his summer camps, designed specifically to evaluate prospects for possible scholarship offers, were also designed to garner positive publicity.
The previous Illini staff held a couple off campus summer camps, but Beckman made that a priority. He arranged a luxury bus to take him and a large contingent of staff members to 7 locations around the state. He brought the Illini program to the players in those areas, hoping to find a few recruitable gems.
This was a major undertaking, with lots of hard work involved setting up and tearing down at each venue. Staff had to deal with tents, processing tables, computers, uniform mannequins, blocking pads, tackling dummies and other football-related items designed to help during the camps. Beckman feels the rewards are worth the effort.
"This is important. It spreads our name and what we are trying to get accomplished at the University of Illinois with Illini football. That's why we're doing this."
He counted the total number of personnel who traveled with him to Lincoln-Way East High School, Mt. Carmel High School, Barrington High School, Rockford Boylan High School, East Peoria High School, Edwardsville High School and O'Fallon High School.
"Football-wise, there's 18. And then we have Trent Chesnut (Equipment Manager) and another manager, that would put us at 20. Of course the University has their camp staff, six people that are helping us."
Illinois coaches also held several similar camps on campus. Beckman was convinced there would still be plenty of campers visiting Champaign-Urbana besides those who chose to attend a camp closer to their homes, and he was right.
"I think the majority of campers had already been on our campus or are coming later. By the end of the two weeks, I think we had around 1200 players we could evaluate."
Summer camps are now over, as are the brief vacations enjoyed by Beckman and his staff. From now on, things become more serious as the Illini prepare for the upcoming season.
While Beckman would prefer to keep all his practices closed to media and the public to prevent opponents from spying on them, he is continuing Camp Rantoul on a limited basis. Again, this is good public relations at work as it gives fans who show up a chance to learn more about their team.
"After studying it more and more, I honestly think one week is enough for us. It's the logistics while we are out there, and how I run my practices.
"I like a lot of walk-throughs, a meeting and then a walk-through. There is some conflict when you don't have a locker room right next to your meeting rooms and the practice facility. The logistics is the only thing different about doing it at Rantoul instead of doing it at your own place."
Former Illini coaches Ron Turner and Ron Zook both stayed in Rantoul two full weeks and sometimes a few days more. They wanted their players free from girl friends and other distractions, allowing them to focus solely on football. Beckman has an alternative plan he feels will be just as useful.
"They're not going to be able to (visit girl friends) at home because we're staying at Hawthorne. If a young man wants to see his girlfriend, he's gonna figure out a way to try to do it. They had their cars in Rantoul. We're not doing that; we're bussing up to Rantoul.
"We'll have Camp Rantoul, just like they've been doing in the past. Then we'll have Camp Hawthorne, which will be run at the Hawthorn suites. It's the same thing. No cars, we're going to travel together as a team. Everyone's going to stay at the Hawthorn Suites. We'll use another week there to have an opportunity to bond as a football team."
Head coaches must wear a number of hats. One hat that fits Beckman well is usually worn by show promoters like P.T. Barnum. His mind continues to conjure up ideas to excite fans. Take for example his plans for a Memorial Stadium practice after the students have returned to campus for the fall semester.
"We come back and open up that Sunday practice to the student body so we can get as many students at practice as we can. We're going to try to kick a field goal and set a Guinness Book of World Records by having as many students on the field as we possibly can.
"I'm going to challenge them. Won't that be fun for the student body to come? After practice, everybody storms the field."
The Illini's creative head coach has also made an issue of the rivalry with Northwestern. In the past, the Evanston private school was treated like a weak sister, an afterthought game the UI assumed it would win year after year. At one time, the Illini won 18 straight, and that mentality has never completely vanished. But Beckman is making the annual state showdown a special event.
"I've always done it. I've coached in the best rivalries in the country. That's college football. I have respect for what Coach (Pat) Fitzgerald does with his program, but it's Northwestern. That's our rivalry. They're in our state, and they've been to six straight bowl games."
He hung a large sign with a purple "N" crossed off in the locker area to remind his players the importance of the game. He takes it to an extreme, even to the point of eliminating the color purple, the primary Wildcat color.
"We weren't allowed to use blue pens in Columbus (OSU rival Michigan's color). We are going to use orange and blue, but we won't use purple."
Athletic Director Mike Thomas is helping Beckman get off to a good start. Besides providing competitive assistant coach salaries, he is also purchasing new field turf for Zuppke Field and the Irwin indoor practice facility. All things that can be done are being done to create excitement for the program and give Illini players every chance to perform well on the field.
But the 2012 schedule is a difficult one. Three of the four nonconference games will be highly competitive.
"I think it's challenging, there's no question about it, including our first four opponents. Western Michigan is a very challenging football team. Arizona State is a little bit like us. We know what Coach (Todd) Graham is doing, but we're still learning about who they are. Charleston Southern is a team that is trying to build their program up, and you've got a champion in Louisiana Tech."
The first three Big 10 games are possibly the most difficult on the schedule. The Illini need to keep confidence high from those games if it wants to compete in the games that follow.
"I think playing Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin consecutively is very challenging. Those are three very good football programs. It's a difficult schedule, but the Big Ten is a challenging conference."
Beckman has done everything he can to create a new, positive image for the Fighting Illini football program and generate excitement among Illini Nation. Now he must prove his worth on the field of battle. In part four of this five-part report, Beckman talks about his current team.