Ron Turner started 'Camp Rantoul' to make Illinois fall training camp more like an NFL camp. So it's a bit ironic that Lovie Smith, who spent the last two decades in the NFL, put an end to the training camp tradition, which was made into a young tradition the last decade under Ron Zook and Tim Beckman.
I feel for the village of Rantoul. The town has fallen on some hard times since the closing of Chanute Air Force Base in 1993. Camp Rantoul was a point of pride for a town that had lost much of its prestige. Now, just like Chanute, it's been taken away.
But Lovie Smith's decision was sensible. Camp Rantoul really was a hassle. The Illini football program had to move its entire operation -- think of all the equipment and people it takes to run the football program -- 20 miles up the road. And while Rantoul did the best they could, the village could not provide the Illini with the plush amenities provided on campus: a state-of-the-art weight room, the football offices, the team meeting rooms, the training room, medical facilities, the athletics dining facilities, etc. Plus, players are enrolled in classes during training camp, which provided huge logistical issues for the team last year.
You better believe most staffers and players are celebrating the choice to stay on campus. Most of the hundred-plus people involved in the program stayed in the dated motel on the former base. While the open fields of Rantoul provided some memories, most are thrilled to sleep in their own beds and stay in the city of Champaign.
Camp Rantoul's upside just did not outweigh the downside. While practices were more accessible to fans, few made the trip to Rantoul. Often, media and players' families outnumbered fans. Part of that, of course, was due to the programs' struggles -- Rantoul certainly would've like one year of Lovie-mania -- but few locals made the short trip to Rantoul to see the Illini. Smith said in a statement that the Illini will have an "open and inviting atmosphere for our fans to enjoy Illinois football first-hand during preseason camp.” It will be interesting to see how hosting open practices on campus and in the heart of Champaign-Urbana affects fan attendance.
Matt Bollant has issues. Well, the women's basketball coach has long had issues. But any positive talk of the programming turning the page of an ugly calendar year are out the window following Friday's news that rising junior star Chatrice White will transfer. Most of Bollant's best recruits have transferred over the past few seasons, many among allegations of racism and player mistreatment. Now, he loses a Second Team All-Big Ten performer from a 9-21 team. Yikes. Bollant looked like a home-run hire following a 148-19 overall record during five seasons at Wisconsin Green-Bay. With a 52-72 overall record at Illinois, Bollant will have to work some magic to survive beyond five years at Illinois. He's lucky football and men's basketball are higher priorities for athletic director Josh Whitman, or he probably wouldn't have received the opportunity to coach Year Five.
Mike Thomas: worst athletic director in Illinois history? I actually liked some of Thomas' marketing ideas. He improved facilities, including the State Farm Center and Grange Grove. But a guy who was hired to improve the top three most important athletic programs left all three in worse shape. A guy who said conference performance was the ultimate measure of success hired a football coach (Tim Beckman) who went 4-20 (.167) during Big Ten play (his interim, Bill Cubit, went 2-6), a women's basketball coach who is 19-47 (.288) during conference play and a men's basketball coach who is 29-43 (.403) during Big Ten play. John Groce doesn't look so bad there -- though, it's all relative.
If I were Illinois chancellor or athletics director, I would not want to be part of the regime to launch a new mascot. Nine years after the Illini rid the program of the controversial symbol and halftime performer, wounds are still fresh on both sides of the debate. Many long-time fans want the Chief back. That's not happening, nor should it happen. Opponents of the Chief want the fight song "Three in One" eradicated as well. That shouldn't happen. As harmless as a new mascot could or would be -- it's just for kids and promotion, right? -- there doesn't seem to be much upside for university leaders to push this right now. Barbara Wilson has a high approval rating right now after hiring athletics director Josh Whitman, who has a high approval rating right now after hiring Smith. Does either really want to risk some of that capital for "Sassy the Squirrel" -- who may just get booed at its first appearance? Poor Sassy doesn't have much of a chance right now. Re-introduce this idea in another five to 10 years. Maybe the wounds of the Chief won't feel so fresh then.