Windy City Warm-up

In a constant effort to build a greater foothold in the city of Chicago, Illinois packed up, left Champaign, and headed to Chicago for spring practice on Friday night.

In the past, Illinois spring football practices were held exclusively in Champaign, but Illinois head coach Tim Beckman and his staff decided to try something new this year, holding a practice at Gately Stadium on the south side of Chicago.

Despite the practice falling on a holiday, Beckman labeled the practice a success, and he sees it as something he and the program would like to do in the future.

"I know it coincided with spring break and Good Friday," Beckman said, "but what it's enabled us to do is come up here, pracitce, show the Illini spirit, and then our players that are from this area, get to go home for Easter. It's a great opportunity for our kids."

While holding spring practices in other locations is new to Beckman, he knows the importance of getting exposure in the important areas surrounding the school.

"We always traveled for camps (at Toledo)," he said. "I learned that from Coach Gundy. We wanted to find another way to help ourselves in the public eye. This was it. We wanted to come up to Chicago to have a practice and it was a win-win situation."

With so many options in the Chicago area, Beckman went on to explain the logic of holding the practice at Gately Stadium on the south side near Chicago State University.

"Gately was outstanding," he said. "We wanted something centrally located so it wasn't just up in the north or down in the south. Of course Coach Bellamy has a lot of friends here too."

Even with just one Chicago practice in the books, Beckman believes that the Chicago practice could become a staple in their spring routine.

"It works two ways," Beckman said. "It's big for families, and it's huge for us to come up here, and we're going to do this every year and it'll be a part of our spring every year. it's very important for us because Chicago is a big part of Illinois."

The chance to come up to Chicago enabled the Illini a chance to practice in front of a number of Chicago-area fans, many of which were the parents of the players who would usually have to make the long trek to Champaign to see their sons play. It also enabled a few of what Beckman calls "future Illini" to come out and see the team not far from home.

"It's everything," he emphasized. "I mean it enables the Illini faithful to come out and see us. It enables parents to come out and watch their sons practice instead of driving to Champaign, and it helps us reach out to recruits in this area. Right now we can't talk to them because of NCAA rules, but we want them to come watch us practice."

Beyond the exposure, the benefits in recruiting, and the chance for the fans to come see the team, Beckman noted that even the little things make a big difference when holding practices like these.

"The unique thing is that some of these young men get to go to their parents," he said. "I know Teko Powell from Miami, Florida is going to stay with Vontrell Williams and is going to celebrate Easter with Vontrell's family. That's the neat thing that this opportunity gives us."

The players are forming strong bonds with one another, but perhaps more importantly, the staff has come together just as quickly, a vital key to success heading into next season.

"I have a great staff, there's no question about it," said Beckman. "The people I coached with last year are great people too. This staff is very close-knit. We respect everybody as coaches. This staff has won a lot of football games and been to a lot of bowl games. They know how to win and it's been great to see the jelling of the staff."

One of the biggest additions in the offseason was seasoned offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. Beckman feels like the level of familiarity, as well as having a good relationship with his offensive line coach, has helped the offense get off on the right foot this spring.

"Coach Cubit has done a great job. He was just like he was when I first met him," Beckman said. "I think the whole staff in general offensively is great. Coach Ricker's birthday was today actually. I think Coach Bellamy has come in and done a great job, and of course Coach Golesh and Coach Salem were already with us."

One player in particular that has stepped in quickly to make an impact for Illinois is former Iowa Western receiver Martize Barr. His experience is showing early in practice and he's getting better every day according to Beckman.

"Remember that he's just been here for three months," Beckman said, "but he's learned this quickly in only 8 or 9 practices. He just gets better every practice. You see him doing something that you didn't see the last practice, and as we progress and he continues to learn the system, he could be a real special player for us."

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