Behind The Scenes Look At An Illini Win

It is clear these Illini hardly resemble their most recent predecessors. But the best way to truly appreciate how this magical season is happening may be a look behind the scenes at a victorious day, from the hotel to the locker room to the field and back. We do so with this inside look at Illinois on game day in Minneapolis.

The day began in unusual fashion for the Illini -- with a morning walk through at the Metrodome. Typically, the team walks through -- if at all -- the day before. But travel plans didn't allow that, and because the Marriott City Center is only five minutes or so away, it made sense to use the morning hours.

Worked out perfectly for me. My plane landed around 10:30, so when I arrived at the hotel just after 11, the team was returning. Opportunity to catch up with Coach Ron Zook and some of the assistants in the meeting room areas.

It was a good day for Zook. This was a loose coach and a loose team. Confident, focused, respectful of the opponent, yet loose, the best combination. We visited for about 20 minutes,talked about the week, the game. And other stuff -- he told me about former Florida linebacker Brandon Siler and his buddy, former FSU cornerback Antonio Cromartie -- stopping by to hang out with him.

Siler and Cromartie are members of the San Diego Chargers, who were staying at the same hotel readying for their Sunday game with the Vikings. Zook recruited Siler to Florida and came within an eyelash of getting Cromartie out of Tallahassee to join him, before Antonio decided at the end to go to FSU.

"It was really fun catching up with those guys," Zook said. "Man, they look great."

After that, Zook was off to his room. Meetings were over, game plan was in, just wanted to button up a few loose ends. Said we'd reconvene when the busses left for the stadium near 4:30.

But I was hungry and Dan Disch and Mike Woodford wanted to watch the Wisconsin-Ohio State game on the Big Ten Network, which apparently is aired exactly nowhere in the Midwest. So the three of us headed to a place with a satellite dish.

Nothing like watching a Big Ten game with Big Ten assistant coaches. "They've going to run the fade, here." "Watch the naked, it's what they do." "Love that call." "What kind of call was that?" Sort of like us watching.

For the record, the coaches sort of wanted Ohio State to win. Something about the game being bigger when you play a team that is No. 1 and undefeated. We watched most of it.

Then it was off, and later to the busses to the stadium and then to the locker room before the game. It was after warmups, after all the players were stretched and taped and dressed and loose, with only about 15 minutes until they ran out on the field, that I truly saw the fire that fuels Ron Zook and his emotional staff.

The locker room pep talks came from many. Some players, but mostly assistant coaches. Jim Pry was fantastic. Tom Sims was just as good. Those two, with passion in their eyes and conviction in their voice, explaining why they must do what they must do. Every eye was on that.

What exactly was said belongs in the locker room, not on a website. That is family business. But rest assured Pry and Sims were at their best, model opening acts to get the crowd ready. You could see the players were getting it, that the fire was starting to burn.

Then, about five minutes before it was time to hit the field, Zook gathered them around and lead a team prayer. Then, it was time for the master motivator.

By now, the players knew that Minnesota coach Tim Brewster is an Illinois alumnus who wanted the job. That a rift apparently was there between Brewster and his alma mater. It had little to do with Zook or the players, but at the very least there was a perception that it existed.

Zook's comments were respectful -- he and Brewster visited on field both before and after the game. And specifically what he said, again, is between his team and him.

But there was passion and feeling in the room you had to be there to understand. It had nothing to do with the fact that Brewster is not the Illinois coach, but everything to do with the fact that Zook is.

At the most moving moment of the pre-game, with a team full of hungry players already chomping at the bit, through a bit of a quivering bottom lip, he said boldly: "I don't know a lot about how it all played out. But I know this -- I'm glad it did. Because I wouldn't trade coaching this team, coaching all of you, for any team in America. And you can believe that."

There was a bit of a roar. The louder one was the one you felt, the slamming of lockers, clapping of hands. Moments later, they were sprinting onto the field with teeth clinched, eyes honed in and a clear mission at hand.

At that point, Minnesota didn't have a chance.

Some folks I knew on the sideline, before I headed up to the press box, asked me what it was like in there. They know, as do many of you, that I'm prone to caution. More guarded that optimistic, usually.

So their eyes all raised and mouths opened a bit when I said, "Illinois is going to beat the hell out of 'em."

You know the rest.

The halftime locker room talk was about X's and O's as well as the reminder to keep playing hard. First the offense together and the defense together. "You don't know the score," Curt Mallory screamed to his defense. "Play like its zero-zero." Other coaches followed suit.

Then they broke up by positions with their position coaches. "Here is what is working, here is what is not. This is what we're going to do when they do that." And so on.

The second half was about finishing. Zook talked about finishing. And Illinois did, to the tune of 44-17.

The post-game locker room was as positive and fun, as it is supposed to be when you win. Players showered and changed and ragged on the coaches with the worst bodies as they raced to the showers, covering up as much as they could with towels. Everyone laughed.

But before it all, Zook spoke to the team on a serious note. Again, with that heartfelt passion screaming through. "That is what we are when we play like we can. Tonight you were an awfully good football team. Now you know why we push you so hard, over and over, keep pushing. When it hurts the most, when we have pushed and pushed and pushed you, you understand.

"I'm really, really, really proud of you guys. I meant that. I really am. Enjoy this one. You deserve tt."

I've been in the locker room with Zook and his staff plenty of times, but each time, I remember how moving it is. Each time, I'm ready to go play 60 minutes! Each time, I remember why so many players want to play for this cat. Is it any wonder?

Outsiders aren't allowed in, by NCAA rules, when coaches talk to recruits, so I have no idea how those conversations go when recruits visit for home games. But I imagine they are just like what we saw in the locker room, a guy with passion who wears it on his sleeve that is so real, so geniune, players can't wait to get to the party and be part of it.

After the coaches and players were done with interviews and most had headed to the bus, we sat and talked about the game, the locker room, the program, the season, etc. He said, "So, whaddaya think?"

"What do I think? That I can't believe it is happening so fast for you here."

He was quick to remind: "We're not there yet. Far from it. But we're getting there. I think people can feel that."

You think?

Through it all, the best momment may have been his last comment to the players. "We're about to play the No. 1 team in America, and they've earned that. They really are that good. Most poeple won't think we have a chance. So why don't you guys just take the whole week off?"

Resounding boos and groans and yells from the players.

"Tell you what then. We, the coaches, we'll be there Monday. Those of you who want to practice, come on out."

Deafening roar.

This should be a fun week.

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